Nudge reader Rachel Volberg is a sociologist and head of Gemini Research, where she has looked at gambling addictions for more than 20 years. Naturally, she was most intrigued by the parts of Nudge about gambling self-ban programs, where problem gamblers ask states to put their names on a list that bars them from entering a casino. These programs, she explained, are much more widespread than just the three states mentioned in the book. Volberg kindly offered to share some thoughts about the effectiveness of these programs and how to improve them.
As a gambling researcher, I was struck by the mention of gambling self-bans in Chapter 16 of Nudge. In addition to the three states mentioned in the book—Illinois, Indiana and Missouri—self-exclusion programs (as they are generally called) have been introduced in other states, including Connecticut, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada and New Jersey. Self-exclusion programs also operate in several European countries including the Netherlands and Switzerland (where the programs are mandatory rather than voluntary), in New Zealand, in all of the Canadian provinces and in several Australian states, most notably Queensland and Victoria.
Given their widespread adoption, shockingly little research has been done to evaluate the effectiveness of self-exclusion programs or to identify what works best. Policymakers have enthusiastically adopted these programs, but by getting too far ahead of the research, they risk trumpeting claims they cannot support.
Only 15 academic articles and government reports have been published on self-exclusion. The most thorough study was completed last year by the Responsible Gambling Council (RGC) of Ontario: this effort included a review of the available literature, a survey of all the Canadian self-exclusion programs, focus groups with individuals who had self-excluded, interviews with self-exclusion program administrators, and a two-day forum of international experts that included regulators, operators, service providers, researchers, and policy makers.
Despite the lack of empirical evidence, the RGC report identified some trends in the evolution of self-exclusion programs. Increasingly, the self-exclusion process is defined as one that provides assistance to individuals rather than punishes them for bad behavior. The notion that all self-exclusions should involve a compulsory lifetime ban has given way to the idea that self-excluders should be offered bans of varying length, from six months to several years. Better links are developing between gambling venues, where people typically register for a self-ban, and specialist treatment programs so that self-excluders who recognize that they have a gambling problem have a better chance of getting the help they need.
While self-exclusion programs are moving in new directions, there remains considerable room for improvement. Self-exclusion programs need to be promoted more aggressively so that gamblers will know that they exist. There also needs to be much better regulatory oversight of these programs and clear penalties for both operators and self-excluders who do not follow the rules.
There is a need for greater clarity about the responsibilities of operators to detect self-excluders and of self-excluders who often breach their agreements and then fault the operators for not preventing them from gambling. There is the question of whether, and how, self-exclusion bans can cover all of the gambling venues in a jurisdiction. Finally, there is the issue of how to better manage the process when a self-ban ends, perhaps with mandatory education or an active (rather than the usual passive) reinstatement process.
However, given the dearth of information that is available, perhaps what is really needed is a good feedback and disclosure system that would finally generate some data to tell policymakers, regulators, operators and gamblers themselves how well or poorly self-exclusion programs are doing. As a viable nudge, this one is still in the early stages.