DUCKWORTH: Well, look, it’s not my chief beef.
DUBNER: Chief beef? What is your chief beef?
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: Is gambling driven by greed?
DUCKWORTH: What is greed? It’s wanting more and never feeling satisfied.
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DUBNER: Angela, you and I were talking recently offline, and you had taken note of the rather rapid rise of legal sports betting in the U.S., especially through apps like FanDuel and DraftKings
DUCKWORTH: Yeah I’m inferring that from just seeing these advertisements like all the time. Jason watches basketball and stuff and it’s like, holy smokes, what is going on?
DUBNER: Yeah, they are out there and we can talk about that. But you also mentioned a book — I think it was written around 2012 by a cultural anthropologist named Natasha Dow Schüll. It was called Addiction by Design, and it talks about how slot machines in particular induce a state of flow. And then I think what happened in our conversation is you put two and two together and we were also thinking about this series we’ve been doing on the seven deadly sins. And you wondered aloud to me whether the so-called sin of greed fits into this — the degree to which gambling, or gaming, may be driven by greed. Is that about right so far, what I’ve said?
DUCKWORTH: That is correct, and it’s making me feel kind of greedy because I took up the space of a No Stupid Questions listener and put my own question in here.
DUBNER: No, no, no. That’s a different deadly sin. That’s the guilt sin. So I’m curious what your take is on that — the connection between gambling and greed. And I have a feeling that mine is going to be very different from yours, but I want to know yours. Let’s start there.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I don’t actually think that gambling and greed are as related as it might seem. And I do think there’s a relation, which is why I brought up gambling in the first place. Like you gamble to get money, right? You gamble to get more. And I think the heart of greed is wanting more. And there’s a sense in which you will never be sated, right?
DUBNER: So when you are surveying people for the seven deadly sins project, this survey that’s on the No Stupid Questions website, what kind of questions are you asking to measure Greed?
DUCKWORTH: So I’m asking the following four questions: “Do you take more than your fair share? Are you self-centered? Do you behave selfishly?” And this one’s just straightforward: “Are you greedy?”
DUBNER: Do you want to define greed for us?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think in general it’s the idea of wanting more and never being satisfied for your individual self-interest. It’s often thought of in terms of like, very material things like money and possessions, but I think you could make the argument that it could be much broader than that, like reputational, admiration, attention, etc.
DUBNER: Okay, so I find your scale and your questions really interesting. I find them very different from the greed that I think about as you were talking about gambling. And, you know, I personally am a big believer in not taking more than you actually need. When I think about how certain parts of our economy work, I think of one corner of that as the money-harvesting industry. There are a lot of people out there who, you know, some of them are sort of gambling. I mean, if you think about investing — investing is gambling to a very large degree. And yeah, I think there’s an awful lot of greed in the world. And, you know, as I’ve gotten older and more experienced about that part of the economy, I’m a little bit less tolerant of people whose lives revolve around making more money when they plainly have plenty of money to do whatever they want to do. That said, you said that you gamble to get money, you gamble to get more. I don’t actually think that’s why most people gamble at all. I think gambling is a different kind of activity entirely.
DUCKWORTH: Okay before I agree with you, which I do —.
DUBNER: I want you to disagree to some degree.
DUCKWORTH: Well, okay, so there was this meta-analysis of the effects of gambling — or I should say, since it’s correlational data, is just the correlations of problem gambling. So, this is people who self-report that they’re gambling. And it’s not just the frequency with which they’re gambling, but, like, how terrible it is for the rest of their lives, and, you know, this ambivalence they have about gambling, so that’s problem gambling. There was a meta-analysis of what correlates with problem gambling in the general population. And this is relatively recent. It was in the journal Addiction in 2021. And the title is “A Meta-Analysis of Problem Gambling Risk Factors in the General Adult Population.” And one of the findings that I found striking is that it’s not so much your demographics, like, “You’re a young man,” like, “Oh, okay, well you should have a problem,” like these stereotypes. A lot of it came down to the kind of gambling that you are doing. And I just want to say this on the topic of, like, is it really greed? What about other motives for gambling? In this meta-analysis, the only kind of gambling that was generally found to be not at all related to problem gambling was community-oriented. In other words like gambling in raffles, like raising money for the local elementary school.
DUBNER: That’s not my kind of gambling, by the way.
DUCKWORTH: I know people have — like are you even talking about the same thing?
DUBNER: I don’t think they know what gambling is actually, now that I look closer at the research. Sorry.
DUCKWORTH: I love it when you lapse into the James Bond villain voice.
