Gambling Damages Our People and Our Socioculture


Gambling Damages Our People and Our Socioculture 

The following is an article that I wrote for Indiana’s South Bend Tribune’s Michiana Point Of View published Sunday, July 22, 2001.

There have been many changes since I wrote this article. The gambling industry has continued to grow. The number of our citizens who gamble and who show various gambling-related behavior problems have continued to grow. Our National financial disaster has worsened. Now in the year 2009, it is known to world. Our problems continue to grow.

The following is a shortened version this newspaper article.

Our National gambling revolution did not result from a populace movement. It emerged almost exclusively through the combined efforts of the gambling industry, its wealthy lobbyists and our desperately receptive legislators and politicians.

The critics of behavioral psychology have long predicted that its principles would someday be used by governments to coerce and exploit their citizens. B. F. Skinner, perhaps the greatest psychologist of the 20th century, warned of a different form of governmental exploitation which is based upon systems of rewards.

I am saddened to inform you that this is exactly what has happened as our government has legalized and popularized gambling and then taxed its profits to obtain increased revenues for its own growth and development. The enticing short-term attractiveness of this Post-Modern cultural design is that a large proportion of our population finds it rewarding to gamble and the government hungers for a new source of revenue. As Skinner explained, “voluntary” gambling taxes avoid increasingly coercive income , sales, and property taxes and simultaneously reduce the likelihood of citizen revolt. The federal, state, and local governmental financial problems that drive this new governmental gambling business are well documented.

This Nation’s history of legal gambling is a long and troubled one, with more problems emerging as gambling has increased. Our population is gambling more than ever before.

  • In 1716, lotteries were operational in each of the 13 colonies and they continued to grow in popularity.
  • During the 1870’s, most kinds of gambling were outlawed by the states because of massive scandals in the Louisiana lottery.
  • Between 1964 and 1975, about 13 state lotteries re-emerged.
  • In 1971, mental health professionals began to treat pathological gambling.
  • In 1980, pathological gambling was included as a “disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-III, used by professionals to diagnose mental disorders.
  • In 1982, he New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling established a 24-hour help hot line.
  • By 1990, legalized gambling existed in 47 states and the District of Columbia.
  • By 1999, U.S. gross legal gambling revenues were estimated to be around $60 billion. By 2002 gross legal gambling revenues had grown to nearly $70 billion. In 2007 this figure was $92.27 billion.

Principles of psychology help explain why citizens are so responsive to legalized gambling opportunities. Behavioral psychologist have consistently demonstrated that all of us animals will continue to peck or push buttons and pull or press levers at very high rates under special schedules of reward. Often behaviors will reach frantically high rates, to the exclusion of all other activities. Increasingly intermittent and random rewards (variable ration schedules of reinforcement) produce very strong behaviors that persist, even in the face of starvingly diminished food rewards. This and other well known behavioral principles are fundamental to teaching people to, over the long run, willingly pour more and more of their money into the bottomless sinkhole euphemistically marketed as “gaming”. Such privately and governmentally sponsored advertising mocks our truth-in-advertising laws and enters the realm of the darkest propaganda.

The damage that we are now inflicting upon ourselves and our children in unconscionable:

  • In 1997, the Harvard Medical School Division an Addictions estimated that the past-year prevalence for problem and pathological adult gambling was approximately 5.3 million and 2.2. million respectively. It also estimated that there were 5.7 million American adolescent problem gamblers and 2.2 million adolescent pathological gamblers.
  • In 1999, The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences reviewed 4,000 research papers on gambling and estimated that 3 million of the adult population were “life-time” pathological gamblers and another 7.3 million were “life-time” problem gamblers.
  • This commission further concluded that pathological gambling is associated with: substance abuse, mood disorders, personality disorders, domestic violence, and child abuse and neglect.
  • The children of gambling adults are more likely to become involved with delinquency, smoking and drug use. They also show an increased risk of developing problem or pathological gambling.
  • Dramatically increased child and adolescent gambling is correlated with and increased risk for pathological gambling later in life. In general, adolescent gamblers are at greater risk than adults fo develop problems or pathological gambling.
  • In 1999, the costs of gambling to our society (job loss, unemployment benefits, welfare benefits, poor health, psychological treatment) were about $1,200 per pathological gambler per year and about $715 per problem gambler per year. Other lifetime costs (bankruptcy, imprisonment, legal fees for divorce, etc.) were about $10,550 per pathological gambler and $5,130 per problem gambler. The combined costs of pathological and problem gamblers per year was about $5 billion, with and additional lifetime cost of about $40 billion. It can be safely assumed that these costs have increased since 1999.
  • Pathological gamblers are more likely to have financial, physical and emotional problems. When debts mount, pathological gamblers frequently resort to crime to pay their debts. They also suffer increased rates of suicide.

These human tragedies represent the enormous negative externalities and delayed costs of legalized gambling. How do we calculate the resulting present and future damage to us, to our children and to our grandchildren?

Tragically, by the time we figure this out, it may be too late to reverse our self-destructive practices. We must act on the basis of psychological theory and incomplete but clearly negative data trends.

We must not overlook other clear and present harms. Economically, we are trading away solid long-term growth for unstable short-term gain. Gambling lobbyists and politicians tell citizens: “Our people are going to travel to neighboring regions to gamble their money away. Why not legalize gambling her and keep those revenues for ourselves?” Of course, they do not explain that when casinos are legalized, people are often attracted away from local businesses (restaurants, theaters, shops, etc.). As a consequence, these stable traditional businesses that have long benefited individuals and society often lose income and are forced to close.

Furthermore, lobbyists and politicians generally do not tell citizens of the increased crime (political corruption, robbery, drugs, prostitution, etc.) that is frequently associated with legal gambling enterprises.

This nation’s social viability is increasingly impaired by poor cultural planning and increasing rates of population maladaptive (bad) behavior: Why would such an afflicted culture legalize and encourage gambling activities that damage individuals, families and ultimately our whole society?

I must conclude that our government has preyed upon its citizens in the 1980’s by legalizing gambling and taxing its new revenues. The same was done during the 1960’s and 1970’s when pornography was legalized and then taxed. Furthermore, initiatives to legalize and tax illegal drugs and prostitution are now gathering momentum.

Countless numbers men and women have given their lives in the defense of our freedom. Can’t we give up a few immediate pleasures for the long-term good or our socioculture? Think it through, decide for yourself and act accordingly. Remember: In a democracy, or a republic, the people get exactly what they deserve.”

For a more complete and scholarly review of gambling problems and their impact upon our socioculture you may read my chapter (pps. 45-89) in Gambling: Behavior Theory, Research, and Application. This book was edited by Ghezzi, P. M. , Lyons, C. A., Dixon, M. R., and Wilson, G. R., and it was published in 2006 by Context Press, Reno NV.

 V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D. , 8/31/09

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