In the science fiction thriller Minority Report, the police were able to eliminate crime thanks to the efforts of special investigators with the power to see into the future. Being able to predict impending criminal activity gave law enforcement a leg up on the competition, changing the old adage from “crime doesn’t pay” to “crime isn’t even possible so why bother?” in the process. In real life, human beings have not yet perfected their psychic abilities to the point that reading the future would be possible. So at least for the moment, the Minority Report scenario belongs exclusively to the realm of speculative fiction. But while technology of the mind may be lagging, electronic technology is revolutionizing the world in every conceivable way, soaring miles above the limits of our collective imagination. We truly do live in the information age; or perhaps more accurately, the information processing age. With so much valuable data to crunch, sophisticated computer software programs are being developed that have the potential to unravel perplexing mysteries and to solve a wide range of previously unsolvable problems. If we imagine the deductive logic of Sherlock Holmes multiplied by a million, it would give us a sense of how far things have gone and how fast the world around us is changing. Of course all of this data has tremendous commercial value. With a vast storehouse of knowledge at their disposal, marketers and retailers are finding ways to both predict and manipulate the behavior of their customers through the use of targeted advertisements and carefully packaged special offers. The more a business knows about its clients, the easier it is to customize products and marketing pitches to make sure all of the right emotional and psychological buttons are being pushed. Casinos and gambling websites have been among the most eager collectors of this digital data, aggressively sponging up information about their clients’ spending and wagering habits as they seek to understand what makes gambling aficionados tick. Gambling houses are naturally doing this to make more money, but a few scientists and mathematicians believe this data can be used to accomplish something more socially useful: identifying problem gamblers, both established and fledgling. Increasing numbers of academic researchers, scientists, mathematicians, entrepreneurs, gambling industry insiders and addiction specialists have been working to design high-powered software programs that can detect troublesome gambling behavior at the earliest point possible based on input obtained from the databases of the gambling providers themselves. Advanced mathematical algorithms that incorporate a range of significant variables believed to predict or identify dysfunctional gambling patterns form the heart of these systems. The assigning of numerical values to human behavior is an exercise fraught with uncertainty and subjectivity, but advocates of this ongoing project assert that enough research has been conducted on the warning signs of problem gambling to remove a large degree of this uncertainty.
Identifying the Early Signs of a Looming Gambling Addiction
Numerous red-flagging formulas have already been developed for identifying gamblers on the brink. They have actually been put into application in a few countries (not including the United States), usually at government-owned gambling facilities. Some of the most important variables that are known to predict problem gambling behavior include:
- Gradual increases in the amount of time spent gambling
- More bets being placed in a shorter period of time (pace and intensity of gambling increases)
- Chasing losses (bigger and bigger bets made in an attempt to erase accumulating debts)
- An unwillingness to stop gambling when wins or losses are small
- More late-night gambling
- Routinely adding money to an account in the middle of playing sessions
- Gambling for larger and larger stakes
- Constantly returning to the same game or machine
- A change in the days or times of day a gambler is in action
This list is by no means exhaustive; one Nova Scotia company that markets a problem gambler detection system includes more than 800 variables in its calculations (while claiming an 80 percent accuracy rate in ferreting out compulsive gamblers). For the most part, the private companies that operate casinos in the United States have expressed great skepticism about the utility of these problem gambler detection systems. This is not surprising considering that past research has shown compulsive gamblers are responsible for approximately 50 percent of the profits that legal gambling establishments take in. The casinos claim to support efforts to increase the availability of treatment options for problem gamblers, but they say this new initiative is too imprecise to work and would violate their customers’ right to privacy if it involved actual attempts at intervention. But online gambling providers seem much more amenable to the promise of an early warning system for problem gambling. Many are voluntarily installing such systems, which will send alerts to customers if they appear to be slipping into dangerous territory with their gambling activity. Online providers say they want to make sure their customers gamble sustainably and responsibly so that those customers will be able to maintain the financial wherewithal to return to their favorite gambling websites again and again.
Shining the Light on the Hidden Reality of Problem Gambling
Since these innovative software programs are still relatively new, no one is sure just how accurate they are or even how accurate they will be after the refinement process has been completed. But if early warning systems could help even a small percentage of emerging compulsive gamblers discover the truth about their impending descent into the darkness of dependency, they would undoubtedly be considered a rousing success. More research is certainly needed, but the initial efforts in this area indicate that a new day may be at hand in the detection and ultimately the treatment of gambling addiction.