DUBNER: No, that was slightly different. That was more like a learned German professor, if you couldn’t tell.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, okay. I thought that was James Bond villain. Totally misinterpreted. But look, so I do want to say that I think in general we should be looking at other motives for gambling and I think they do predominate. But, you know, what gets you into gambling is generally some desire to get more money for yourself, and that would be supported by this meta-analysis where pro-social, community-oriented risk taking is not the problem.
DUBNER: Right. I see your point and I see the point of the scholars and I’m glad to know there’s empirical work on that for sure. But I think one issue is that there are many different types of gambling, and, you know, let’s compare — you brought up sports betting because you’re seeing these ads from DraftKings and FanDuel and so on. So betting on sports versus, let’s say, playing a slot machine, which — I’ll just show my bias here — I think slot machines are, kind of, the stupidest, most mindless form of gambling. But, you know, some people love ’em. But you’re literally just shoving money into a machine and pulling a handle, so there’s no engagement.
DUCKWORTH: No pretense of skill.
DUBNER: And some people would argue maybe that skill and gambling don’t go together that much anyway. I would disagree. But if you’re, let’s say, gambling on the outcome of a sporting event, you know, let’s say I’m betting on the N.B.A. or the —.
DUCKWORTH: Phillies winning the Super Bowl, for example.
DUBNER: Or the Phillies winning the World Series or the Eagles winning the Super Bowl maybe, or betting on whether Angela knows that the Phillies are not a football team.
DUCKWORTH: I knew that! I knew that. That was complete — that was a complete slip.
DUBNER: Anywho, what I would argue is that, first of all, there are many different types of gambling, let’s just be clear there. There’s playing a slot machine, there’s playing poker, there’s sports betting, there’s betting on horses. There’s also things like betting on political outcomes. Now, this isn’t an easy thing to do necessarily. But there are prediction markets and some betting markets, or used to be. And then I mentioned there’s investing — a lot of investing is a form of gambling, and that’s one where, cleanly, the profit motive is strong because the stakes are pretty high. There’s also, I would say, this phrase that I think about all the time, which is “gambling on yourself,” which is, I have a path or a goal and it might be very, very difficult to get to, and the only way I’m really going to get there is to essentially bankroll myself. I’m going to invest in myself in order to get the skills and maybe connections, and resources I need to accomplish what I want to accomplish. And yeah, it’s a big gamble. I’m going to spend X years doing this kind of labor to lay the groundwork or to get these kind of connections. And so when we talk about gambling, I just wanted to point out that there is really a spectrum and that I think a lot of what scholars have studied, because it’s right there in front of you and it’s pretty easy, is the kind of gambling like slot machines where it’s very observable and the data are good. That said, I think something like sports gambling — it’s much less about greed and making money. It’s much more about a thrill. It’s entertainment, it’s excitement, it’s fun, and it takes something that’s already pleasurable for billions of people, watching sports, and then makes it a little bit more so because now there’s a little bit more suspense and there are stakes to it. So I don’t think that I would describe it generally as a greedy enterprise. But then I did come across this paper that I need you to interpret for me because it’s in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. That’s a good journal, yes?
DUCKWORTH: It’s such a good journal, yeah.
DUBNER: Okay, so this journal is not about gambling, but it is about greed. And I was trying to make sense of it, but I couldn’t, so I need your help. So this is by one, two, three, four scholars at the Dutch university Tilburg University, and it’s called “Dispositional Greed.” The abstract reads: “Greed is an important motive. It is seen as both productive — a source of ambition, the motor of the economy — and destructive — undermining social relationships, the cause of the late-2000s financial crisis. However, relatively little is known about what greed is and does.” So as I’m reading this, I’m thinking, oh, that’s so interesting that the greed scholars are eager to learn kind of the basics about how greed works. Then they write about these five studies that they developed and a “greed scale” that they tested to look at things like maximization, self-interest, envy, materialism, impulsiveness, and so on. So, can you tell me what they actually learned in English so that we can all benefit from this?
