Interview with Peter Ferentzy, PhD (Part 3 of 5)

 SBO.net interview with Peter Ferentzy, Ph. D, about gambling addiction, changes and trends within the gambling world. (Part 3 of 5)

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ONLINE GAMBLING: PRESENT AND FUTURE TRENDS

SBO.net: You mentioned earlier about new trends developing, that gambling has not changed very much recently, and the big change as far as you’re concerned took place in 1990s.

Peter Ferentzy: Yeah, yeah, I think the biggest change perhaps is the online access.

So you can play your life savings away, your college, your kid’s college fund away without even leaving your bedroom.  You can do it all on the computer.

SBO.net: But when you look at online gambling, the losses are actually the lowest amount.

Peter Ferentzy: Yes, yes.

SBO.net: Do you see it as a future problem, online gambling, or is it a problem that’s already there or is it no more so a problem than any other form of gambling?

Peter Ferentzy: It’s no more a problem than any other form of gambling.  It’s just one more thing that people can partake in, but, you know, the way that things play out online sometimes will mimic in a comical fashion things that have been going on in land-based venues. I’ll give you an example. In the old days, if you were running something that was semi-legal or illegal, say you were running a brothel, gangsters might, say, make trouble for you and then offer you protection from this trouble, and as long as you pay them they will ‘protect you’, okay?  They’re shaking you down.  If you’re running a semi-legal or illegal gambling operation online, somebody who’s good at computers might send a few viruses your way, interfere with your business, stopping you cold, and then offer you protection from these assaults in exchange for money, in the exact same fashion people are being shaken down online.

SBO.net: In Norway, they have it that the bank has to have a limit, or they’re not allowed to use their cards, Norwegian citizens, in a casino, and in the United States of America you also have a lot of barriers to people if they want to gamble.  Do you think that’s a good idea, or is that just causing more problems in terms of feeding people’s addictions?

Peter Ferentzy: I think that some of the barriers are good.  I don’t like the prohibitory mindset, but, you know, in North America, I don’t even know if this is the case in Europe, but all over North America, you can get a second or third mortgage on your home right next door to the casino.

And also when you have these gaming machines inside pubs, somebody can walk in there and be controlled and not have a problem, but after he’s had six, seven pints he might get stupid, so controlling things like that I would advocate.

SBO.net: But in terms of the online media, do you think they’re nearly losing their ability to minimize the harm by ignoring the problem?

It’s, yeah, well, it’s a new kind of technology, and it’s a new kind of challenge.  I remember when I was studying, doing a study of organized crime and gambling, one problem was identifying location.  If gambling is illegal, say, where you are, you’re in Ireland?

SBO.net: Yes.

Peter Ferentzy: Let’s say, that I’ve got an online casino happening here in Toronto.  You play at my casino, did that bet take place in Ireland or in Canada?

See, there’s a legal issue here, and the law in many ways has to catch up with these new technologies.

SBO.net: So, what do you think would be a good solution for governments to face online gambling problems effectively?

Peter Ferentzy: I think it’s, I don’t look to a solution with a capital ‘S’.  I see it as a problem that we are going to struggle with and manage to the best of our abilities.  Sometimes we’ll fail miserably, sometimes we will succeed wonderfully, most of the time it will be somewhere in-between those extremes.  I don’t see a bidding solution, I don’t see a huge catastrophe around the corner.  Gambling has been around a lot longer than the internet.  People were losing their shirts, so that isn’t new.

SBO.net: Would it be better if they have, I mean, is there any sort of harm reduction in place that you would approve of and think that there should be more money or more resources put into?

Peter Ferentzy: Well, yes.  Many gamblers aren’t ready to quit, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help them curtail their gambling.  Some people do put limits on themselves with varying degrees of success.  One good one is to go to, is to make sure that when you go to a casino you have a certain amount of money on you but you leave all your plastic at home.  Of course, that doesn’t stop you from hopping into your car, going home, getting your plastic and then coming back, but things like that do, over time, amount to less damage.

SBO.net: Yeah, that’s positive.  Remember the feeling of how you felt when you went and you came back and then proceeded to lose all your money again if you did.

Peter Ferentzy: There is that. One of the funny things about gambling is that so many of the problem gamblers I interviewed identified a big win as their downfall.  They gambled just like any other normal person, here and there, now and then, but one day they got lucky or they thought they were lucky.  They won a huge amount of money in very little time and after that the bug bit them, and that’s when their life started to fall apart.

SBO.net: And why would you think that is?

Peter Ferentzy: Well, I think that somebody is affected by, if you were to win €40,000 overnight, it might affect you.  You did it once, now there’s a part of you that’s dying to do it again.  The elation associated with a huge win can be devastating.

Then a process can kick in. What happens often to gamblers is that they lose a lot of money.  Now they’re in debt.  The only way they see themselves as getting out of debt is by gambling more. Then they’re in even deeper. Then they get even more desperate, so it’s a process that can feed on itself, like the snowball rolling down a hill.

SBO.net: Would you say a big win could have an effect on the actual psychological process of the person who’s experienced that big win?

Peter Ferentzy: Yeah. The big win will have a psychological effect. The actual brain functions, if you pursue something compulsively for a long time, your brain will rewire itself, and here’s one good way to help understand addiction: the brain is much better at learning things than it is at unlearning.  You learn your way into a maladaptive behaviour, but that doesn’t mean that you can learn your way out as easily.  Try, for example, to unlearn the English language.  You couldn’t do it.  Our brains were designed to learn things, not to unlearn, and if you have learned your way into a bad habit, unlearning is a huge challenge.

