Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Gambling Losses, Non-Monetary

We noted recently how problem gamblers not only spend a lot of money gambling, they spend a lot of time gambling. Self-limiting schemes might involve setting time restrictions, as well as money restrictions. Further, time loss might be a spur to self-exclude, as was suggested by this report concerning a Scottish casino located near some institutions of higher learning:
“We have had quite a lot of students self-excluding and it is not always due to the amount of money they are spending, but sometimes the amount of time when it starts interfering with their studies.”
Gambleaware, a British charitable organisation aimed at responsible gambling, offers a time management diary for people looking to control their betting.

Will Problem Gamblers Self-Limit?

Self-exclusion and self-limit programs are aimed at people who have, or fear they might have, self-control problems with wagering. Most of the people who choose to self-exclude do seem to be problem or pathological gamblers. But if you offer a voluntary self-limiting program -- say, the option of making a commitment prior to entering a casino to spend no more than $x there (where the gambler can choose x) -- will people who have gambling problems choose to participate? A recent study by Lia Nower and Alex Blaszczynski suggests that problem gamblers might not be all that eager to take part.

The study looks at 127 adults who, on their way into an Australian casino, agreed to fill out questionnaires. Based on the ensuing self-reports, 20 of these people were categorized as problem gamblers. When asked about whether they would take advantage of "smart card" technology that would allow them to limit their monetary exposure once inside the casino, the problem gamblers were less likely than everyone else to endorse the use of such cards. Further, the problem gamblers who were willing to use the cards were more likely to want the cards to be flexible, so that additional funds could be accessed during a single session or additional cards purchased. This relative reluctance to limit gambling losses is indicated despite the fact that problem gamblers also were the most likely to lose track of their monetary situation (money won or lost) during a gambling session.

Many gamblers who self-exclude do so only after wagering has wreaked havoc upon their lives. Does a lack of sophistication by problem gamblers about their own future self-control issues suggest the desirability of a mandatory regime of limit setting, such as that maintained at Svenska Spel's internet poker facility?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Self-Limits in Internet Gambling

Responsible internet casinos follow the lead of their terrestrial counterparts by offering a self-exclusion option -- and many of the programs are tied together, so that one application results in exclusion from myriad gambling sites. Furthermore, options for partial exclusions also can be made available -- as with Sweden's Svenska Spel.

In 2008, addiction researchers published an article that looked at the behavior of internet gamblers who took advantage of a self-limiting option. (The article grew out of an ongoing research collaboration between web gaming company bwin and the Division on Addictions associated with Harvard Medical School.) Daily (1000 euros) and monthly (5000 euros) deposit limits are imposed by bwin, but internet gamblers are allowed to choose lower limits. (The 1000 and 5000 euro limits were those in place at the time of the study.) At least for the sample used in the article, the vast majority of gamblers on bwin chose not to establish their own limits. Those who did self-limit, however, tended to decrease the frequency of their betting and the amount wagered. More than 10 percent of self-limiters abstained completely (from gambling with bwin) after imposing the limits; more than 7 percent imposed limits before they placed their first bet.

The authors point out that the time devoted to gambling can be as big a problem for some people as monetary losses. Self-limiting programs could invoke time constraints, on a per session, per-day, per-month (and so on) basis. (Come to think of it, something that limited my time on the internet to two hours per day might make my life better...)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Self-exclusion orders often are limited in duration and in geographic scope, but they are otherwise categorical: an excluded person cannot gamble at all at a place from which he or she has chosen to exclude. In that sense, self-exclusion is an all-or-nothing proposition: either you can gamble under the same regime that governs everyone, or you cannot engage in gambling.

Lots of folks who fear their loss of self-control, however, might not want to renounce their vice of choice entirely. For these people, rules that allow limited indulgence, as opposed to enforcing abstinence, might be preferable to self-exclusion. Many people try to adopt and enforce such rules on their own, through two-drink limits or by only carrying a small amount of cash into a casino. But in the case of gambling, casinos can help, and sometimes they do, by offering special rules, such as voluntary credit limits or opt-outs from gambling on credit altogether. Further, the regulatory structure surrounding gambling can provide some limits, of the not-so-voluntary variety. Until recently, Missouri casinos had a loss limit of $500 per two hours, and $6000 per day (that would be a sufficiently bad day for me). To enforce the limit, every casino-goer needed to present an ID, and would be issued a boarding card. The boarding card would have to be swiped at buy-ins for table games and inserted in a reader during play at electronic games, so that the limit could be enforced. One side effect of operating with mandatory loss limits was that self-exclusion orders could be policed more easily, thanks to the ID requirement. It might be the case that the Missouri self-exclusion program is being undermined by the repeal of the loss-limit regulation.

