diceThe major media are buzzing again with concerns about the extent of gambling addiction, especially among young people. Estimates are that about 4% of gamblers (between 0.5 and 1.0% of the adult population) are ‘addicted’ to gambling, compulsive to the point at which it causes significant social or financial harm.

What intrigues me is that these studies only involve games of chance ñ poker, bingo, casino games and lotteries. But the most serious gamblers I’ve met make a living (or pretend to do so) gambling ñ day traders, stock brokers, currency and commodity speculators, developers and real estate speculators, even eBay vendors who work full time just buying and selling stuff they don’t produce. For some reason there is no stigma associated with such gambling, though it is indistinguishable in nature from gambling on games of chance. This is completely unproductive work, adding no value to the economy, and it is in many cases very destructive work, since there is a loser (and often many losers) for every ‘winner’. Much of this ‘work’ entails great temptation and opportunity (insider information, bribes and payoffs, and outright fraud) enabling the ‘players’ to cheat, the only way to guarantee an edge over the losers.

This is shabby business, transforming harmless fun into chronic, ruinous, devastating compulsion, and too often, finally, pathological behaviour.

What is it that pushes some people off this edge, leading so many do-gooders to demand a ban on the activity for everyone to save the vulnerable few? It seems to be that addiction to gambling, in whatever form, is really not that different from any other addiction: to alcohol, tobacco or other drugs, to food and diets, to the Internet and pornography, to exercise, self-mutilation or work. Even the experts admit that separating the physical from the psychological aspects of addiction is almost impossible. They tend to prescribe the same old ‘interventions’ that seem to work for some, but don’t for many: psychological counseling and therapy, notably the notorious and grueling ’12-step’ programs and aversion therapies; and detox programs involving sedation, substitution, and physical therapies like acupuncture.

I have argued before that we are all addicted to something, and that we cannot change who we are. I do know some people who have beaten their addictions, but they have either had powerful motivation to do so (we do what we must…) or else were not really addicted at all. The people I know who are the most obvious and troubled addicts tend to be multiple and serial addicts — their addictions often seem to be substitutes for some other craving they can no longer satisfy, and tend to reinforce each other (unhealthy diets and excessive exercise; tobacco and alcohol; work and alcohol; gambling and porn).

I’m not a fan of banning activities and substances that can be addictive. That’s not libertarian zeal, just an acknowledgement that making addictions illegal doesn’t work. The number of smokers has dropped mostly because it’s become socially seriously unacceptable, and because some older smokers have suffered health complications that leave them no choice but to quit. It’s not because people know it’s unhealthy, and not even because it’s expensive, and making it illegal would just drive it underground or move the addicts to other drugs. And nearly all the serious ex-smokers I know have acquired substitute addictions.

We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. Addictions start as fun, which none of us has enough of, and, for some, quickly progress to ‘musts’. This terrible world has most of us enslaved, giving up most of our lives, time, energy, and healthy years to mind-numbing and/or exhausting work, anguished or unsatisfying personal relationships, and endless chores we loathe. When that’s done, we want easy fun, and most of the addictive activities and substances provide, or at least promise, easy fun, a rush, a high, a temporary respite from too much boring work and too much depressing news. Who can blame us, especially when commercial interests are all too willing to pander to and profit from our addictions?

I don’t intend to minimize the anguish that addictions, and their darker side, can inflict on addicts and their loved ones. If therapies and detox programs work for them, that’s great. I do suspect, however, that those who are prone to addiction will, unless their lives are free from stress, boredom and confinement, end up addicted to something. Recent studies of mice have in fact shown that they are only prone to addictions when they are stressed, bored and confined. In healthy natural environments, addiction is virtually unknown. And our modern world is so far from healthy and natural that we’re not going to cure addiction by transforming the environment that nurtures it.

The best we can do, and should be trying harder to do, is to discover drugs that are relatively harmless (and really cheap), and invent other substitutions for our more dangerous and destructive addictions. Something that gives the euphoria without the judgement impairment, the fun without the social or financial cost. A challenge perhaps, but with the shared creativity of open source and the technologies alreadyoriented towards entertainment without limit, not an impossible one.

Brave New World come true.

Full disclosure: While I have no financial interest in any aspect of the gambling industry, some members of my family do.

Category: Being Human
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5 Responses to Addictions

  1. Dave Pollard says:

    Interesting coincidence — today’s NYT has an article suggesting people with damage to the insula, a part of the brain, instantly find it easy to break life-long addictions.

  2. AnotherDave says:

    Just a minor point:you write:>…This is completely unproductive work, adding no value to the economywell, this is true for chance-based gambling, but the other examples you mention (ebay traders) do add value to the economy, since they a) In the long run, people earning these arbitrage profits cause the prices to become the best possible prices for the consumers (because people read the success stories about ebay traders, and then copy what they are doing, thus reducing the high profits to barely no profits) -> This makes the market as ‘perfect’ as possible (in a macro economic sense) b) adding value by providing information (buying objects of unknown quality, and offering context / guarantees / usage information)I agree however that for the individual, that might not be a healthy occupation (there are really not that many healthy occupations, come to think of it).

  3. Jon Husband says:

    SOMA, targeted at the insula, available from Mac’s Milk, 7 – 11 and the public library.

  4. david says:

    I would like to see more people acknowledge that addiction is a fact of life, and is not a negative word. It seems that our reaction to the addiction is similar to our association with ‘selfish’ etc… we immediately peg it into greed, or with addictions, we immediately peg it with drugs, or with compulsive relief. However, we all know that there are other ways of associating it with fullfilment. I think we can think of our need for food as addictory. This should open eyes if it were more commonly held as a way of seeing and processing beliefs.

  5. Mariella says:

    The second paragraph of today´s article, made me think that the basis of our modern economy ; offer and demand are a gamble game. Who knows for certain how the market will move…. Since we begin to need our own money we begin to gamble – first with our parents… Maybe, begining at a very early stage in our growth, we learn a sensorial structure of “strategy and reward” = a mother structure, from which we will develope more complex ones that will construct our self sustain strategies….? For instance, my husband is a farmer … He gambles with broccolis, corn, tomatoes and potatoes.. each game lasts 3 or 4 months….this year we face a mayor variable…. the “niño” striked again.. ¿Gambling? for sure…!

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