Tag Archives: temptation

Bashing the bookies, nudging the high street

An inanimate object belonging to the Ladbrokes in Lavender Hill has apparently  become “a symbol of defiance” against last month’s English urban riots. The Ladbrokes riot proof plasma tv screen valiantly, but inanimately, stood up to the sustained onslaught of a number of looters trying to prise it from the wall, an incident captured by Sky News.

According to the Ladbrokes press release (11th August) :  “a group called ‘Ladbrokes don’t f*** about when it comes to TV brackets’, which swiftly gained over 45,000 followers, was created after footage was shown of looters being unable to detach the television screen from the wall of the company’s Lavendar Hill shop, despite up to three people using their whole body strength by hanging off it.

 The footage, and the TV itself, quickly became iconic as a symbol of defiance against the criminals, […] a poll […] of several thousand votes, more than half have suggested auctioning the television for charity. Other suggestions included installing a blue plaque, nominating it as an official 2012 Olympic Torch Bearer, and putting it forward to replace Boris Johnson as the next Mayor of London.

Ladbrokes in Hackney

Amongst all the footage of destruction and violence it was noticeable that the brand names of many high street bookmakers were to be seen bobbing around in the background imagery of that week. Bookmakers (in stark distinction from bookshops) were seemingly targets in the riots. According to one report by the 3rd day of rioting and looting over 50 betting shops in London were attacked with Ladbrokes alone confirming that over 20 of their shops had been subject to violence. In report after report from different locations where the violence flared up bookmakers are identified as amongst the victims of the rioting. Whether bookies were attacked in some act of revenge by disgruntled punters or by opportunists who expected to steal cash from safes and gaming machines or simply smashing them up because they, at that time in that place, felt they could is moot. But given the clustering of bookmakers in deprived areas (which even the Association of British Bookmakers recognises has occurred in “some limited inner city locations”) the numbers looted and smashed up is perhaps explained as much by their visibility in the community and their location along main thoroughfares as by business occupation.

Burnt out and trashed William Hill, Tottenham - picture by Alan Stanton, Flickr

It is this visibility, this presence, as part of a redesign of their urban landscape that concerns of some residents of Tottenham. As Mark rightly highlights the production of ‘debtogenic landscapes’ is not confined to less wealthy neighbourhoods. In an era where technology increases the reach of not only ambient gambling opportunities but also an ambient consumption culture and access to lines of credit we are all subject to temptation and at risk of spending beyond our means in favour of short term gratification. Mark draws our attention to the “risk of (admittedly unwittingly) constructing a kind of irrational underclass, who are somehow unable to resist the temptation to gamble” though I argue that recognising that risk it remains important we interrogate the ways poverty and marginality play into the capital accumulation strategies of the wealthy.

High street shopping in the UK has declined as a result of the economic downturn, growth of internet shopping, the downsizing of national retail and banking chains and the diversification of supermarket trading into non-food sectors. Surveys by the Local Data Company and Ordnance Survey this year demonstrate increasing numbers of premises becoming vacant with building societies, pubs, estate agents and recruitment agencies all seeing dramatic falls in numbers since 2007 [NB: the data was disputed by building societies and bookies, nevertheless that high street vacancies are increasing is a finding in numerous surveys]. With the filling in of some of these sites, particularly in less wealthy districts by bookmakers, discount shops, charity shops and pawnbrokers the architecture and landscape of the high street has been changing and changing fast.

Like Mark I recently took a stroll down Tottenham High Road, this was before the riots. It was striking how obvious the clustering of betting shops there really is (there are 38 in the area). Popping in to a couple of bookies in Tottenham their function as leisure sites, as places for entertainment, social interaction and banter was obvious, as was their function as siphons of money from individuals, families and communities. However, Tottenham or Haringey Borough is illustrative rather than exceptional. Where Tottenham High Road has fifteen betting shops on it, Deptford has ten on or close to the High Street, Luton High Street has eight etc. And activists point to the lack of similar expansion into wealthier neighbourhoods. For example according to the Ladder Community Safety Partnership (representing neighbourhood watches and residents associations in Harringay) there is a clear targeting of betting shops “in the poorer areas of the borough and those with a known demographic which is more likely to gamble”. As a result the sixty six betting shops in the borough are clustered in much higher numbers (85%) in the poorer wards than in the wealthier ones (like Muswell Hill and Highgate). Similarly Hackney has 64 betting shops where again “a mapping of the location of these shops reveals that they cluster in the poorer areas of the borough”.