More on self-limiting behavior in future posts, I hope.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Exclusion By NGO in Macau?

For a place that does a huge gambling business, Macau seems a bit behind the curve in self-exclusion. Apparently only 72 people are part of the state-sponsored program, according to this article in the Macau Daily Times. (Some Macau casinos are connected to global businesses that run their own self-exclusion programs.) But these 72 are not all self-excluded. Rather, like Singapore, Macau allows for family-initiated exclusions. And in one respect, Macau goes further than Singapore: exclusion orders can start from requests by reputable non-governmental organizations:
Director of DICJ, Manuel das Neves, explained to Macau Daily Times the law “is not clear” on what type of exclusions can be imposed besides self-exclusion. So, the Government tries to be flexible about it, accepting also applications presented by relatives – with medical proofs of the person’s pathology - and “credible” and recognized NGOs. Among the latter are organisations from Hong Kong, who have requested that some residents from the neighbouring region are not allowed in Macau casinos.
In the meantime, Singapore's second resort casino, Marina Bay Sands, opened for business last week. Some excluded gamblers in Singapore, as elsewhere, try to defy their bans.

Monday, May 3, 2010

More Casino Exclusion Noncompliance

As effective as casino self-exclusion can be for combating pathological gambling, its implementation often leaves something to be desired: gamblers in some jurisdictions repeatedly enter casinos from which they have excluded without being removed. Recently, casinos in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been fined for allowing self-excluded individuals to gamble. The transgressive customer in New Jersey used aliases to set up frequent player accounts: thirteen of his fifteen aliases were spotted by the casinos, but two "worked." While the two New Jersey casinos were fined $10,000 each for allowing this self-excluded, pseudonymous person to gamble, they were "allowed to keep the more than $87,000 he lost while gambling there because they did not knowingly allow an excluded player to gamble, the commission said." The self-excluded generally are drawn from the pool of a casino's best customers.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (IV)

The year 2010 marked the first publication assessing the long-term outcomes for self-excluded casino gamblers. Nelson et al. interviewed 113 people who had self-excluded from Missouri's casinos four-to-ten years earlier. (Missouri's self-exclusion program involves a lifetime ban.) Once again, self-exclusion looks to be a very effective tool for helping problem gamblers control their wagering -- though most continued to gamble in some form (including lotteries) and at some non-Missouri or non-casino locales. Only 18 of the 113 disassociated people attempted to gamble in Missouri casinos after the ban, and nine of those managed to get away with it on one or more occasions. Two-thirds of participants were quite satisfied with the self-exclusion program. Most had not gambled at all in the six months prior to the interview, and of those who had gambled, their gambling problems tended to be significantly alleviated compared with their pre-exclusion situation. Even the haphazardly enforced Missouri self-exclusion program appears to offer significant benefits to most people who choose to take advantage of it.

Previous posts in this series:

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (III)

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (II)

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (I)

And one subsequent post:

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (V)

Friday, April 9, 2010

Paying (Twice?) Not to Go To the Gym

People join health clubs with the intent of heading there frequently. Alas, many find that they do not go as often as planned, and that they would have been better off not to join, but to purchase a ten-visit pass (or a series of such passes) instead. Further, people maintain their health club memberships for a month or two after they stop going to the gym at all.

I am drawing these claims from an article by Stefano DellaVigna and Ulrike Malmendier entitled "Paying Not to Go to the Gym" (ungated version, 35-page pdf, here).

A friend of Self-Exclusion notes the policies of her health club. This club offers classes, for which participants are asked to pre-register. (The most popular classes can fill up quickly, especially those classes conducted on Fridays and Saturdays.) One strategy might be to sign up for a bunch of classes as soon as registration is open, but a system of penalties for missed classes or late cancellations makes that strategy untenable. If you miss a class for which you are pre-registered, you will have to pay a fine or lose your right to pre-register. Cancelling a pre-registration without penalty is allowed, as long as it occurs two hours or more before the class -- 24-hours or more for those busy Friday and Saturday classes. (Apparently one ploy for getting into a popular class is to try to register exactly two hours before the class, as some people will have just cancelled.) If you are more than ten minutes late for a class you will not be allowed to take part, and you are fined as if you had not shown up at all.

