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The Responsible Gambling Council (RGC) is an independent non-profit organization dedicated to problem gambling prevention.

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Is Myth Busting an Effective Tool for Prevention?

by Barry Koen-Butt, Director of Awareness Programs and Communications | Jun 22, 2012 01:46 PM

Newscan (Vol. 14, Issue 24)

In many of the prevention programs at RGC, we attempt to dispel myths and challenge beliefs to help people make better decisions if they choose to gamble. Myth busting is problematic, though, because not all beliefs are created equal. It’s one thing to show that slot machine venues can’t adjust slot payouts on the fly—and quite another to challenge beliefs that are based in culture, religion or superstition.

Beliefs are valuable because they help us navigate life. It’s our way of organizing the world around us. Peoples’ values and beliefs are the foundation of their identity. This is why we must respect people’s beliefs even as we prepare to challenge them.

Freud said, “He does not believe that does not live according to his belief.” In other words, strongly held beliefs lead to actions, and it is at this point that beliefs can become problematic—if they lead to unhealthy choices and behaviours. As reported in RGC’s Insight 2010: Informed Decision Making, “Misperceptions around the ability to control or predict a gambling outcome tend to be the most pervasive cognitive distortions and underlie many other common myths.” Examples of this include the belief that—on an electronic gaming machine—the more you play, the closer you are to a win; or the near-win illusion when the reels almost line up. More generally, cultural beliefs or personal beliefs in fate or determinism make our key message around randomness difficult for some players to accept. The fact is: the odds of winning a lottery can be as high as 17 million to one but you’ll still hear, “… but someone has to win.”

What about the so-called “skill game”?

The so-called skill game players also have their fair share of beliefs that are reinforced within the culture of the game, such as the belief that cards fall in predictable patterns or that gambling is a good way to make money.

The Alberta Gambling Research Institute reported in 2010 that one in 10 Ontarians agreed with the statement: “Playing poker is a good way to earn extra money.” This number increases to one in five for poker players. “For many hard-core poker players, challenging their beliefs around the game is tantamount to asking them to change their religion,” says Jon Kelly, CEO of RGC.

And what happens when these beliefs are reinforced by someone’s big win? That’s what people remember, not the losses that happened before or after.

A focus on behaviour rather than belief

Rather than focusing on beliefs, it can be effective to focus on behavioural change. “Changing a gambling behaviour around is a lot quicker, rather than changing a belief when people are at greatest risk,” says Janine Robinson of the Problem Gambling Institute at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. “People began wearing seatbelts in their cars long before they believed the belts saved lives.”

So what is the lesson? Are we to just avoid all discussion of beliefs? Well, at times, that can be right. We can move past the myth discussion and give people tips on behaviour rather than try to change their beliefs. Essentially, one size doesn’t fit all. Those of us in the prevention business must ensure that our tactics are varied and tailored to reach the most people. We must constantly re-think our communications strategies and remember that myth busting is a valuable prevention tool—but it is just one among many.