But the truths about bookies in the high street are contested. That they are a prominent element of contemporary urban architecture is not, but the extent to which this represents an exploitative expansion of gambling outlets or a relocation of business to markets where “demand is high” is. From the gambling industry side the case is far from clear:

  • overall numbers of bookies remains fairly static at about just under 9,000 with a number of (mainly independent) bookmakers going out of business,
  • the industry is in the midst of a period of reorganisation and takeovers and consolidation,
  • punters in the main make small manageable bets with only a few running into problems,
  • and the shift in revenue generation from over the counter betting to gaming machines (with over 30,000 ‘B2’ category machines – where you can bet upto £100 a game – they now account for over 50% of revenue) has changed both the costs and customer base for betting shops making competition for available gaming machine ‘punters’ fierce – hence the clustering (as Adi Smith describes in his reply to Mark below).

On the other side there are many community and political activists worried about:

  • the normalisation and penetration of gambling behaviours within their communities,
  • the proliferation of betting shops into communities that contain concentrations of vulnerable people and the gambling related harm that results,
  • and the wider context of a hollowing out and redesigning of welcoming vibrant community spaces – the local high street.

Now the location of things is a key component of the nudge mantra (fruit in school canteens for example). As Thaler and Sunstein note “the arrangement of settings is important to the choices consumers make. Behavior can be greatly influenced by small changes in the context. And the influence can be exercised for better or for worse” (LA Times, April 2nd 2008).

Until the 2005 Act all gambling in this country operated under the notion of “unstimulated demand” (i.e gambling was legal in particular places and could be offered as something people could do, but gambling companies could do nothing to encourage people to gamble, like advertise or allow the public to look in through their windows). One of the consequences of this was that betting shops had to demonstrate a local demand for their services. With the passing of the 2005 Act the ‘demand test’ was removed from legal consideration in the licensing of betting shops. This, coupled with the quirks of planning legislation – the so called Town and Country Planning (Use Classes Order) (1987) which allows change of use between betting shops, banks, estate and employment agencies, and financial service companies without requirement for planning permission – in effect has made it difficult for local authorities or local communities to refuse or influence the relocation of betting shops on the high street.

So under the current planning and licensing system the betting companies find themselves in the position of one of many choice architects in the design of the ‘debtogenic’ urban landscape, notably in economically disadvantaged areas. However, this may change.

Firstly, the DCMS Select Committee launched an inquiry into the implementation and operation of the Gambling Act 2005 back in May. Written representations by community groups have emphasised the clustering and demand test issues. And Joan Ruddock MP for Lewisham Deptford introduced a Private Members Bill in July to make betting shops subject to planning permission, reintroduce the “demand test” as well as allow local planning authorities to put a cap on the numbers allowed in an area.

The location of betting shops has become a highly politicised issue, one which pits Labour against Liberal and Conservative ideologies.

Conservative and Liberal MP’s generally didn’t support David Lammy’s earlier attempt to introduce a similar piece of legislation into the Localism Bill and there is little to suggest they will in January when Ruddock’s Bill gets a second reading.

But, if I might be forgiven for oversimplification, it seems that in the gambling debate larger ideological divisions in the way behaviour should be regulated or nudged are revealed. For example economic liberal and libertarian politicians seem to locate pathological problems that manifest in individuals (in this case associated with gambling) as lying with the individual, not their social context. Hence intervention should be limited and targeted at the body not the social body, which sits well with an emphasis on behavioural economic logics. Left of centre or progressive politicians seem to see such problems as being one in which context contributes to individual pathology which in turn produces a social harm necessitating the intervention of the state to both minimise social harm and change the context. The subtleties of ‘behaviour change’ techniques sit less comfortably with big thinking and a presumption of bigger government. Quite how behaviour change or nudge discourses are enrolled into the way the gambling issue is going to be debated in coming months will prove interesting.

