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I read with increasing horror a New York Times article describing how college and university athletic departments have partnered with sportsbooks to encourage betting among their students. (The legal betting age in the U.S. varies by state. In ten states the minimum age is 18, in Alabama it is 19, and in all of the rest—including D.C.—it is 21. See the state list. In Canada, the age is 18 or 19 depending on province. See the province list.) “Major universities, with their tens of thousands of alumni and a captive audience of easy-to-reach students, have emerged as an especially enticing target” for gambling companies (Betts et al., 2022). While what I’d like to write is an opinion piece about the financial state of colleges and universities (how is it that public funding has evaporated?), how athletic departments have come to operate outside of the college and university hierarchy (why does my $450 airfare to travel to a professional conference have to be signed off on by a raft of people, but an athletic department can sign a $1.6 million dollar deal without the university’s Board of Regents knowing anything about it?), and the ethically-suspect behavior of a college or university using their student contact information—such as email addresses that the institution provides to them and requires them to use for official communication—to encourage those students to bet on sports. But I’m not going to write that opinion piece. At least not in this forum.
Instead, I am going to write about what I know best: teaching Intro Psych. If our colleges and universities are going to encourage our students to gamble on sports, psychology professors need to be more explicit in discussing gambling.
Within casinos, slot machines are the biggest gaming moneymaker (see this UNLV Center for Gaming Research infographic for an example). For everything you could possibly want to know about slot machines, I highly recommend Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schüll, cultural anthropologist at New York University. Slot machines and sports betting are similar in that they both pay out on a variable ratio schedule. People play slot machines to escape; they are powered by negative reinforcement, not positive. Each win provides the ability to play longer, and thus to spend even more time not thinking about problems at school, at work, at home, or in the world. The goal of the slot machine manufacturer and casino is to get you to stay at the machine longer. Having recently visited a casino, I was impressed by some of the newer innovations designed to do just that, such as comfy seats and phone charging pads built into the slot machine itself.
While sports betting may—initially at least—be driven by positive reinforcement. Each win feels good and apparently outweighs the punishment of a loss. However, like slot machines, sports betting can become an escape. The time spent planning bets, placing bets, monitoring the games and matches one has put money on, and then trying to find ways to fund the next round of bets can be time not spent thinking about problems at school, at work, at home, or in the world.
Since we’re talking about decision making, cognitive biases are also at play. For example, the availability heuristic may have us give undue attention to the big betting wins our friends brag about. Are our friends telling us about their big losses, too? If not, we may feel like winning is more common than losing. We know, however, that winning is not more common. Every time someone downloads the University of Colorado Boulder’s partner sportsbook app using the university’s promo code and then places a bet, the university banks $30. If the sportsbook is giving away $30 every time, how much money in losing bets per person, on average, must the sportsbook be collecting?
While there are many topics in the Intro Psych course where sports betting can be discussed, I’ll suggest using it as an opener for discussion of psychological disorders. To be considered a psychological disorder, a behavior needs to be unusual, distressing, and dysfunctional (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Ask students to envision a friend who lies about how much they are gambling, who has wanted to quit or greatly reduce how much they are betting but can’t seem to be able to, and who is using student loans to fund their betting. Do your students think their friend meets the criteria for a psychological disorder? Why or why not? If you’d like, have students discuss in small groups, and then invite groups to share their conclusions.
Gambling disorder is a DSM-V diagnosis categorized under “Substance Use and Addictive Disorders.” In previous editions of the DSM, it was called “gambling pathology” and was categorized as an impulse control disorder. Also in previous DSMs, illegal activity was a criterion for diagnosis; that has been removed in DSM-V.
To be diagnosed with gambling disorder, a person must—in addition to impairment and/or distress—meet at least four of the following criteria:
- Requires higher and higher bets to get the same rush
- Becomes irritable during attempts to cut back on gambling
- Has been repeatedly unsuccessful when trying to cut back or stop gambling
- Spends a lot of time thinking about gambling
- When stressed, turns to gambling as an escape
- Chases losses (for example, after losing a $20 bet, places an even higher bet to try to get the $20 back)
- Lies about how much they are gambling
- Gambling interferes with their performance in school or in a job or has negatively affected interpersonal relationships
- Gets money from others to support their gambling
Poll your students—even by a show of hands—to find out if they know someone, including themselves, who meet at least four of these criteria.
For help with a gambling problem, residents of the U.S., Canada, and the U.S. Virgin Islands can contact the National Problem Gambling Helpline by calling or texting 1-800-522-4700 any day at any time. For those who prefer chat, visit this webpage. For additional peer support, recommend gamtalk.org.
American Psychiatric Association (Ed.). (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (5th ed). American Psychiatric Association.
Betts, A., Little, A., Sander, E., Tremayne-Pengelly, A., & Bogdanich, W. (2022, November 20). How colleges and sports-betting companies ‘Caesarized’ campus life. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/20/business/caesars-sports-betting-universities-colleges.html
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