DUCKWORTH: Well, when you develop a new survey — I did this for the grit scale — you need to show that your new survey is reliable and valid, and you do that in part by administering lots of other surveys and seeing how things are correlated. So I think this study debuts a new questionnaire that they’ve developed and then they basically show a lot of correlations with other stuff to validate their questionnaire. And one of the things that I think emerges is that you have this picture of greed — and maybe I should read some items from their questionnaire because it’s short, and also it’ll give you a real sense of what they mean when they say greed. So, here they are: “I always want more. Actually, I’m kind of greedy. One can never have too much money. As soon as I have acquired something, I start to think about the next thing I want. It doesn’t matter how much I have, I’m never completely satisfied. My life motto is ‘more is better.’” And finally, “I can’t imagine having too many things.” I mean — feels very, what we would call “face valid,” which means like, yeah, on the face of it, that seems right. And I think that’s what I was thinking about and what I was saying just now. Like, what is greed? It’s wanting more and never feeling satisfied. So they administer lots of other questionnaires, but they come to the conclusion that when you score highly on this dispositional greed scale — like it’s something about you that’s across many situations, because they don’t say, “What about gambling?” You know, “What about food?” Like, “What about, etc.?” They come to the conclusion that, you know, generally the correlates are negative. Like the higher you are in greed, the more impulsive you are, the less happy you are, the less concerned you are for other people, the more materialistic you are — again, you can make arguments, like, some of these things aren’t bad, but it’s a pretty negative portrait, I think, of being dispositionally greedy.
DUBNER: So if we think about the widespread legalization of sports gambling — and it’s gotten really popular really fast in the U.S. — I do think there are a number of things to be concerned about. If you look at the U.K., which has had a much longer history of sports gambling, there have been problems for sure. I mean, there’s certainly a level of addiction. There are people who get into a lot of trouble and so they’ve done some things to try to curtail that, and I believe that some of those learnings have been ported over into the U.S. where the legislation is written for these firms to try to encourage what they call responsible gambling. But yeah, there will definitely be people hurt by that. Also the industry’s in a strange moment right now because since it became legal, they’re all trying to grab this market share, and some of these firms are plainly not going to survive. But when I look at the whole landscape of sports gambling, or gambling generally, I think of a guy I know a little bit who has a really different take on it, and I want to run it past you and see what you’re buying of this take. So his name is Bob Wachtel, and he’s a longtime professional gambler. He’s a very highly ranked chess player and backgammon player. He also happens to have a Ph.D. in philosophy from a long time ago. And he argues that gambling, rather than being a vice or sinful or connected to greed, is in fact mostly virtue. And his argument goes like this: It’s entertainment, as I noted, but it’s better than most because it’s interactive, right? Even active.
DUCKWORTH: Because you’re engaged, it’s not passive. It’s not like you’re vicariously watching other people gamble. You’re in it.
DUBNER: You’re in it and you are thinking your way through it, which means there’s an intellectual component, which is more than can be said of a lot of other entertainment out there. Most important, he would argue, that it engages you in the idea of probability on a second-by-second basis. It also engages you in the idea of multifactorial analysis. It’s complicated, you have to consider a lot of things, and all of these ideas — thinking probabilistically, thinking about a variety of factors — can be really useful in real life and, indeed, it’s a kind of thing that you wish more people were engaged in all the time, like politicians, right? So one issue in media and politics and so on, is that a lot of people make a lot of predictions about what’s going to happen in the world — or, if you will only put your support behind this policy or program that I endorse, you will see how well it works. And the problem is that most predictions that most people make turn out, as you know, to be bad.
DUCKWORTH: We’re terrible forecasters.
DUBNER: We’re terrible forecasters. The problem is, it’s easy to get attention when you’re making bold predictions. And the tragedy is, if you can get a lot of attention by making bold predictions, even when they turn out to be wrong, that’s a problem. And the reason that people are so able to do that — to go on CNBC or CNN or Fox News and make predictions about what’s going to happen — the reason they’re able to get away with that and do it all the time is because they don’t really have a stake in it. You know, you’re predicting now something that may or may not happen a year from now or six months from now — but very few people actually track the records of people who make predictions. But also, you don’t really have skin in the game. So, when people go on CNBC to make a financial prediction — well actually, that’s even worse. They actually do usually have skin in the game. They’re talking their own book. The Bob Wachtel argument is that gambling is actually an honest way to make predictions because you’re backing it up with your own money, and therefore we should look at gambling not as this vice that’s practiced only by deviance, but as a kind of potentially wholesome interactive entertainment that’s got an intellectual component and that engages you, if not teaches you, to think more probabilistically and about multifactorial analysis. And if the rest of the world were a little bit more like gamblers in that regard, we might be better off. So, what do you think of that argument, Angela?
DUCKWORTH: You know, it’s never the case that something only has one effect, right? Like, is gambling good or is it bad? There’s almost certainly more than one outcome of gambling, and maybe you could make the argument that some of the outcomes are positive, right? People are engaging in statistical thinking. They’re getting an immediate feedback loop.