Marc, Sept 2011


A dollar won is twice as sweet as a dollar earned

So said Paul Newman as pool player Fast Eddie Felson in the 1980s movie ‘The Color of Money’. Fast Eddie was referring to playing a game of skill but the truism in there about the sensation of winning, of beating the odds, sums up the allure of gambling.

Gambling, or ‘gaming’ as it has been rebranded, is the ultimate exemplar of an entire industry predicated on the assumptions of behavioural economics.

Gambling is inherently irrational. You choose to gamble to win. Yet the thrill comes with knowing there’s a real chance of losing, that you pit yourself either against other people or ‘lady luck’. Indeed that thrill is at the heart of gambling and the reason many of us do it again and again even when we are losing believing it is just a ‘streak of bad luck’ and ‘bound to change’ at some point (the gamblers fallacy). The pattern of neurological stimulation that gambling engenders can be habit forming, even addictive. There are the rituals and build up to the gambling event, the tension rising as, suddenly, … ‘they’re off!’ … the ball spinning round and round before imperceptibly it begins to roll slower and slower until … the last card is drawn … the die is cast… the share price is fixed … the last scratch on the card made … and the outcome rests in the hands of fate. Will the climax be a flush of elation or the flop of failure? That release when the games outcome is finally known can be intoxicating!

Indeed an entire multibillion dollar gambling industry exists that is based on these most irrational of decisions – you hand over your money to someone else on the promise that if something extremely improbable was to happen, like the roulette ball landing in the number you have chosen and not one of the other 36 it could have done, then you would get more cash back. In terms of ‘nudging’ gambling provides a brilliant example of an industrial choice architecture that encourages people to do something completely irrational and against their own best interests, to seek out risk against the odds in a system designed to ensure the house does not loose. And because gambling has long been considered a potential social vice leading to excessive risk taking, government has also long sought to regulate it (for example in bacchanalian Rome and paternalist Victorian Britain).

These debates have often been bound up with conceptions of competence and class, that some categories of people (for Victorian patricians this was the ‘working classes’) are more prone to giving in to their vices and need protecting from themselves. More recently government has sought to even turn vice into virtue by legitimising some forms of gambling and positively encouraging its conversion to ‘gaming’ (a form of mass entertainment) through directing the profits of gambling to providing social goods through taxation of gambling profits and more recently the National Lottery.

Now behavioural economics suggests ways of interpreting and even explaining people’s gambling behaviours. It points to the way people proportionately discount distant rewards in the future more than those that are nearer (termed hyberbolic discounting). In other words, in making choices we will tend to choose imminent smaller rewards and immediate gratification over greater deferred ones. This ‘shortsighted brain’, as Natasha Schull and Caitlin Zaloom (2011) describes future discounting, sits at the heart of the problems of liberal governance – how do we tackle climate change or personal investment in pensions when we choose behaviours that reward us now, when our supposedly rational brain reaches irrational conclusions? Because in addition to future discounting we also overestimate the probability of winning or have an over confident belief in our skill than is actually the case. If we can impose an illusion of control on our gambling, for example by releasing the dice ourselves or timing the press of the button ‘just right’, we can manufacture a fiction that somehow we are playing the slot machine rather than the machine playing us. We tend to emphasise our victories and small successes and loose sight of the losses. Similarly we believe that some numbers are ‘lucky’, that in playing a game of chance a pattern is present behind the randomness. So we stick to ‘our’ lottery numbers and bet repeatedly on those numbers for fear that if we change them our investment in them will have been wasted.