Our informant indicates that the cancellation policy has proven very effective in motivating class attendance. But for wildly optimistic folks, those who do not understand the extent of their own self-control problems, the cancellation policy presents the possibility of paying twice not to go to the gym: once for an underused membership, and a second time for missed classes.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Negative and Positive Commitments

The gambling form of self-exclusion is a negative commitment, a pledge to avoid wagering. Other commitments are positive, resolutions to accomplish something. Of course, these terms are somewhat arbitrary, given that a (negative) commitment to avoid wagering is simultaneously a positive commitment to engage only in non-wagering behavior. But only somewhat arbitrary -- the activities that violate a negative commitment seem to be a much more proscribed set than those that constitute a violation of a positive commitment. All else equal (which is never the case), are positive commitments harder to adhere to than negative ones?

Last week, during spring break, the library at the University of Chicago hosted an institution aimed at providing a positive commitment for graduate students to make progress on their dissertations. (I can't find any web-based info on this so I am relying on my faulty memory.) The students could sign up to take part in a write-in, in which they were more or less locked in the library for four (I think) hours per day. The students, stickK-like, put up $50 that would be forfeited if they did not put in their time. I understand that for some students, at least, the write-in was a success.

A positive commitment to write a thesis is simultaneously a negative commitment not to procrastinate in writing your thesis. (Incidentally, I meant to post this days ago.) But there are so many ways to procrastinate, while the ways to break a negative commitment to avoiding gambling are only those behaviors that involve gambling.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

No Class-Action For Canadian Self-Excluders

The interest of casinos in enforcing the ban on self-excluded individuals might be limited: the self-excluded tend to be among the best casino customers. In Ontario, an attempted class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than 10,000 self-excluded gamblers, claiming that insufficient effort was brought to bear in keeping them out of gambling establishments, has been rejected. The judge's ruling does not prevent individual gamblers from bringing lawsuits based on a lack of enforcement of their self-exclusion orders. The class is not certified, however, on the grounds that the gamblers' experiences are sufficiently diverse that they cannot all be considered to be in the same legal boat.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tracking Internet Gambling

Sweden's state-owned internet gambling operator Svenska Spel makes available a responsible gambling tool named Playscan. Players who are part of Svenska Spel's loyalty program have the option of downloading Playscan at no charge. Playscan tracks the time and money that players spend gambling and continuously informs players of their situation. The software allows players to partially or fully self-exclude: partially, by setting time or money limits, and fully, by precommitting to not gambling with Svenska Spel for a period of time chosen by the gambler among four options: a day, a week, a month, and permanently. Playscan employs a forecasting system that predicts a player's future gambling. A traffic-light system displays Playscan's view of someone's gambling: green means gambling is controlled, yellow means signs of problem gambling are developing, and red means that problem gambling behaviors are detected. (The light system is based on changes from past behavior.) Those gamblers who are red-lighted automatically are removed from marketing initiatives. A 2009 article by Griffiths, Wood, and Parke indicates that many gamblers find Playscan to be useful, and a significant percentage have made use of the self-exclusion options.

As internet gambling sites more-or-less automatically track a player's behavior, even for those players who are not part of a loyalty program, the inclusion of responsible gambling tools, including self-exclusion, into the gambling environment, can be implemented with relative ease.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Singapore Casino Exclusions Update

Two weeks ago we noted that the opening of the first resort casino in Singapore had sparked a spate of self-exclusions as well as a few family exclusions, where family members intervene to have someone barred from the casino. The extent of exclusions continues to grow, to 426 self-excluders (previously 264) and to 37 family exclusions (from 31). But these numbers are dwarfed by what Singapore calls third-party exclusions. These arise automatically: gamblers who are undischarged bankrupts, and those receiving public assistance, are not allowed into the current and future Singapore casinos. So far, 28,690 people have received an automatic exclusion.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (III)

The title of the post is somewhat misleading in this instance: Video Gambling Machines (VDMs) in New Zealand exist in lots of places besides casinos. For that reason, self-exclusion from casinos alone would not be a very effective method for fighting gambling problems among those who patronize VDMs. New Zealand legislation provides that any gambling venue that permits a disassociated person to gamble could face significant penalties.