DUBNER: Oh, I can tell by your tone of voice you’re not really —.
DUCKWORTH: In my derisive tone of voice. No but yeah, I guess. It’s more entertaining. Like, it was fun to watch this football game, but now it’s really fun. I mean, that I really do want to agree, if it makes it more fun, that’s got to go in the positive column. Like, I was more engaged in watching this game than I would’ve been otherwise, and I felt better.
DUBNER: Watching the Phillies win the Super Bowl!
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. Bet on that. See what the odds are. And look, anything that people do, there’s almost always a reason that they do that does fall into that category. Why else would they do it, right? Maybe I could even go so far as there is always a reason. But, just to begin, if you say, like, “Hey, isn’t it great that people are using their faculties and like thinking statistically and so forth?” Well, first of all, I don’t think that people are getting statistically smarter, even though they’re exposed to odds that they get the feedback from. Because you bet on something and then the thing happens and then you get punished or rewarded. And so, in theory we should become better and better statisticians. But in fact, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I don’t know that people end up with Ph.D.s in statistics just because they gambled a lot, right? It doesn’t seem to connect that way. I think also there is something about the kind of non-productivity of the use of these faculties — like, great, people are doing that, but how about if they actually try to build a bridge? Like, that would be another way to use statistical thinking or, you know, doing something that has an outcome that is useful for either yourself or others. So it’s kind of that this gambling institution or these gambling inventions that we’ve created — like slot machines, online gambling, lotteries and so forth — I think they’re hijacking, in a way, our desire to take risk for gain.
DUBNER: I appreciate your argument and I agree with a significant portion of it.
DUCKWORTH: I’ll see your argument and I’ll raise you another argument.
DUBNER: I would say that your argument makes an awful lot of sense, especially if one is thinking pro-socially, which is that if someone is smart enough to be really good at sports gambling, then we want them building bridges. But I would say, well, first of all, I don’t know, how many bridge builders do we really need?
DUCKWORTH: Okay, can I just change that to actuarial science? Like, maybe they should be doing statistics for insurance companies.
DUBNER: Actually becoming an actuary is maybe a pretty good example because from what I understand, very few young people are really excited about actuarial science. And even though computers keep getting better, I think we need actuarial scientists.
DUCKWORTH: We need more. This is a public service announcement for actuaries. When I was in high school, and this is like, what? 1987, I think. And I had taken the S.A.T. and, you know, immediately after taking the SA.T., at least at that point, you would start getting flooded with brochures or pamphlets. I think it must have been, like, based on your test scores — don’t know if that’s true today. But I remember getting a little pamphlet, it was like four by six, and had question marks on the front, and it said, “What is an actuary?” And I was being encouraged to go into actuarial science.
DUBNER: And were you wildly tempted?
DUCKWORTH: I did not become an actuary, as you know. And I can’t even say that some of my best friends are actuaries. But, you know, these wonderful statisticians who figure out the odds of getting into a car crash or into an avalanche or whatever — yes, society needs them.
DUBNER: Okay, but by your saying that, “Oh, people who are smart enough to be good at gambling are wasting their brain power on something that is maybe self-fulfilling” — by the way, if you work as an actuary, you still have plenty of time in the evening to be a really great sports gambler. But additionally, this is a little bit like saying — well, wait a minute, you know, what share of the graduating class of the top 10 undergraduate colleges in America go to work in finance, or in what I might sometimes call the money-harvesting fields? And there are those who argue that, wait a minute, don’t we want that brain power devoted to things like education and computer science and healthcare and so on? So would you make the same argument about those people or is it because finance seems a little classier, they have big buildings, that you are not so concerned about the waste of brain power in that realm?
DUCKWORTH: So your argument is that there’s a very fine line, if a line at all, between gambling on a sports app and being like a hedge fund manager, is that right?
DUBNER: No, I’m not making that argument, although if I were forced to, I probably could make that argument. I’m just saying that if you are going to make the argument that sports gambling is quote “bad,” because in order to be good, you have to have brain power that would be better applied elsewhere, then wouldn’t you make the same argument that people who go into finance when they could also be revolutionizing education and healthcare, rather than making half million dollars a year for trading some derivatives that they don’t even know what’s in them — doesn’t that seem a little bit, I don’t want to say hypocritical, but doesn’t it seem a little bit paradoxical?
DUCKWORTH: Well, look, it’s not my chief beef with gambling that these people could be using their brain.