Significantly the gambling industry knows all this. It is designing ever more sophisticated apparatus to help people spend their money or time; be it in banks of multi-line slot machines, Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, increasing online and mobile means of making ever more diverse types of bet, the development of ‘player tracking systems’ that monitor players’ preferences, play style, wins and losses, spending across gaming platforms and gaming locations, allowing gambling corporations to better target resources to extracting that cash, appealing to massively differentiated gaming markets (social bingo, solitary poker) – and all embedded in immersive real and virtual environments that stimulate and satiate the punter in equal measure. In exchange the punter is entertained. They may experience the thrill of the win, however small it may be, however much rationally they know that the house always wins in the end. Seemingly we are content to pay out £5.7 billion per year* for this neurological stimulation.

So in a real sense the gambling industry has been a laboratory of behavioural economics for decades, indeed millennia. More recently the way in which it operates has leapt into the 21st century the sites of gambling given a makeover, the machines and software mentioned above found in betting shops, bingo halls and increasingly in the living room.  At the same time the logic of behavioural economics is also informing the way policies are developed to limit or ameliorate the potential harm of ‘gambling gone bad’ to individuals and society. In the UK this has mainly been through the practice of self-exclusion, where punters voluntarily exclude themselves from gambling places (real and online) for a fixed period of time to try and get their habit under control. But the gaming industry and regulators have also seen the potential for technology, particularly in the online world, to increase the nudgeability of people to police themselves. For example online industry best practice includes mechanisms for age verification, ‘reality checks’ and the use of ‘defaults’ such as time and deposit limits to ensure gambling remains gaming, reminders that require players to acknowledge how long they have been playing and confirm they wish to continue, and an ability to self-exclude.

Screen Capture 07-11-11

The internet and the rise of ‘social gaming’ has meant not only is ‘real gambling’ now more available in more places, (the development of mobile apps to enable sports betting and mobile casino gaming on the move makes it available in all places at all times), but increasingly people can play risk free ‘simulated gambling’ games at any age. Simulated gambling has long been a means of promoting products; from collecting cards and bottle tops to win prizes in the 20th century to texting a code from a drinks can or getting a Monopoly scratch card on your burger box. While it is tempting to look at online gambling as the most obvious growth market and means for normalising gambling as an everyday social activity if we look around us we see it has become much more pervasive than that. In today’s consumer culture such marketing and social network based gambling really is everywhere, a supplementary tool for increasing sales and promoting brand loyalty, a background habit to our virtual lives. Indeed ‘social gaming’ on websites like Facebook has increasingly tapped into the demand for simulated gambling with games such as Zynga Poker, online ‘slots’ machines, and scratchcards all prominently promoted. These are games you can play for free in a limited manner or use your credit card to purchase additional ‘credits’, where you are not playing to win money but to win more credits or to progress in the game. Quite how that embedding of ‘gambling as gaming’ into the social lives of us all is changing our relationship to gambling and the space-times of our own decision making is surely a question we would do well to begin asking.

* the Gross Gambling Yield of the gambling industry as calculated by the Gambling Commission’s Industry Statistics 2009/10.

Marc Welsh

Clocky and soft paternalist time

Meet Clocky. Clocky is a new type of alarm clock that has been specifically designed to ensure that you can no longer just ignore your morning wake-up call. As with all alarm clocks, you set Clocky before you go to bed: the difference is that come morning time you cannot simply turn Clocky off, roll over, and return to your repose.  This is because Clocky uses it wheels to throw itself off your bedside table, run away and hide. You thus have to reluctantly get out of bed and search for Clocky before it can be  turned off. It is hoped that by the time you have gone through this process of early morning exercise you are much less likely to return to bed and oversleep your alarm!

Clocky is part of a growing array of technologies and techniques that are now being used throughout the world to nudge people into making better and more productive decisions. As with deciding on a responsible time to get up in the morning the night before, we often find that when  people have time to reflect upon what is the best course of action they make fairly sensible decisions. Problems are said to occur, however, when time is tight, emotions are running high, or we are really enjoying a lie-in.


Thorntons and the corporate nudge

I had the expectation that the Easter vacation would probably enable me to escape well-intention nudges towards my eating habits – it is, after all, a time for the indulgent consumption of all things sweet! I was thus surprised (actually not all that surprised) to find some very interesting corporate nudging on my young daughter’s Thorntons “Girls Gift Parcel”.

