For every £1 spent on gambling in the UK, approximately 40 pence is spent online. The pandemic has accelerated the growth of virtual game-play with a recent study finding that regular gamblers, particularly men, were six times more likely to gamble online post vs pre-pandemic.
The pervasiveness of online gambling is reflected in the aims of the ongoing Gambling Act 2005 review. Online harm prevention features prominently, with strengthening the effectiveness of existing safer gambling tools, like online deposit limits, of specific focus.
Deposit limits cap the amount of money customers are able to deposit each day, week, or month into their online gambling account, and are offered by all licensed remote gambling companies in Britain. Helping people to control their gambling deposits should, in theory, reduce their risk of making losses that cause financial harms. However, evidence on the uptake of, and effectiveness of deposit limits tools suggests there is scope to improve how they are designed.
Our previous gambling research suggested that intention-behaviour gaps may interfere with gamblers’ limit-setting behaviours. This trial tested a new way of designing deposit limits to include ‘commitment devices’, aimed at overcoming intention-behaviour gaps and maximising the tool’s effectiveness.
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Why we don’t always do the things we intend to
While gambling customers may start with strong intentions to keep their gambling controlled, these intentions are often formed in a relatively ‘cold’ state — characterised by clearer thinking, where decisions are not influenced by elevated feelings. In contrast, our research has found people who gamble online can enter so-called ‘hot’ states, where decision-making is affected by emotions, compromising a gambler’s ability to stay within intended limits.
The disconnect between intending to control one’s gambling and actually staying in control, creates an intention-behaviour gap. This means setting a deposit limit isn’t enough to mitigate harm: more needs to be done to help gamblers want to stick to their intended limits.
Dissuading intention breaking
Intention-behaviour gaps can be overcome through the use of commitment devices. This is any device or tool that creates a sense of accountability and deters breaking intentions.
Typically commitment devices involve ‘harder’, more tangible outcomes (e.g. ‘fining’ yourself some money, such as on stickk.com). However, we tested whether relatively ‘soft’ commitment devices — such as reminding customers about why they set a limit — would affect gambling behaviour.
What did our trial involve?
24,000 bet365 customers without deposit limits received a pop-up notification and/or email, inviting them to set a deposit limit, of which 861 did so. All ~24,000 customers were randomised into one of three trial groups:
- Control group: customers saw the business-as-usual (BAU) deposit limit design (no commitment device);
- Commitment device 1 (self-persuasion): customers were encouraged to write a message giving advice to another player setting a limit;
- Commitment device 2 (personal): customers were prompted to write a reason for why they are setting a limit.
Both intervention groups were then reminded of what they wrote by SMS and on-screen messages at either specific intervals after setting the limit (3, 10, 21 days), once the limit was reached, and/or if the limit was changed.
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What did we find?
We measured two key outcomes:
- The amount participants deposited in the 30 days following the intervention;
- The amounts of people in each group opting to set a limit, and the average size of those limits.
For the first outcome, we found no differences in the amounts deposited within 30 days following intervention regardless of whether participants received the control design or designs including soft commitments.
For the second outcome, significantly fewer participants set deposit limits in the commitment device groups. However, among those that did set limits, their average limits were lower (BAU/ control = £3,021; self persuasion = £2,456; personal = £2,429).
This apparent backfire effect could be due to the fact that our trial added friction to the process of setting a deposit limit. For example, customers in the commitment groups were presented with additional information to read, and choices to make. Another reason could be that asking customers to reflect on limit-setting motivations may have triggered a negative emotional response.
While our findings are informative, we encountered a number of trial limitations; primarily that an overall low level of customers (<4%) opted to set a limit, indicating our final sample is unlikely to reflect the characteristics of the overall bet365 (and wider gambling population).
While the gambling industry has made substantial developments in the design of products that enable customers to bet, the same cannot be said of safer gambling tools — products such as deposit limits look and work much like they always have. Behavioural insights have shown how to improve uptake, and that simple design tweaks can improve use. While this research is promising, our most recent trial demonstrates some of the challenges of testing more complex changes.