DUBNER: Chief beef? What is your chief beef?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know what my chief beef is, but it’s so fun to say. Chief Beef. And it brings to mind all kinds of images of just like cheap beef, you know, gristly and all that. But anyway, I digress. My point is, Stephen, that it’s not my chief beef — my major complaint — about gambling that, like, Oh, I wish this person were using their brain to do something else. I really worry about how rewarding it is to gamble and how it just displaces all kinds of other things in your life and can be really ruinous. So it’s not just that I think this person should be doing something more profitable with that part of their brain. Interestingly, when people get a miss, say on a slot machine, a near miss is actually rewarding. So sometimes when you don’t win, you’re like, “Oh, like the Phillies almost won the Super Bowl,” or whatever the team is, real team, real game. Eagles not winning the Super Bowl. But at least in some circumstances that can also be rewarding. So I’m just worried that this invention of modern gambling, and especially some of the machines that we have invented to allow us to gamble repeatedly with almost no interruption, that those seem to actually be — by the way I was just telling you about this meta-analysis — those seem to be the most pernicious. So the most addictive kinds of gambling tend to be ones that you can do like very, very fast and almost continuously or without break. You can do it almost at any time of day. And in fact, I think now you could argue that you could gamble at any time of day. And again, like that is not something that existed for our entire evolutionary history. Now we have it and it’s getting us into trouble, at least some of us.
DUBNER: Yeah. Can you hang on one second? I’m just trying to get a bet down on this jai alai match in Singapore, because it’s about to get started.
DUCKWORTH: See? By the way, there are commercials, not only for gambling, but I just saw one the other day and I wonder whether it was because of regulation — but it was an online sports gambling app, and the whole commercial was like, “Here are new features on our app that you can use to limit your gambling.”
DUBNER: I think that is informed a little bit by countries that have had legalized gambling for longer, where they see that it’s not so hard to find the ways in which someone can get into trouble and they can try, at least, to prevent that, although I don’t know how successful they’ll be.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know how helpful those things are, but yeah.
DUBNER: So it’s interesting, even though gambling may not, at least according to me, be an exercise in greed in the sense of “I want more money,” right, I’m making the argument that it’s not about that —.
DUCKWORTH: It’s not the primary driver. I agree with that. It may kind be kind of like one of the things that gets you into it, but it’s not the primary driver. That’s not why people gamble, I don’t think necessarily.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions, Stephen and Angela look at greed from the other side of the gambling: the suppliers.
DUBNER: I think you have to lay at least a significant part of the blame on the ecosystem of the private providers and the regulators who are benefiting pretty substantially from the legalization of sports betting.
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Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about gambling and greed.
DUBNER: Since we are talking about the seven deadly sins and greed, it strikes me that you are saying that gambling is greedy in that it’s selfish, in that you’re using your cognitive gifts or your attention on something beneath your abilities. Is that about right?
DUCKWORTH: I am saying based on the data in this meta-analysis, that the only form of gambling that does not have any correlation with problematic gambling is pro-social gambling. Which is like raffling off a fruit basket for the local school, right? I will say this. So there is certainly some motivation to get into the flow state, to be so one with the activity that you’re doing that you would lose track of time and that you would return to the activity again and again. And that’s actually really what I think is going on with this continuous type of gambling. Sometimes it’s called continuous-play gambling, where you could do it repeatedly, like again and again. But I do think it is also true that people start to gamble, at least to some extent, because they would like to have more money. I mean, people don’t like, say, “Should I do public service or should I go to Vegas?” Right? Like, there’s an initiation.
DUBNER: I will say this: I do remember research from some years back that looked at people who play lotteries generally, state run lotteries and so on, and it found that lower-income people are much more likely to play lotteries than middle or higher income people. But moreover, this was the really, ugh, scary part, was that a really large share of low-income lottery players said they played the lottery because it represented their best opportunity to make a windfall that would allow them to do something like buy a house or send a kid to school.
DUCKWORTH: Right so it was their, like, one hope.
DUBNER: Yeah. And to me that’s an indictment of a couple things. It’s an indictment of an economy that doesn’t afford opportunity for people. That’s bad. And the other tricky part about that is these lotteries that are run by the states — I mean, when you look at the take that states get from their lotteries — states are much greedier than any bookie who ever lived. So when you play a state-run lottery and you win, you’re actually only getting about 60 percent of the pool of money. The state is taking about 40 percent. So if you want to talk about greed, you know, we’ve been talking about the demand side of gambling. Maybe we should talk a little bit more about the supply side.
