Pokies and dopamine: why we need mandatory pre-commitment

The sickening anti-reform campaign being run by the gambling industry against the introduction of pre-commitment technology is utterly appalling to all people with a conscience.

The pokies industry is even more pernicious because it relies on neurological manipulation to encourage addiction. The Australians who become problem gamblers are being purposely exploited by the pokies industry, who extract $12 billion each year from gamblers. There are 100,000 problem gamblers in Australia, and an additional 200,000 people who are significantly at risk of developing a full-blown addiction (source).

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. It helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.

Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, describes how pokies manipulate our dopamine neurons.

Why does an excess of dopamine in a few neurons make games of chance so irresistible? The answer reveals a serious flaw in the human brain, which casinos have learned to exploit. Think how a slot machine works: You put in a coin and pull the lever. The reels start to whir. Pictures of cherries and diamonds and figure sevens fly by. Eventually, the machine settles on its verdict. Since slot machines are programmed to return only about 90 percent of wagered money over the long term, chances are you lost money.

Now think about the slot machine from the perspective of your dopamine neurons. The purpose of these cells is to predict future events. They always want to know what occurrences — a loud tone, a flashing light, and so forth — will precede the arrival of the juice [reward]. While you are playing the slots, putting quarter after quarter into the one-armed bandit, your neurons are struggling to decipher the patters inside the machine. They want to understand the game, to decode the logic of luck, to find the circumstances that predict a payout. So far, you’re acting just like a monkey trying to predict when his squirt of juice is going to arrive.

But here’s the catch: while dopamine neurons get excited by predictable rewards — they increase their firing when the juice arrives after the loud tone that heralded it — they get even more excited by surprising ones. According to Wolfram Schultz, such unpredictable rewards are typically three to four times more exciting, at least for dopamine neurons, than rewards that can be predicted in advance. (In other words, the best-tasting juice is the juice that was unexpected.) The purpose of this dopamine surge is to make the brain pay attention to new, and potentially important, stimuli. Sometimes this cellular surprise can trigger negative feelings, such as fear… In the casino, however, the sudden burst of dopamine is intensely pleasurable, since it means that you’ve just won some money.

Most of the time, the brain will eventually get over its astonishment. It’ll figure out which events predict the reward, and the dopamine neurons will stop releasing so much of the neurotransmitter. The danger of slot machines, however, is that they are inherently unpredictable. Because they use random number generators, there are no patterns or algorithms to uncover. (There is only a stupid little microchip churning out arbitrary digits.) Even though the dopamine neurons try to make sense of the rewards — they want to know when to expect some coins in return for all those squandered quarters — they keep getting surprised.

At this point, the dopamine neurons should just surrender: the slot machine is a waste of mental energy. They should stop paying attention to the surprising rewards, because the appearance of the rewards will always be surprising. But this isn’t what happens. Instead of getting bored by the haphazard payouts, the dopamine neurons become obsessed. When you pull the lever and get a reward, you experience a rush of pleasurable dopamine, precisely because the reward was so unexpected, because your brain cells had no idea what was about to happen. The clanging coins and flashing lights are like a surprise squirt of juice. Because the dopamine neurons can’t figure out the pattern, they can’t adapt to the pattern. The result is that you are transfixed by the slot machine, riveted by the fickle nature of its payouts.

The gambling industry — and the poker machine owners — know this. Gambling addiction and problem gambling is a physical addiction, centred on the dopamine neurotransmitters. Poker machines are specifically designed to target our dopamine receptors.

Slot machine addiction is considered to be the “crack cocaine” of gambling for a few different reasons.

  • Slot machines are designed by psychologists and other specialists who are specifically instructed to design slot machines to seduce and addict people.
  • The new video multi-line electronic slot machines have graphics and colors that are very compelling and stimulating to the eye.
  • The music in video slot machines is very stimulating, repetitive, seductive , and truly reinforcing. There is strong subliminal suggestion in this.
  • The bonus rounds in video slot machines can encourage continued play, even amidst great losses, since bonus rounds are very exciting and provide a rush.
  • The speed of play, and the speed of modern slot machines keeps your adrenaline pumping, especially with all of the above factors.
  • The jackpots in slot machines can be huge, however, the chances of winning these jackpots are equivalent to winning the powerball lottery, if not more improbable.
  • Slot machines can be a place to “zone out”. Today’s slot machines can put you into a hypnotizing trance that is hard to break out of.
  • Slot machines require little or no skill, making it easy to just sit there and push the buttons, without a thought, forethought, or contemplation.
  • It is very easy to keep playing slot machines because all accept dollar bills, and give players coupons upon ending play. Money loses its’ value and becomes “monopoly” money.
  • ATM Machines are usually in close proximity to the slot machines, again, encouraging continued play.
  • Many slot machines use denominations of 1 cent to 5 cents. This fools the gambler into thinking that they are not spending much. What is not being said, however, is that the maximum bet can be as high as $15 to $20 per spin. Is this really a penny or nickel machine?

The misleading campaign being run by the gambling industry (with the sanitised name of Hotels and Clubs lobby) is contemptible. It is even more contemptible because it is built on and is protecting an activity that we have little natural defence against — it exploits how our brains work.

(Frank Luntz describes how he advised the gambling industry to rename itself the “gaming industry” to remove negative connotations.)

For all the reasons Nick Xenophon has campaigned for on gambling reform for many years, Australia needs to introduce mandatory pre-commitment.

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