SBO.net: So how would you start about trying to, would you replace it or-?

Peter Ferentzy: Well, replacement, replacing it with something else is often good.  Spirituality is a big one.  A lot of people find God.  You know, ‘I used to be all messed up on dope, now I’m all messed up on the Lord’ is quite common.  Finding some, finding another activity that gives you a high, that if, even if that high doesn’t equal your drug high or your gambling high, at least it can match it.  A lot of people get clean in response to commitments.  Tons of people give up their addictions when they have children, something that you value even more than that high, incentives such as that.

NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT

SBO.net: Then is pathological gambling effectively somebody just learning bad habits the same way as if somebody is very sensitive, say, and they were bullied when they were younger, they might tend to lash out at people as their defence?

Peter Ferentzy: Yes, it’s similar, yes.  It’s similar, yes.  Actually it’s good to look at positive and negative reinforcement.  There are so many ways to explain addiction I don’t even know where to start, but here’s two points.  Negative reinforcement appoints on the assumption that something is missing in you.  If you are prone to an addictive behaviour, alcoholism, pathological gambling, something like that, you are deficient, you are wounded somehow.  You are more stressed out than you should be, maybe for genetic, maybe for psychological reasons, but something is missing, and you compensate by taking the drug or by gambling, and then for the first time in a long time, perhaps the first time in your life, you feel at peace, as though all of that pain that you’ve been carrying has been taken away, so you keep it up.  That’s negative reinforcement.  The idea is that addictions are a response to something negative, something missing inside you.

Positive reinforcement models are a little bit different.  It’s the idea that take a perfectly natural function, sexual desire, the desire to eat – excuse me – a perfectly natural function is pushed farther and then it goes awry and then it carries you with it.  That’s another way of understanding addictions, and if you’re asking me which one’s better, I’d say they’re both better, and I’d say that in most cases a combination of these two will interact in any one person, although in some people there are definitely, the negative reinforcement can be identified, for instance, if your substance abuse was a response to childhood abuse, that helps us.  We can see why.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MALE AND FEMALE GAMBLERS

SBO.net: I probably just misunderstood this there, but would all pathological gamblers, would that be positive reinforcement, because they’re looking for the win?

Peter Ferentzy: Perhaps, perhaps, but it could be negative reinforcement in the sense that you feel a deficiency, you feel a lack, you’re in pain when you’re not gambling.  You’re gambling to kill the pain, or you’re stressed.  You’ve got this horrible feeling, and gambling helps you get out of it.  It can be a very defensive posture, even if the person looks like he’s being aggressive, although there is a huge gender divide among the gamblers that I’ve interviewed.  Women are far more likely to identify escape.  Interviewed them, “Why did you start to gamble, why did you gamble?” “To get away from my husband, to get away from the kids.”  Escape kind of answers came more frequently from the women.  Men were more like to say, “Because I wanted to feel like I took a shot,” so there was a distinction between the escape gambler and the actual gambler.

SBO.net: Women could be perceived as being more, about community and networking and they work better in other environments, and men, tend to be more withdrawn?

Peter Ferentzy: Perhaps, perhaps.  But it’s funny because women are more likely to play slots, which is a very solo activity.  Men are more likely to shoot craps, which involves competing with others, so I’m not sure.  It would really depend.  Now, we’re getting into very person-specific designations and details here.  I don’t want to generalize.

SBO.net: Why do you think more women are gambling now?

Peter Ferentzy: That’s a nice simple reason: the proliferation of legal gambling venues.  Women were far less comfortable going to a card game controlled by gangsters.  Even the race track was a little bit shady, kind of rough and tumble.  Casinos are nice and civilized.

SBO.net: You reckoned earlier it’s nearly 50-50 female to male gambling.

Peter Ferentzy: Getting there, yes.

SBO.net: Getting there.  Do you think then it could be, well, I suppose there’s no way to know, but do you think that the casinos are concentrating on women at the moment, or is it just their concentrating-.

Peter Ferentzy: No, no, the casinos are concentrating on more middle class people, anybody who was from a so-called more respectable segment, you know, the kind of person who wouldn’t want to go a card game run by gangsters, the kind of person who isn’t comfortable.  You know, the casinos are marketing to John Q. Public, people with respectable jobs, schoolteachers, everybody like that.

And here’s something that might interest you: in substance abuse there’s long been a phenomena known as telescoping.

We don’t know exactly why, although we can theorize, but it’s a fact that when it comes to, let’s say, becoming a drunkard, women typically start at later ages, but their addiction progresses more quickly.  A man might start drinking hard and heavy when he’s 18 and be a full-blown alcoholic at the age of 30.

A woman might start at 25 but also become a full-blown alcoholic by the age of 30.  Women start later but their addiction progresses more quickly.

That’s been well known in substance abuse for a long time and we found the same phenomena to be true for gambling.  Women typically start later, but the addiction will progress more quickly.  We don’t know why, but it’s true for drunkards, it’s true for cocaine users, and it’s also true for gamblers.

ALZHEIMERS AND GAMBLING

SBO.net: What is interesting, I heard an interview before with a clinical psychologist who, I don’t know if you’ve heard this, said that with people with Alzheimer’s medication has been linked to elderly people developing gambling problems.

Peter Ferentzy: I’ve heard bits and pieces of rumours about that, but I don’t know much about it.

SBO.net: Okay.

Peter Ferentzy: And remember too that association doesn’t always equal causation, so sometimes two things happen together, but that doesn’t mean that they caused it.  They might appear with a high number of people at the same time for reasons that are not related.

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