A Few Kind Words About Gam(bl)ers
by Sudhir H. Kale

A Few Kind Words About Gam(bl)ers

By Sudhir H. Kale

Last May, I attended the 12th International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking in Vancouver. With close to three hundred delegates in attendance, the event drew a fair representation of the various constituencies within the gaming industry. One intriguing and somewhat disturbing fact in connection with this conference was the overemphasis on problem gambling. Various plenary sessions as well as the research presentations discussed problem gambling and problem gamblers from every conceivable perspective. Speakers discussed preventative skill development for problem gamblers, group treatment, the psychological predictors of impaired control, and even the personality of pathological gambler’s wives!

Don’t get me wrong. Problem gaming is an important issue and all of us--researchers, casinos, public welfare agencies, and the government--need to treat it as such. What does bother me is the fact that research and public debate on gambling seem to be operated with a few particular standpoints, from limited perspectives that do not include the majority of gamblers. The two perspectives most evident are what psychological processes lead to compulsive gambling and what societal factors lead the lower classes to gamble. By all accounts, serious addiction is a problem for about one percent of the adult population in almost all societies, and no more than five percent of the population will have a gambling problem at some point in their life. What about the majority of gamblers -- the increasing numbers of recreational gamers who find gambling to be an enjoyable and entertaining activity? With legal gambling losses in the United States jumping from just over $10 billion in 1982 to $66 billion in 2001, the motivations to gamble and the rewards derived from gambling by the majority of gamers also deserve attention. The lopsided focus on problem gambling blinds us to the positive experiences had by millions of gaming customers on a daily basis. We have few insights into, for instance, “why people might choose gambling over a day at the beach or a movie.” With leisure becoming an increasingly important activity for most of us, our understanding of gambling as a leisure activity remains scant and unsubstantiated.

Most gamblers would be the first to concede that recreational casino gambling is a sure way to lose money. They are aware that the odds of various games are against them, so it is not economic motivation that keeps them interested in the activity. Their motives lie elsewhere, in what social researchers call symbolic or hedonic motives. Fulfillment of these motives within the casino environment undoubtedly adds positive value to the quality of life of recreational gamblers. Sure, they would be momentarily upset if they lose money, but how is this displeasure different from a bad game of golf or tennis?

Symbolic Motives: Some of the symbolic motives for gambling behavior include risk-taking, gambling to maintain a symbolic sense of control over one's destiny, and gambling to symbolically replace love or sexual desire. Quite a few recreational gamblers are drawn to gambling because of the perceived risk. Those of us who like the thrill and buzz of taking chances may find the casino floor a safe yet exciting platform where we can voluntarily submit to risk, a platform where we are tested under the demands of acting under pressure. In our day-to-day lives, most of us lead mundane lives and we therefore hunger for the risk and uncertainty inherent in the act of gambling. Gambling, for those motivated by risk, is analogous to extreme sports, financial bungee jumping if you will. When uncertainty is high, the brain can get high on dopamine. Each of us hungers for this dopamine fix to feel alive and stimulated, and recreational gamblers are no different.

The other major motivation under the “symbolic” category has to do with what psychologists call the “future self.” For quite a few gamblers, their envisioned future self involves winning the big jackpot. This vision of a positive future self as a winner results in their enduring involvement in gambling. One could argue that the envisioned future self of a recreational gambler is no more irrational and unhealthy than that of an American teenager who dreams of becoming “Miss Universe.” Dreaming pleasant albeit unrealistic dreams is not a trait of recreational gamblers alone. Nor is it inherently pathological.

Hedonic Motives: June Cotte, a marketing professor, explains that the hedonic or pleasure seeking motivations to gamble include positive reinforcement, self-esteem enhancement, and pure pleasure seeking. Positive reinforcement is one of the key concepts in behavior analysis, a field within psychology. Positive reinforcers are something like rewards, or things we will generally work to get. Positive rewards in gambling comprise of not just the occasional wins, but the excitement that accompanies the wagers as well.

The drive for positive social identity through positive distinctiveness is underpinned by a basic human need for positive self-esteem or self-image. Here, people use gambling as a means to define themselves. This self-definition may involve the portrayal of the self as a variety seeker, a cool cat, or as a competent gambler. Each of us uses various contexts to enhance our self-esteem, and gambling happens to be one of the many typical contexts offering opportunities for creating positive self-esteem among certain types of people.

Finally, the pure pleasure and play aspects of gambling should not be underestimated. For many recreational gamblers, the losses incurred from gambling can be compared with the price one pays for other types of entertainment, and gambling is treated as pure play. The play aspects of gambling include the intrinsic rewards (feeling “charged”), the quality of escape from mundane existence, the absorbing nature of the games, and the opportunities it sometimes provides for communion with friends. Occasionally being able to “beat” the dealer or the slot machine brings out the competitive aspects of play in casino gaming.

Understanding these and other motivations of gamblers will enable casino establishments to better cater to the needs of recreational gamblers. This will enhance the satisfaction level of a majority of casino customers. What each person associated with the gaming needs to internalize is that the typical casino customer is no different from any other person looking to add a bit more excitement, a little more play, and a little more passion to life. As a culture, we are increasingly seeking pleasure and novelty in our consumption. Cotte observes, “(M)odern progress has reduced many of the risks, and much of the uncertainty, in our lives and so as consumers we seek out novel, pleasurable stimulation and excitement. If, as a culture, we are being increasingly driven by the search for hedonic pleasure and novelty, then perhaps the rise in recreational gambling reflects this hedonic, novelty-seeking phenomenon.”

In our zeal to stamp out problem gambling, let us not forget the typical casino customer. This recreational gamer seeks within the casino what the non-gamer seeks elsewhere. Let us devote some of our time, resources, and special skills toward understanding the non-problem gambler. Doing so will restore a much needed balance between the attention devoted to the pathological and the normal motivations for gambling. Who knows, it might even cut down on the number of depressing gambling-related stories that appear in the newspapers and on the Internet. Reading such stories always reminds me of that old country song by Anne Murray, “A Little Good News” where she sings, “There´s a local paper rolled up in a rubber band; One more sad story´s one more than I can stand…”

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