On top of the box, which tantalizingly contained White Chocolate Buttons (40g), Milk Chocolate Buttons (40g), Milk Chocolate Raisins (40g) and Vanilla Fudge Cubes (40g), was a small picture of tooth bush brandishing mouse. The smiling mouse rather annoyingly states, “I know to brush my teeth twice a day!” As a parent, I have to admit that it is reassuring to think that every time my daughter reaches for a milk chocolate raisin or a fudge cube that she will be reminded of the importance to brushing her teeth.

But the cynic in me couldn’t help looking at thing differently. Isn’t it slightly strange that a chocolatier is promoting dental care? Isn’t this a little like McDonalds placing a statement on a Big Mac that reads “Ronald knows the importance of a healthy and balanced diet – and, by the way, you wouldn’t get anything remotely resembling that inside this box!”

My point is that when corporations nudge, it often serves to ethically cleanse their product of the potential damage it is doing to you. Perhaps an alternative strategy would be to supply information on the role of chocolate in accelerating dental decay. In addition, Thorntons’ teeth cleaning campaign feels somewhat patronizing when you are a parent – children know they should clean their teeth, getting then to actually do it is a different thing entirely. In a rather selfless act of hard paternalism I have thus been protecting my daughter’s teeth by assisting her consumption of her Easter chocolate mountain.


The maternal state: the gendered politics of soft paternalism

stilletto by eatmorechips@flikrIs the state becoming too much like your nanny? Does it act like your dad or more like your uncle? Does it tell you what to do, protect you from harm, or nurture you just like a mother? Which familial figure should the state aspire to be in relation to the cultivation of citizens and the appropriate extent of government regulation?

The justifications for libertarian paternalism are sometimes based on insights from highly gendered accounts of human behaviour derived from behavioural economics, popular psychology and neuroscience. The Cabinet Office discussion paper, Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour: the state of knowledge and its implications for public policy (2004) seeks political justification for this new form of governing from a rather narrow range of psychological and neuroscientific theories.  Insights from feminist psychology, political theory, and philosophy are notably absent.

In a recent publication from the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce (RSA), for example, an excerpt from Jonah Lehrer’s New York Times bestseller, The Decisive Moment (2009) is accompanied by a garish full-page illustration of a stiletto, embedded with metaphors of conspicuous consumption, vice and unclean living – make-up, perfume, cigarettes, mobile phones, cocktails, credit cards and baby bottles [!?].  In describing the division between reason and feeling ‘proven’ by the new neurosciences and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technologies, Lehrer deploys a sexualised discourse of temptation, impulsiveness, indulgence and enticement to account for the way in which the ‘emotional brain’ fools the rational mind into increasingly damaging levels of debt.

Whilst feminists have somewhat rejected the need for a ‘theory of the state’ as a blunt and abstract instrument, unpacking the concept of the state and its practices of governing from a feminist perspective is an important task. Questioning the claims of the ‘new neurosciences’ and the appeal to popular psychology and business innovation literature is an equally pressing concern, where state policies are being designed around novel messages from this work.  As feminist sociologist of science, Hilary Rose has pointed out, understanding the social context of consciousness has been a critical oversight of the neurobiological approach.  Others have challenged common interpretations of neuroscientists such as Damasio and LeDoux where the importance of pre-cognitive and automated modes of thinking is inflated, particularly where such authors are used to derive political projects in cultural theory and human geography (Papoulias and Callard, 2010).


From the nanny state to the avuncular state?

Recent political debates have focused on the importance of shaping personal behaviours, and governing so-called poor moral conduct. Healthy eating, anti-binge drinking, smoking and obesity campaigns; personal pensions default options and carbon offsetting initiatives are all examples of the increasing currency of ‘soft paternalism’ as a novel form of government. As an article in The Economist noted in 2006, a new kind of self-restricting governing has been emerging where people are ‘nudged’ in particular directions. This is not a ‘nanny knows best’ kind of paternalism, but a more avuncular spirit by which people are encouraged to govern their own temptations.

nudge by dominiccampbell@flikr