Peter Townsend (2007) presents the results
of a study of a small sample (32 at the follow-up stage) of individuals who had self-excluded, as part of more comprehensive therapy for their gambling problems. The vast majority (26 of 32) report complete abstinence from gambling, and for those who continue to gamble, their gambling problems fall markedly, on average. Once again, self-exclusion (here, in combination with other measures) seems to be a pretty effective tool against compulsive gambling.

Other posts in this series:

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (V)

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (IV)

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (II)

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (I)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lottery Self-Exclusion

Casino self-exclusion schemes generally combine physical unavailability with reward diminution: the casino tries to keep you away, and if you do gamble, they try to prevent you from collecting winnings. Lottery self-exclusion, however, seems to involve only reward diminution. Lottery outlets will sell disassociated persons all the tickets that they want, but the state lottery authorities will not allow the self-excluded to collect large wins. In both Illinois and Iowa, for instance, "large wins" are those involving $600 or more.

If all of the monetary and hedonic reward from gambling could be removed, then making gambling physically unavailable would offer little improvement in combatting problem gambling. Alternatively, if physical unavailability were perfect, reward diminution would be superfluous. But in practice, both barriers to availability and diminished rewards are imperfect and subject to evasion -- and both make a contribution towards controlling problem gambling.

Placing a bet as a commitment to undertaking a personal reform -- a' la -- involves a form of reward diminution: fail to reform and you have to pay a self-imposed fine. Public pronouncements of an intention to reform establish another version of reward diminution: failure to reform will cost you some respect in the eyes of your peers, along with some self-respect, perhaps. But many people trying to reform a bad habit try to institute both physical unavailability and reward diminution. For instance, they adopt a rule not to keep any ice cream in the house, and then feel guilty (and possibly lose self-respect as well as the respect of others) when they violate their rule and consume the now-available ice cream.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (II)

The study looked at in the prior post about the effectiveness of casino self-exclusion involved asking self-excluders at a certain point in time about their gambling experiences. A later article by Ladouceur, Sylvain, and Gosselin (2007) follows self-excluders (or "disassociated" persons) over the course of two years. The initial contact took place at the time the gambler chose to self-exclude, followed by four follow-ups at six-month intervals. The self-exclusion order itself lasted either six months, one year, or two years, at the discretion of the gambler -- one year was the most popular exclusion period. As you would suspect, the disassociated people tended to have severe gambling problems, as well as a belief that they could not control their own wagering. One of the sad markers of pathological gamblers applied to this group, alas: more than one-third had thoughts of suicide, and 6.5% had attempted suicide, during the previous six months. Of the 161 disassociated people who started to take part in the study, only 53 participated in all four of the follow-up rounds of interviews.

Once again, the self-exclusion program appears to have been quite successful, given the extent of gambling pathology exhibited by most of the self-excluders. The urge to gamble fell markedly from the time of the initial exclusion order to the six-month follow-up, and remained at a significantly lower level two years after disassociating. Further, gambling problems likewise declined -- even though many of the disassociated returned to casino gambling. As Ladouceur, Sylvain, and Gosselin put it (p. 92), "major improvements were recorded on the urge to gamble, perceived control over gambling, and the intensity of of the negative consequences of gambling on daily activities, social life, work and mood." Further, these results were achieved in Quebec, where no penalties (beyond removal from the casino) would be imposed upon a disassociated person who was identified trying to enter a casino or after successfully sneaking in and engaging in gambling. In other locales, such breaches could lead to fines or arrests for trespassing.

Other posts in this series:

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (V)
Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (IV)

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (III)

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (I)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (I)

I guess it would be helpful to know, once you start a blog about self-exclusion, if self-exclusion is effective at reducing the gambling problems of "disassociated people." (Employing the phrase "disassociated people" for those who self-exclude from gambling comes from the state of Missouri's self-exclusion program.) I want to lay out some of the evidence that speaks to this issue, but it will take a long time to do it justice; hence, this post is numbered (I), as further, related posts are anticipated.

