Category Archives: Risky behavior
Magdalena Cerdá, PhD, MPH, is an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program.
Rates of fatal overdoses caused by analgesic opioids (i.e. opiate-based painkillers) have increased dramatically in the United States over the past five years. The prevalence of nonmedical analgesic drug abuse (i.e. use for recreational or self-treatment purposes without a prescription, or using more medication than prescribed by a physician) is second only to that of marijuana abuse, and currently the number of fatal analgesic overdoses is greater than the number of heroin and cocaine overdoses combined. While research until now has focused on the role of individual characteristics, there is an increasing realization that neighborhoods also play an important role in shaping substance abuse.
Natasha Dow Schüll, PhD, MA, is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Program in Science, Technology and Society. She is an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program (2003-2005). Her recent book, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, examines the ways that the gambling industry has designed gambling machines that encourage addiction.
Human Capital Blog: In your book, you describe how electronic gambling machines—the modern equivalent of slot machines—are designed in such a way that they encourage addiction. Tell us about that, please.
Natasha Dow Schüll: If you have never actually been in a Las Vegas casino and your idea of it comes from a James Bond movie, you'd be surprised by what you'd find. Of course they still have card games and roulette wheels, but most of the money casinos make is from electronic gambling machines, which are amazingly sophisticated versions of the classic three-reel slot machine. Every aspect of their design—the hardware, the software, the math, even the seating components—is carefully designed to keep players at the machine, playing game after game. Play is simple and amazingly fast—it takes only three to four seconds per spin. The machines are programmed so gamblers win every now and then, and they give audiovisual feedback to encourage them to continue. They induce players to gamble quickly and repeatedly, developing a sort of rhythmic flow that can sweep them away. Gamblers talk about getting into a "zone" where everything but the game just drops out of their awareness. After a while, they crave the zone itself, so it stops being about beating the machine and becomes instead about staying on the machine for as long as they can so they can be in that zone. They're addicted, and they develop all the behaviors of an addict as a result.
My point is that it's no accident; the machines are designed to drive the kinds of behavior—playing faster, longer, and more intensively—that turns gamblers into addicts.