DUCKWORTH: Right, the institutions behind gambling, not the individuals. Natasha Dow Schüll’s been fascinated — I guess there’s probably a negative version of that — like disturbed, frightened — by electronic slot machines in particular — so this book is now I think like 10 or more years old, so she was writing, I think, before the rise of online sports gambling apps and so forth. But she really focuses on Las Vegas and these slot machines. And she talks about the greed of the institutions, the casinos, right? And maybe that’s where the greed and the story is most clear. Because she would say from interviewing — and I remember just reading these first person descriptions of gambling addicts. These are people who are really, I mean, honestly Stephen, just in such a terrible place. They’re bankrupt, they’re often sick, and they’re unemployed. I mean, that may or may not have happened before they started gambling, but it’s certainly part of the problem. You know, as they get deeper and deeper in the hole of gambling, they lose their families, they destroy their marriages. And when these individuals talk about why they get up again and go straight back to the slot machines and sit in that chair for hours, I mean, wearing diapers sometimes, right, so that you don’t have to, like, get up — these are people who don’t talk about gambling because of anything that sounds like greed. They talk about getting into what she calls the machine state, like a state of flow — but just, I want to say that there could be an asymmetry in the motivation. So there could be, on the one side, greed from the casinos and other institutions trying to get more and more and more — they’ll never have enough. The motivation on the individual consumer side is really actually, like, relief from their terrible lives. When you are in the flow state, your attention is 100 percent absorbed in what you’re doing. And that means it is not going to all the terrible things in your life that are causing you pain. So it’s an anodyne, right? It’s a painkiller of a sort. But these two things in combination — individuals who want to achieve the flow state by sitting at this machine and pressing this button over and over again, pouring their life savings down the drain, and then these institutions like casinos on the other side — that produces this equilibrium where it just goes on and on and on, and then you have more and more gambling.
DUBNER: If you want a little bit more ammunition against the gambling industry, which it sounds like you would —.
DUCKWORTH: Do I need it? Yeah.
DUBNER: There was a piece in The New York Times in November of 2022. There was a big investigation on how the legalization of sports betting in the U.S. has kind of rolled out. And it’s been interesting and it’s been intense.
DUCKWORTH: Tell me about this because I’m just noticing these ads, but like, when did this happen? When did it become legalized?
DUBNER: So basically, in the U.S. at least, there had only been legalized sports betting in casinos in Nevada. I think that’s right. I may be wrong on that.
DUCKWORTH: Which is why people would go to these places, right? Like it was worth the pilgrimage because you couldn’t do it in your neighborhood, like you couldn’t gamble in your hometown, right?
DUBNER: Well, you could. There’s a thing called a bookie, and there are bookies everywhere and always. And some people would argue that now the states have eliminated bookies by running the lottery. And, you know, states are much less generous with their payout than bookies ever were. But the state also doesn’t break your leg, although, you know, they require payment up front. So it’s a mixed bag. But sports gambling was generally illegal in this country, in most states for a good while. But then the Supreme Court overturned a 1992 federal law, I believe, and this was a handful of years ago. And one interesting part of the backstory is, as states now were voting for themselves of whether or not to legalize sports gambling, there were these companies like DraftKings and FanDuel that had set themselves up as fantasy sports websites, where you weren’t betting money. But because they had set themselves up, they had already had an architecture, and they were ready to spring into action when sports gambling was legalized. And indeed it was. So it was a very, I would say, long-sighted strategic play that these and other firms made. Now, not all states have legalized it. I believe that California recently voted against it or at least online sports gambling. I think there are around 30, 31, 32 states that allow it currently. But this New York Times investigation of how this all rolled out tells us some interesting things. Here’s a bit: After the Supreme Court allowed sports betting — this was in 2018 — “lobbyists, pushing for the legalization of online betting, lavished state officials with gifts, parties, and millions of dollars in donations, at times skirting campaign finance rules. Many lawmakers proved pliant.” So maybe you’re not shocked and outraged by that because that’s what happens in state capitals and in D.C.
DUCKWORTH: I’m pretty shocked and outraged by that.