OK, effective relative to what? It is a commonplace in addiction therapy of all types that relapse is quite frequent: for drug addiction treatment, something like fifty percent of patients relapse, often multiple times. By these standards, self-exclusion looks like a pretty effective treatment for pathological gambling. Of course, relapse rates depend on details of the program, including enforcement: how easy is it to sneak back in to a casino from which you have self-excluded and gamble? In many jurisdictions, especially those that do not demand an ID from all entrants, it looks to be fairly easy.

One early study that speaks to effectiveness is by Ladouceur et al. (2000). The authors survey some 220 self-excluders. They find that these people overwhelmingly tend to meet the criteria for being pathological gamblers. Nonetheless, according to self-reports, 30% of these self-excluders managed complete abstinence from gambling during their stint as disassociated people. Further, self-exclusion is quite popular with those who have tried it: a large majority report a favorable impression of their self-exclusion program. Support remained impressive, but not so universal, among those who had self-excluded more than once. This particular report doesn't say much about the effectiveness of those who self-excluded but did not remain totally abstinent -- but even they can greatly reduce their gambling-related problems with the help of self-exclusion. As with other forms of addiction treatment, some people self-exclude from gambling without harboring any intention to embark on abstinence. These people hope to use self-exclusion as a way to help them control their gambling, not eliminate it.

Other posts in this series:

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (V)

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (IV)

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (III)

Does Casino Self-Exclusion Work? (II)

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Winnings Confiscated From Excluded Gambler

An enforced order for self-exclusion from a casino can be very effective at bolstering the willpower to refrain from gambling. The effectiveness comes from two features of self-exclusion, physical inaccessibility and reward diminution. Physical inaccessibility arises because the casino tries to keep you out, and in many jurisdictions can charge you with trespassing if you show up on their property. Reward diminution arises, in part, because the casino can confiscate any large jackpots that you might win, if you successfully sneak back in.

The legal basis for casinos to take away an excluded gambler's winnings, however, is not completely settled. (The casinos generally can't keep the confiscated winnings; rather, they are donated to a charity, perhaps one involved with fighting pathological gambling.) In Iowa, the state Supreme Court recently overturned a lower court ruling, deciding that a casino was within its rights to refuse to hand over winnings of over $9,000 to an excluded gambler. This particular gambler, however, was not self-excluded: he had been permanently barred from the casino following a conviction for criminal mischief arising from an incident where he attacked a slot machine.

The casino in question was in the news again last week, with exclusion again featuring as part of the story. The allegation is that a man made a bomb threat against the casino after he was refused admission because he did not show a picture ID. A requirement that casino patrons present IDs, incidentally, is very helpful in enforcing exclusion bans. Another helpful feature is US federal tax law, that requires withholding and form-filling before slot machine winnings of $1,200 or more can be paid. It was the necessity to fill out the tax paperwork that led to the excluded gambler's identification in the incident that the Iowa Supreme Court recently ruled upon.

Singapore Exclusion List Grows

Singapore's first destination-style casino opened in February, 2010, so the self-exclusion program that the government had established for permanent residents and citizens (but not for non-resident foreigners) has become relevant. As of last week, 264 people had applied for self-exclusion. A second resort casino in Singapore is now scheduled to open in April, and the exclusion orders will apply to both locations.

Beyond standard self-exclusion, Singapore offers "Family Exclusion" possibilities: a close family member can apply to have another family member excluded from the casinos. The application sets in motion an inquiry, and if a panel decides that the gambler in question is engaged in problem gambling, the exclusion will be granted -- even if the decision is counter to the wishes of the gambler him or herself. So far, 31 people have been excluded through this family intervention process.

The new casino allows people to pre-specify loss limits, but so far, no customers have imposed them. For internet gambling, I think there is something to be said for mandatory choice of pre-specified loss limits, as well as time constraints.

What's Going On Here?

This blog concerns self-exclusion -- so at least it is appropriately named. The term derives from the option provided by many gambling locales for people to voluntarily commit to not gambling at those locales. The concept is broader, however, and this blog is interested in self-commitment devices (especially those employed for self-denial) more generally.

The fourteen posts that precede this one were imported to Self-Exclusion from my old blog, Vice Squad. From here on, though, it is all exciting and new. Or at least new.

Here's a working paper that provides some background. Here's an even more fun (or at least shorter) background article (6-page pdf).

Why this blog? Ironically, it is intended to serve as a sort of commitment device to track self-exclusion. We'll see how well this particular commitment device pans out...