20% of gamblers attempt suicide — why don't we take the addiction more seriously?

Americans lost $116.9 billion gambling in 2016.

  • Gambling addiction has been shown to have the same pharmacological effects as opiates.
  • Eighty-five percent of all gambling revenue comes from slot machines.
  • Casinos are designed to disorient and confuse patrons, from the lighting and carpeting to the key of machine sounds.


The smell is the first assault even though the triggers for sensory overload occur concurrently. That is by design. As the fog of cigarette smoke invades your nostrils (and clothing; look forward to those dry cleaning bills) thousands of machines cry out in the key of C. That key is believed to be less fatiguing than others; every one of the 400 sounds ringing from slot machines is thus tuned in this manner. They want gamblers awake — sort of.

My dilemma: I hate Las Vegas, but I love my father, who lives in the city, and I love Cirque du Soleil, so each visit includes casino visits. More my speed are off-strip Indian and ramen joints — Vegas food culture, also by design, is exceptional — and hiking amid the stoic architecture of Red Rocks. Casinos remind me of malls: opportunities for sociological observation, collecting stories for future journalistic endeavors. Capitalism, unhinged.

Casino design has long piqued my curiosity. As an early riser, I've always wondered what would make people choose to spend their hard-earned money to travel to a city in the middle of nowhere in order to waste it feeding quarters into a machine blatantly stacked against their favor at 5:30 in the morning.

Cigarettes and gambling go hand-in-hand. We're well aware the former is addictive; if not death, then certainly a host of health problems will plague the addict. What of the second? Why do we not discuss gambling addiction more broadly? Why does a problem this serious have to stay in Vegas?

Inside the brain of a gambling addict - BBC News

And the problem is serious. As Chris Hedges writes in his latest book, America: The Farewell Tour, 20 percent of gambling addicts attempt suicide, the highest percentage of all addictions. Though the opioid crisis is not slowing, there are governmentally-funded efforts combating it. Cigarette manufacturers are required to post warnings in large fonts alongside photos of diseased lungs. Smartphone addiction rewires our brains, but we haven't had the courage as a society to face that one yet. From alcohol to sex, at least nominal attempts at curbing behavior are attempted. For the most part, gambling escapes this fate.

The extent of online data collection was an eye-opener for many, but Hedges exposes the insidious lengths casinos collect information in order to keep customers hooked. Player cards allow management to "manage 20,000 behavior models per second." The seemingly innocuous machine branded with your favorite superhero or television show adapts to your playing rates as it learns your behavior. If you become fatigued, there's a fix for that too. According to the author,

"These profiles know at what point a player accumulates too many losses and too much pain and walks away from a machine. A few moments before the pain threshold is reached, a hostess will magically appear with a voucher for a free meal, drinks, or tickets to a show."

In 2016, Americans lost $116.9 billion dollars gambling; 85 percent of that was dumped into slot machines. Gambling replicates the pharmacological effects of opiates. The casino floor is purposefully designed to disorient and confuse. Right angles are a no-no on carpets, as they offer a physical option. Sharp angles ground you in space, humanity's version of a fork in the road. Casinos suspend time, and therefore space, which is why there are no windows. Cluing you into your circadian rhythm might cause you to leave.

A new show at The Fountains of Bellagio is choreographed to a medley of DJ/producer Tiesto's songs on September 17, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Image source: Ethan Miller / Getty Images for MGM Resorts International

Once gambling is in your bloodstream, it crosses industries. A new study published in Addictive Behaviors, from the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University, notes that over half of regular gamblers (those who gamble at least once a month) trade cryptocurrencies, which the researchers compare to high-risk stock trading. When gamblers engage in both, the likelihood they'll suffer anxiety and depression, gateways to suicidal tendencies, increases. As Lia Nower, director of the center and co-author of the study, notes,

"People who trade cryptos look very much like those who trade high risk stocks such as margins and options. Therefore, those who like risky stocks are also more likely to jump into the cryptocurrency trading market compared to those who, for example, invest in stocks over the long term."

For decades, gambling was listed in the DSM, the bible of the American Psychological Association, as an impulse-control disorder. After 15 years of debate, pathological gambling was moved into addiction disorders in DSM-5, due to the chemical influence it has on our brain's reward system. Gamblers and drug addicts even share genetic predispositions.

As Hedges writes, the rush of gambling provides stimulation during a time of a dysfunctional political system, decreased labor rights in the gig economy, and social stagnation in which virtually no serious issue is entertained without having to choose sides. In times of such uncertainty, we seek comfort at every turn. While conducting his famous stimulation experiments with rats and pigeons, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner used slot machines as the guiding metaphor for his study, which found that the animals compulsively press levers when they don't know when or how much they'll be rewarded. Follow the mammalian chain of command and we arrive at the strip.

Hedges interviews cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll, author of Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Whether you gamble or not, according to Schüll high-risk thinking is affecting all of us, also by design. It's the atmosphere of the moment, and the forecast is not sunny. She concludes,

"If you look at the way a casino is designed, and you remember that Trump is a designer of many casinos, including his non-casino properties, they follow the same design logic of disorientation and trying to sweep people away from themselves, away from rationality, away from a position where they have clear lines of sight and can act as decision-making subjects."

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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