DUBNER: It’s pretty gross. Here’s some more: the gambling industry, the Times concluded, backed their arguments for the legalization of gambling with, “dubious data,” including increases in tax revenue that have been overly optimistic. And furthermore, because the states collect taxes from betting, regulators have an incentive to help gambling companies get up and running quickly. “Some states let them begin operating before regulators complete comprehensive licensing reviews.” So, look — we’ve been talking about greed and gambling from the user side, the consumer side, but from the producer and the state side, you can see that it’s an ecosystem where, I think you could make the argument that if you feel empathetic towards someone who gets caught up in gambling as a user and gets in real trouble, I think you have to lay at least a significant part of the blame on the ecosystem of the private providers and the regulators who are benefiting pretty substantially from the legalization of sports betting.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know anyone who would argue otherwise, honestly. Like we said, there’s gotta be some element of greed to just get you to go into this in the first place. But it’s certainly not the sustaining motivation for why you’re gambling. And let’s recall that the odds are against the gambler. If you want more and more, gambling is not a way to do it, right? So there must be some other psychology going on in the motivation of the gambler, but clearly — or I’m arguing, and I think many, many, many others would argue that there’s greed on the part of the institutions, the people who are like, “Let’s build another casino. Let’s make another app, a better app to capitalize on this feature of human nature, which is not good,” right? I’m not a fan of lotteries by states. I’m not a fan of online gambling. I’m not a fan of casinos. I mean, I just think these things prey upon the instincts that we’ve — you know, again, we have those instincts for good reasons, but in the modern world, don’t do us any good.
DUBNER: So I’m curious to hear from listeners — I would like to know, what’s something that you have gambled on in the broadest sense of the word and why? And, I also want to know if it was driven in part by greed. So make a voice memo. Use your smartphone. Just do it in a quiet place. Include your name, what you do, where you live, and send the file to NSQ@Freakonomics.com and maybe we will play it on a future show. So Angela, I think you and I are fairly split on this. I think I see gambling generally as more diverse and more benign than you. Would you agree with that?
DUCKWORTH: If you see it as diverse and potentially good, then yeah, I guess I would agree that we disagree about that.
DUBNER: Because it sounds like you’re saying “In a perfect Angela Duckworth world, there would be no gambling allowed anywhere.” Is that about right?
DUCKWORTH: I mean, I am feeling very Singapore lately, so yes. I guess I’m feeling like — I don’t know if it’s paternalistic or maybe you’d call it maternalistic — like, I don’t think I would rule out all gambling. I also don’t think you can. But I do think that these should be, I guess, regulations and maybe taxes or some way of curbing this institutional greed that preys upon people’s lack of statistical literacy, their desperation, and their desire for this flow state, which they’re achieving through continuous gambling.
DUBNER: Right. Although, again, I just have to say there are so many different types of gambling. And you said that you know the odds are always against you, and that is generally the case when you’re going to a casino because the casinos set the machines. But there are different types of gambling again. So if you’re playing poker, for instance, you’re actually not playing against a house; you’re playing against an opponent. If you’re betting in a parimutuel pool, in horse racing for instance, or in sports betting —.
DUCKWORTH: You’re not designed to lose.
DUBNER: They’re not designed to lose. Now, again, the house can take as big a cut as it can get away with. So I’m not saying there is no greed there, but it’s not necessarily the fact that the odds are stacked against you from day one. But I will say this: In the perfect Angela Duckworth world where there is no legalized gambling, there would be so much illegal gambling.
DUCKWORTH: I didn’t concede to that. I didn’t say, like, in a perfect world, there’s like no gambling. I said, “That’s not feasible,” so just want to defend myself against some ridiculous thing. I mean, like I said, these are basic human urges. Take away one kind of gambling people are going to make up another because the way it makes you feel to, like — I mean, how many of us have said like, “betcha five bucks that —.” Right? Kids do this all the time.
DUBNER: I betcha five bucks that Angela Duckworth has one more thing to say before we end this episode.
DUCKWORTH: Mm. Well, I guess if I wanted to win that bet, I would have either zero or two things to say. Stephen, I have nothing else to say. That’s the last word. No, I do have one thing to say, and I hate making you win any kind of game or bet between us. But I want to say this: Like everything else that we discuss in the broad scheme of sins, there’s always some nuance to it, right? There’s a reason why we gamble and one of the writers and thinkers on this that we haven’t talked about, but I just want to squeeze him in, is Erving Goffman. And Erving Goffman was one of the great — some would argue the greatest sociologist who ever lived — and he actually became, I think, a card dealer, is that the right term? He went to Vegas and actually, like, worked in the pit, like he really engaged in this deeply. And I think, at the end — he never actually lived to write up his scholarly observations in completeness on what he observed from being in Vegas and being in the very dark heart, I would say, of the gambling universe. But I will say this, to end on nuance, I think he did think that there was a certain kind of courage and heroism to the risk taking that is at the core of gambling. But at the same time, I remember reading this article about somebody who was a contemporary — or at least they overlapped — so this person later wrote that when Goffman would give talks, like brown bag lunches to other academics, he was unsparing in just how terrifying and inhumane much of what he was witnessing firsthand was. So there could be some nuance here, but I think there’s a reason why greed — and again, here more on the part of the people who create these devices and so forth — I think there’s a reason why they’re on the list of seven deadly sins. And though there’s nuance and there’s certainly arguments to be made on both sides, I think greed is something to be worried about.
