February 4, 2018 by

Massachusetts Conducts Landmark Study of Gambling

A ground breaking study still in progress of gambling habits of citizens of the state of Massachusetts in the United States has already revealed important heretofore unknown information about gambling in general and problem gambling in particular according to Rachel Volberg, of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and the lead researcher of the study.

Human Nature at Work

Gambling has always been a major part of human activity.  As technology has made gambling easier for the average person, gambling activity has skyrocketed.  People have far more avenues for gambling than they did even a few generations ago.  Thus, this study, being conducted under the auspices of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, began in 2014.  The team issued its first report in December 2017.

Research

The study is officially named Massachusetts Gambling Impact Cohort Study or MAGIC.  The study parallels similar studies that have been conducted in other countries—primarily Sweden, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—that indicate that countries are concerned about rising problem gambling under their jurisdiction even as the countries become increasingly dependent on revenues generated by legal gambling to pay for the myriad expenditures of ever-growing governments.

The researches also point out that this is the first study of its kind to be conducted before any land based casinos become functional in a state.  As Massachusetts is a small state in a region of small states, the study found that competing casinos from neighboring states were accessed easily by Massachusetts residents so had an effect similar to the expected effect of casinos located in state.

The study uses the term “waves” to describe the time periods during which the study has been conducted.  One aspect of the study is to determine overall changes in gambling behavior from the start of the study to the present and also changes within the cohort from the start of the study until the end of the first wave and then from that point until the end of the second wave.

Scope and Findings

According to the report issued in December, MAGIC is the first such broad study of gambling to have been begun in the United States.  Its focus is on gambling practices before casinos were legalized in the state, increases or decreases in problem gambling as a result of increased access to gambling venues, and changes in gambling activities of the participants in the study during the three years from the inception of the study until the report in December of last year.

The study relies on participants reporting their own gambling activity.  The December report found two significant developments among the 3139 study participants.  The first is that they gambled more often on average during the initial period of the study than they had gambled prior to the onset of the study and that they gambled through the auspices of more gambling venues than they did when the study began.

The study found statistically significant increases in betting on horse racing and on gambling at casinos.

Problem Gambling

In addition to collecting raw data on overall gambling activity among a statistically sound cohort of Massachusetts residents, the study purports to be researching changes, if any, in problem gambling in the state.  It has found that about 2.4 % of gamblers in the study group show signs of problem gambling.

The researchers took pains to iterate that while 2.4% might not seem like a large number of problem gamblers, it is in fact a very high percentage and one that the researchers were not expecting to be as high as it is.  If 2.4 % problem gamblers is accurate it comes to tens of thousands across the state.

Impact

Given that the study is not charged merely with determining raw statistics but also to evaluate the impact of said statistics, the report discussed the societal ramifications of large-scale problem gambling for the people of Massachusetts generally.

In analyzing the unanticipated level of problem gambling, the team made connections between the larger number of gambling venues used by the cohort during the years from the start of the study until the issuance of the first report and the fact that few new gambling venues had opened in the state during the same time period.  The team concluding that external factors were likely contributory to the increase in gambling venues used, the incidence of individual gambling, and the surprising incidence of problem gambling found.

These external factors include:

  • The members of the cohort became more aware of gambling opportunities through news reports on many media.
  • Advertising from neighboring states that easily reached residents of Massachusetts.
  • The wide political movement to delegalize land based casinos in the state.  This movement pushed strongly a voter initiative to close land based casinos and advertising for the initiative may have had the opposite effect of introducing residents to the gambling opportunities in the state.
  • The spread of fantasy sports “leagues” in which participants play for money.

The study also found that casual or recreational gamblers were the most stable sub-cohort in the study.  In the first wave, there was a large sub-group of non-gamblers but many in this group “transitioned” to recreational gambling during the second wave.

Problem gamblers proved to be the most unstable sub-group in the study.  The study uses three definitions of problem gambling:

  • At-risk gambling
  • Problem gambling
  • Pathological gambling

At risk gambling is the stage where a gambler shows signs of a gambling problem but can also fairly easily transition to a low-risk level of activity.  Approximately half of the people who were problem gamblers in the first wave stayed problem gamblers in the second wave.  Once a gambler enters the defined problem gambler level, he or she could transition to a much worse level of gambling or to a much less dangerous level of gambling activity.  Some became pathological gamblers while some became recreational gamblers.

Future Implications

The researchers pointed out that the high incidence of “remission” from a dangerous gambling condition to recreational gambling means that the state could, possibly, contain the incidence of problem gambling by funneling resources into said containment.

The implications of this last point are added state staff to deal with gambling problems and additional taxes to generate the funds needed to address problem gambling.