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A Pitch for Concrete Prevention Messages

by Jon Kelly, CEO | Dec 14, 2012 12:00 PM

Newscan (Vol 14, Issue 49)

There was a really interesting article in the Globe and Mail on December 4 about older people and their vulnerability to con artists. In essence the story reported research out of the University of California that discovered a specific part of the brain called the anterior insula that helps people judge trustworthiness. The researchers found that this part of the brain is less active among older people, causing them to miss cues, particularly facial cues, that are signs of deception. This helps explain why a person of 40 would become immediately sceptical about a deal that is too good to be true – the $50 diamond ring or the free trip to Nassau for attending a seminar — but the person who is 75 may be more easily deceived.

Perhaps more importantly, the researcher goes on to suggest that advice to people of all ages needs to be concrete and specific. “Hang up on phone solicitations and pushy sales people and free lunch seminars offering investment pitches.” It is not that all such things are scams or frauds but rather that the best advice is, “if your brain isn’t helping you to make discriminations then it is better not to make them.”

This article made me draw parallels with faulty cognitions about gambling. Some people come to gambling with impairments. That could mean brain anomalies, the effects of certain drugs or even strongly held myths. For people with such impairments it seems likely that intellectual arguments or advice that requires introspection will have limited efficacy. So why not take on the behaviour directly? Why not recommend a specific course of action rather than a new way of thinking or change of belief?

Maybe our messages need to be more concrete. For example, instead of saying, “don’t gamble when you are upset,” it may be better to say, “you need to take a break from gambling when you are going through a rough patch in life, like a divorce, a death of someone close to you or a job loss,” The latter approach does not require the individual to analyse his/her state of mind.

The alcohol sector has already adopted this approach. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t drink while pregnant. Don’t have more than 14 drinks a week. They don’t ask people to assess whether they are using alcohol to escape from problems. They don’t ask people to change their belief that it’s really the Coke that causes the headache and not the rum.

My colleague here at RGC, Jamie Wiebe, told me about a recent experience in Barcelona. The government wanted to warn people about the dangers of pickpockets. Instead of warning people to be careful or to watch out for their surroundings, the campaign gave specific advice. “Stay away from anyone trying to sell you flowers.” This advice requires no analysis or self-reflection. It requires no change in beliefs – just a change in behaviour.

The same approach could work on the gaming floor. Very often we hear of the difficulty gaming staff have when trying to assess problematic behaviours that may indicate a gambling problem. Very often instructions are not clear or require too much analysis. Gaming staff need concrete instructions: “If you see this – do that.” That is, advise your supervisor or record the behaviour in this database.

I think it may be time to focus our prevention messaging on fewer and more concrete pieces of information. Don’t borrow money to gamble. If you take money from an ATM, resist the temptation to go back a second time. If you NEED to win, you NEED to stop.

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