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Making gambling safer: improving the uptake and design of tools to help people control their gambling

Blog 1 of series

  • Blog
  • 24th Nov 2020

“It’s the end of the week and a few days before payday; Bill has just finished for the day and excited to watch the match later. He’s already had notifications from his favourite betting app about odds, and what the current hottest bet is. He wasn’t planning to, but he hasn’t quite hit his £200 monthly deposit limit for the app, and he fancies his chances. Plus, with the app’s new Quick Deposit function, it’s as easy as a few quick taps and the bet’s on…”

Like Bill, one-in-three British people have gambled in the past four weeks. This figure rises to 47% if we include playing the National Lottery. Indeed Britain is in fact the home to the largest regulated gambling market in the world. 

Smartphones have offered an increased ease of access to online gambling which now accounts for the largest proportion of the industry’s overall gross profit. Half of all online gamblers (20% of British people) gamble via their phones, and most have accounts with more than one operator.

Around 350,000 people in Britain experience ‘problem gambling’, meaning they experience a level of gambling harm that meets a high clinical threshold. A further 1.8 million people are deemed to be ‘at risk’. These people experience reduced financial and mental wellbeing, and their gambling can negatively impact, on average, six other people closely-related to them.

In 2017, the Behavioural Insights Team was commissioned by GambleAware to explore whether behavioural science could help to reduce risky gambling. We set out on a wide range of research activities to investigate the topic, such as literature reviews, data analysis and behavioural audits of online operators (details available in our report here). 

Key findings and reflections from initial research 

Our qualitative interviews with people who gamble, and our behavioural audit led to several insights:

  1. Online operators provide relatively “frictionless” access to games and opportunities to bet, but it typically takes more effort to access safer gambling tools. For example, for one operator clicking on a smartphone notification with a suggested bet opened up the app with that bet automatically added to your personal account slip.
  2. There were several notable instances of choice architecture leading people to spend more than they would otherwise, specifically through presenting high-anchors. Irrelevant or spurious information, such as a suggested amount can influence decisions people make. This was seen in  suggested stakes, one-click money deposits, and in the options presented to customers setting deposit limits.

Example of a quick deposit function typically offered by online gambling websites

Example of a deposit limit, a safer gambling tool offered by all British-regulated online gambling platforms

  1. The immersive nature of online gambling environments can lead to “hot” decision states that make it people make riskier decisions. Online casinos and slots closely mimic the visual and aural aesthetics of their real-world equivalents. Coupled with personalised offers served at targeted intervals, customers gambling online could become engrossed in play to the extent that they lose track of time, or money spent.   

A further aim of this work was to determine if online operators would be willing to work with us to trial safer gambling interventions. In the first trials of their kind, two of the largest online UK operators — bet365, and Sky Betting and Gaming — agreed to test interventions aimed at increasing the uptake of safer gambling tools. In one trial, we took a standard email communication sent by the operator and redesigned it to reduce the friction of setting up a safer gambling tool.

The proportion of people using safer gambling tools increased when we reduced the number of steps needed to access them

Reducing friction in this way led to a 1.5 percentage point increase in the number of people setting deposit limits – an increase of 23.2% over the standard email. We did not, however, see any impact on gambling behaviour (e.g. amount of money spent or time spent on the platform).

Lessons learned, and next steps

The trials showed promise for how simple behavioural insights could reasonably affect a change in safer gambling behaviour. They also showed that operators were willing to run trials in the live business environment. However, there remained a number of open opportunities and questions around how we could have greater impact to reduce gambling harm:

  • Assessing behaviour on a single online platform gives only part of the picture. With online gambling customers likely having accounts across multiple operators, a more holistic perspective on behaviour is needed to understand when, and where interventions might be best suited.
  • More ambitious interventions are needed to have real impacts on gambling behaviour. The first trials involved simple changes, such as tweaking the design of an email. Would operators be willing to work on trials to redesign the functionality of safer gambling tools, for instance?

Since 2018, we have been working hard to answer these questions. Over the next six months and beyond, we will share findings from our ongoing projects, including: 

  1. Redesigning operator safer gambling tools to reduce gambling harm and test what works.
  2. Analysing bank transaction data to get a more holistic perspective on peoples’ gambling behaviour
  3. Evaluating the impact of safer gambling messaging trials

With the Government set to imminently launch a full review of the 2005 Gambling Act, and several influential reports on gambling harms coming out of Westminster this year*, it’s clear that this is a crucial and opportune time for policymakers, researchers and the industry to drive positive change in player protections. Our work has already shown the potential impact that behavioural insights can have in this space, and our forthcoming reports will add even more to the discussion. 

*All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling-related Harm

National Audit Office

Public Accounts Committee

Lords Select Committee