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Emily D. Swoboda

Just What's in a Punter's Psyche?

25 July 2008

A recent study conducted jointly by researchers in Canada and the United States has been portrayed in the media as anything from a beacon of regulatory hope to a new take on problem gambling. But one of the study's authors says it's neither.

"We were interested in why people in Las Vegas, with so many options available to them, would turn to online gambling," Kathryn A. LaTour, an associate professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas' William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, told IGamingNews.

Ms. LaTour and her co-researcher, June Cotte, an associate professor of marketing at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, conducted a qualitative study to find the behavioral differences between online and land-based casino gamblers.

The researchers studied 30 subjects from Las Vegas, 20 land-based casino gamblers and 10 online gamblers.

The research sample may have been small, but the process involved a 90-minute-to-two-hour interview with each subject, 900 pages of transcripts and video portions of the interviews, Ms. LaTour said.

"So, it wasn't just talking to 30 people in a focus group," she said. "It was an in-depth, deep study of their psyche -- of why they gamble."

The study will not be available to the public until next year when it is published in the Journal of Consumer Research, but Ms. Cotte offered up an excerpt which explained its methodology.

The researchers employed a modified version of the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique, or ZMET (pronounced ZEE-met), which is a qualitative market research technique that uses images to measure how consumers think and feel about brands and products.

The researchers asked the participants to collect between five and eight images that portrayed what gambling meant to them. They then asked the participants various directed and in-depth questions about the images, which were designed to get at the hidden meanings of those images.

While the researchers discovered that online gambling has the potential to lead to addiction, Ms. LaTour said that was not the main focus of the study, as has been indicated in press reports.

In fact, the researchers specifically called for recreational -- not addictive -- gamblers.

"Our study is a small sample -- it's a qualitative sample -- and we were interested in understanding at a deep level what people who are online get about the online experience compared to what they get in the casino," Ms. LaTour said. "And there were some things from the environment online that could potentially lead to addiction, but we weren't necessarily studying problem gamblers.

"So, I think the press has run with the addiction stuff because I think there are some potential problems with people having some feelings of illusory control, and being on and betting more and longer than they would at a land-based casino. But we weren't really looking at problem gamblers per se," she added.

Through the interviewing process, the researchers discovered instances of cyber bullying at online gambling sites.

Ms. LaTour said after talking to the online gamblers, she learned that some were being stalked, demeaned or even threatened at certain Web sites -- behavior, she said, that is unlikely to fly in Las Vegas casinos.

"I think if there was regulation some of those people would be kicked out of the tables," she said. "They wouldn't be allowed to behave the way that they've been. If there was regulation there would be less of the nastiness and the rudeness and the nasty language that's currently going on in some of these chat rooms and sites."

Ms. LaTour was interested in understanding gambling behavior overall; she said a good deal of research exists about problem gambling, but not much about the recreational gambler.

One of the more surprising findings, Ms. LaTour noted, was that online gamblers had an important, symbiotic connection to the land-based casinos: "Actually venturing into a casino was an important part of their social connection."

While the study's online casino gamblers crossed over to land-based casinos, the same behavior was not reported by the land-based gamblers, Ms. LaTour said.

Based on the study's results, Ms. Cotte and Ms. LaTour have proposed a list of suggestions for regulation of online gambling in Canada and the United States.

They suggest companies employ better use of age checks when signing up new users for an online account as well as cross-checking new users with lists of pathological gamblers.

They also suggest setting financial limits on gambling and enabling sites to communicate to gamblers when they are spending long hours and a lot of money, and making information available about problem gambling treatment via pop-ups or instant messages.

Other recommendations include having an online gambling counselor available online; mandatory "cooling-off periods," which force online gamblers to stop gambling for a pre-set amount of time before they are allowed to wager money from their account; and making tabulations of wins and losses more obvious on-screen.

In addition to the list of technical suggestions, Ms. Cotte and Ms. LaTour said that allowing corporate sponsors -- like land-based casinos -- to enter the online gambling market could make for a better-regulated environment.

In which case, the question remains: Even if Harrah's Entertainment Inc., MGM Mirage or any of the terrestrial casino giants were given permission to operate an online casino, would they be interested?

While it is true that Harrah's and MGM have made some noise about it recently, the general attitude toward the Internet gambling industry from the land-based casino industry has been difficult to gauge accurately.

Likewise, the American Gaming Association, which lobbies on behalf of land-based gaming interests, remains neutral on Internet gambling issues and supports a bill introduced last year by United States Representative Shelley Berkley, the Nevada Democrat.

Ms. Berkley's bill would authorize a one-year study into the feasibility of regulating Internet gambling in the United States. Ms. LaTour said she has been trying to get in touch with Ms. Berkley but hasn't gotten through to her office yet.

Ms. LaTour wants to make perfectly clear that she is not a lobbyist for the gambling industry, nor did she accept money from industry to conduct the study.

"I got a $3,000 grant from my college and we are going to publish it at the top consumer psychology journal," she said. "There has never been a study on gambling in this journal."

IGN's Take

While this study examined gambling behavior with a relatively new psychological tool, hatched by Harvard's Gerald Zaltman in the 1990s, the findings are not likely to be weaponized by politicians.

The sample size and qualitative nature of the research alone -- as opposed to pocket-sized, quote-ready quantitative statistics -- should preclude sweeping, miscalculated extrapolations like those witnessed during last month's markup for the Payment System Protection Act.

Though don't be surprised if, on the Hill, rumblings emerge regarding a "recent UNLV study that showed gambling online is more addictive than land-based gambling."

Christopher A. Krafcik | Editor | IGamingNews

Just What's in a Punter's Psyche? is republished from
Emily D. Swoboda
Emily D. Swoboda