DUBNER: Mmm. Excellent point, and I can’t wait to spend my $5, Angela. Thank you in advance for sending it to me.
DUCKWORTH: I’ll Venmo you.
This episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by me, Katherine Moncure, with our production associate, Lyric Bowditch. And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation. When talking about online sports betting, Stephen says, “there are around 30, 31, 32 states that allow it currently.” He was close — there are actually 33 states that allow online sports betting. Later, Stephen says that in poker, you’re not playing against a house. That’s true for most variants, but there is a version of poker called Casino Hold’em, in which the player does compete against the house. That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts about last week’s episode on envy:
Nidhi SRIVASTAVA: Hi Angela and Stephen. I’m Nidhi from India. As a child, I deeply envied my friends, cousins, and neighbors who had pet dogs. But my parents never allowed me to have a dog in my childhood. But fostering a few puppies as an adult and switching to working in the pet industry for a time totally killed this envy for me. I still don’t have a dog and no longer wish to have one because they’re too clingy and dependent and extroverted. I have to confess I do have two cats now, and somehow I had never coveted them as pets in my life before.
MJ JOCSON: Hi Stephen and Angela, this is MJ Jocson from the Philippines. When I was young, I remember being envious of the kind of lifestyle my cousins had. They often went abroad and experienced things only kids from well-off families could afford. My mom always reminded us to be grateful for what we had. I’ve always kept that in mind to keep envy at bay. I subscribe to the idea that not all happy people are grateful, but all grateful people are happy.
That was, respectively, Nidhi Srivastava and MJ Jocson. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear about something you’ve gambled on, and why. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name and whether you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela tackle the last of the seven deadly sins: pride.
DUBNER: Look at you bragging that you have more than one floor in your house. That is just so prideful.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne, with help from Jeremy Johnston. We had research help from Joseph Fridman and Dan Moritz-Rabson. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. And now, you can also find our episodes on YouTube! If you know someone who doesn’t listen to podcasts but spends a lot of time on YouTube, tell them to go to Youtube.com/@Freakonomics — that’s the “at” sign, followed by “Freakonomics.” To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: So, but whoops. Hang on. Hey. Oops. Hang on one sec. My dog wants to get on the desk. Sorry.
- Seven Deadly Sins Survey, by No Stupid Questions (2023).
- “Key Findings From The Times’ Investigation of Sports Betting,” by David Enrich (The New York Times, 2022).
- “Responsible Gaming Regulations and Statutes Guide,” by the American Gaming Association (2022).
- “A Meta-Analysis of Problem Gambling Risk Factors in the General Adult Population,” by Youssef Allami, David C. Hodgins, Matthew Young, Natacha Brunelle, Shawn Currie, Magali Dufour, Marie-Claire Flores-Pajot, and Louise Nadeau (Addiction, 2021).
- “Go With the Flow: A Neuroscientific View on Being Fully Engaged,” by Dimitri van der Linden, Mattie Tops, and Arnold B. Bakker (The European Journal of Neuroscience, 2021).
- “Bob Wachtel – Discussion on Morality of Gambling,” by The Backgammon Podcast (2020).
- “Erving Goffman, Fateful Action, and the Las Vegas Gambling Scene,” by Dmitri N. Shalin (UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal, 2016).
- “Dispositional Greed,” by Terri G. Seuntjens, Marcel Zeelenberg, Niels van de Ven, and Seger M. Breugelmans (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2015).
- Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, by Natasha Dow Schüll (2012).
- “Gambling Severity Predicts Midbrain Response to Near-Miss Outcomes,” by Henry W. Chase and Luke Clark (The Journal of Neuroscience, 2010).
- “Subjective Relative Income and Lottery Ticket Purchases,” by Emily Haisley, Romel Mostafa, and George Loewenstein (Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2008).
- Seven Deadly Sins, series by No Stupid Questions.
- “The Economics of Sports Gambling (Replay),” by Freakonomics Radio (2020).
- “Inside the Sports-Industrial Complex,” by Freakonomics Radio (2019).
- “The Folly of Prediction (Replay),” by Freakonomics Radio (2013).
- “Why Online Poker Should Be Legal,” by Freakonomics Radio (2012).