Odds and Ends: the importance of understanding probability in harm prevention

Odds and Ends: the importance of understanding probability in harm prevention

In a series of blogs and think-pieces we invite individuals with wide-ranging roles in the gaming and gambling industry as well as Academics and those from outside to set out their thoughts on topical issues of concern. These blogs are intended to provoke thought and discussion.

In the first blog we invite our Trustee Ayub Khan to set out his thoughts on probability in harm prevention:

Amidst the concerned media and political commentary around gambling – and youth gambling in particular – it has been suggested repeatedly that a better understanding of the laws of probability would safeguard people against gambling harm. Is this true or - given the complexity of understanding gambling behaviours – might it be an over-simplification?

Informed choice is one of the key precepts of the Reno Model, which characterises approaches to gambling regulation (and harm prevention) in many Western markets. The idea is that customers should be provided with adequate information about gambling products (including risks and probabilities) to enable them to determine how to participate – if at all – in betting and games of chance.

One aspect of informed choice is the need to make clear to consumers what the structural characteristics of the game or wagering event are – and in particular, what are the statistical probabilities of different outcomes and how they compare with the odds offered.

Of late, it has become fashionable (in the press and in Parliament) to suggest that better education around odds and probability could significantly reduce gambling harm. This is in stark contrast to a decade ago when GamCare was widely castigated in the press for piloting a youth education programme to prevent gambling harm.

However, recent research suggests that this focus on statistics may be over-simplistic and could actually involve negative unintended consequences. For example, Professors David Forrest and Ian McHale from the University of Liverpool have assessed gambling participation data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). They found (amongst other things) that high scores in mathematics at age 15 was a very strong predictor of future gambling involvement; and was also somewhat correlated with the future onset of gambling problems.

By contrast, high scores in English at the age of 15 was a good negative predictor of gambling participation and problem gambling.

Similarly, a Finnish study published last year (also involving Professor Forrest) has analysed the relationship between IQ scores obtained from military records (Finland operates a national military service programme) and gambling participation and problem gambling. Again, a high mathematics IQ was found to be a predictor of gambling participation and problem gambling.

Of course, this research does not suggest that the teaching of mathematics and probability elevates risk of problem gambling; although it seems plausible that a fascination with numbers might be consistent with an interest in gambling. However, the idea that those with the firmest grasp on the laws of probability may also be at elevated risk does appear to contradict the notion that maths is the answer.

Another way to consider the issue is to think about those who work within the gambling industry. A number of studies have suggested that this is a particularly vulnerable group (it is also likely to be a group with better than average mathematical abilities); and yet it is also a group that enjoys very high levels of informed choice.

By definition, a blackjack dealer in a casino or an online games programmer will know far more about the odds of any particular game than the average gambler – but may also be considered at higher risk of harm. The point is that domain knowledge alone does not insulate an individual from risk.

It may be the same with awareness of the harms of excessive gambling. Simply knowing what the risks is not by itself a safeguard. After all, doctors and nurses are acutely aware of the risks of tobacco and alcohol consumption; and yet many in the medical profession drink and smoke (sometimes to unhealthy levels). There is more to harm prevention than simple cognitive awareness of probability and risk.

Liz Karter, an experienced therapist and the author of a number of books on problem gambling thinks that the focus on information may not be that helpful: “No-one ever came to me because they did not understand the odds of gambling. My clients tend typically have problems in their lives that cause anxiety or distress. For them gambling becomes a form of self-medication; a way to shut out the unhappy thoughts and elevate mood for a short time.

Indeed, there may be unintended negative consequences of over-emphasising the importance of structural knowledge about gambling and probability. It may lead to suggestions (either inferred by the gambler or implied by others) that those who get into trouble do so because they are ‘stupid’ – something that is likely to undermine attempts at recovery and impair attempts at support.

All of this does not mean that education about the odds is misplaced. Understanding probability is a component of YGAM’s ‘Train the Trainer’ PSHE workshop programme for teachers and youth workers. However, it is only one part of a much broader approach that aims to promote healthy awareness of the risks associated with gambling.

After all, we know from Gambling Commission research that children and young people are more likely to consider betting and gaming to be means of making money. However, the same research also suggests that young people are also highly predisposed to see gambling as something that is glamorous. Risk of gambling-related harm amongst young people is a complex subject and requires a sophisticated response.

Lee Willows, the chief executive of YGAM puts it this way: “There is a high level of concern about children and youth participation in gambling. In some ways this is helpful as it shines a light on a subject that was neglected for far too long. However, we must take care not to assume that there are quick fixes or silver bullets. At YGAM, we have always emphasised the need for a broad approach to youth education – and one that recognises the need to link with other organisations involved with harm prevention.

The punchline seems to be that while the heightened interest in youth gambling harm is to be welcomed, we need to guard against over-simplification. If we can do this the odds of making meaningful progress will surely shorten in our favour.

Ayub Khan
YGAM Trustee