On gambling, addiction, and how the government profits



Keep in mind that this is written by someone who has no interest in gambling whatsoever. Ever since I learned (and since forgot) how to calculate probability, it has held absolutely no appeal. The odds of winning are so miniscule (particularly in the national/international lotteries) that I consider it a waste of money; I am indeed more likely to be struck by lightning than to win “the big one” . If you like gambling, I have no issue with that, it is just not my thing. I am also not talking about gambling that requires skill (say poker), but rather the random numbers-type games like lotto.

Now, anyone who has lived or lives in Norway knows that there are strict regulations in many areas (see post on drug-regulations for more on this).  The Norwegian government does not allow alcohol or tobacco advertising, and Norwegian television channels are not allowed to air ads aimed at children. I think it is a great idea, though I’m not sure how effective it is.

But, we have a government-owned institution called “Norsk Tipping”.  I’m sure the English speakers understand what it means, but just to make it perfectly clear, our government controls and regulates our lotteries.  Norsk Tipping (and  therefore by extension the Norwegian government) should cause anyone to question the moral fiber and ethics of the ones in charge.

First, let’s take a look at the psychology behind gambling and why it is so addictive to some. Many (if not all) of you have heard of operant conditioning. If we want to teach someone (human or animal) a new skill or task, we most frequently use operant conditioning. When said human (or animal) carries out a desired behaviour and we reward them for performing that behaviour, we are using operant conditioning. So a dog that receives a “sit” command, sits down, and subsequently gets a cookie has just been subjected to operant conditioning. In the beginning we have to give a reward (say a cookie) every single time the dog carries out the behaviour, but after a while, the dog will sit when you give the command, even if it doesn’t receive a cookie. The dog will be likely to repeat the behaviour most (if not all) the times you ask, again in the hopes of getting a cookie or another kind of reward (the reward can be anything the dog likes mind you- a pet, praise or likewise).

In operant conditioning  there’s something  referred to as reinforcement-schedules. “Reinforcement-schedule” is just a fancy term for how frequently you give the dog a cookie; or in the case of  gambling, how often the gambler wins. You can reinforce the behaviour every single time. A hungry dog would sit for a cookie every time, but a dog like my dog Niko (who is weirdly disinterested in food) will only sit if he feels like having a cookie.  You can reinforce every second (or third, fourth and so on) but most animals and humans will quickly figure out the pattern and make a half-hearted effort  the time it/she/he knows there is no cookie or reward. Imagine if you gambled and you know that you would win every forth time you pulled the arm of a slot-machine? It would take the fun out of gambling, right? Well, the reason why gambling is exciting, fun (to some) and absolutely addictive is because the reinforcement-pattern is so unpredictable. Take slot-machines for instance. People will sit for hours on end at the same machine; the machine will give them a little money now and then (normally much much less than what the person is spending) and the individual remains in the same spot, because the next pull might just be the one that pays off hugely!. This is why the elderly ladies (this might be all in my head, but I seem to recall seeing far more women using these machines than men) on the boat between  Norway and Denmark make their friends hold machines for them while they (quickly) visit the washroom. It is also why they become angry if anyone “steals their” machine. In lotteries the numbers drawn are completely random, and an increase in numbers decreases the likelihood of getting the right combination. I know that the top price in at least one of the lotteries here in Norway requires you to get 7 numbers correct.  You do however get a prize if you have 5 and 6 correct numbers (I think. As I said, I don’t play). The prize you receive is much lower than the top prize of course, but even if you receive only a 50-60 crowns (there’s about 6 crowns to a Canadian dollar) you’ll feel like you won. This is how they ensure that you’ll continue playing while they rake in an enormous profit.

So we have operant conditioning, a random reward-schedule that reinforces the behaviour, and the perfect setting for psychological addiction.

Back to Norway and our state-owned and sanctioned gambling. IT IS LITERALLY EVERYWHERE! I see ads for lotteries all over the place. Print-ads are frequently worded  in a “Check this guy out, he won a bajillion crowns! Maybe you’re next?” manner.  They use famous athletes as well as the everyman in advertisements. We admire the first, and if someone we admire sanctions a concept or an idea, we’re more likely to accept it and partake. We relate to the second  as “someone who’s just like me”; this reinforces the belief that it could happen to us as well.


Dale Oen, a famous (and now sadly passed) Norwegian athlete.

Dale Oen, a famous (and now sadly passed) Norwegian athlete.

In television ads they’ll display what crazy-cool stuff you can do with your new-found wealth. They’ve been known to lie outright; in one  case it was found that norsk tipping had created fictitious profiles of big winners and placed ads on finn.no (our equivalent of Craigslist/Kijiji).  The winning numbers appear in most (maybe all?) the newspapers. The draws for several of the big lotteries are also aired on television (prime time, in combination with the news even) and winners are called on the air. We get to see/hear how happy they are, we get to imagine ourselves in their place. We are constantly reminded that all our financial woes could be over in a snap. Now, many people face financial ruin because of their gambling. We have a show on tv called “luksusfellen” (“the luxury trap”) where people who are screwed financially receive help. Many of those who participate have gambled away large sums of money. What is just sad is that as the money disappears, the person is even more likely to gamble, in the hopes that a huge win is going to resolve the money-problems…

Lastly, I realize that I don’t know enough about the institution (norsk tipping that is), and it may be that some of the revenue is used for social betterment, but from where I stand, it seems like an awfully exploitative way to generate funds.

2 thoughts on “On gambling, addiction, and how the government profits

  1. Pingback: On emotional manipulation and such

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