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Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 269-273 ( 25 June )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/scanlan.html
When Freedom Becomes the Oppressive Other
by John Scanlan
A review of Understanding and Treating the Pathological Gambler
by Robert Ladouceur, Caroline Sylvain, Claude Boutin and Celine Doucet
John Wiley & Sons 2002
Occasionally we are reminded of the exhilaration some people feel at the thought of awaking to an unknown future. In modern society we are besieged by offers to grasp such a future through a bewildering array of new experiences - the transformation promised by the apparently untrammelled freedom of modern western societies may be wrought by a variety of means: endlessly re-invented consumer products, perception-altering drugs of one sort or another, tourism, the ‘open’ road of the highway, the escapist fictions of literature and cinema, and so on. Of all the archetypes one may produce to give form to what may be considered as this ideology of ‘the new,’ none seems to more appropriately describe the pitfalls of such freedom than the figure of the gambler.
In history the gambler is synonymous with the amoral knave, the dangerous fool, and the liar and cheat. In short, the gambler is rather akin to the outlaw. In modern society we may conceive this in broader, perhaps more abstract terms. Thus where life itself is motion, and where society is a regulated form of life, the gambler takes flight from formally permanent social relations to engage in a kind of oscillatory motion, a transient to-ing and fro-ing from, on the one hand, the unity of being characteristic of ‘normality,’ to - on the other hand - a sensory and existential dispersal of self realised through the act of wagering.
But far from being entirely separate from ‘normality’ it seems the gambler in some way simply intensifies the motion of the everyday. And it seems clear that everywhere, in every sphere of experience, we are led to believe that personal freedom comes not through the security of the accumulated knowledge of how the world is and within this understanding the context of human action (as a philosophical notion of freedom as a limitation would suggest), but on the contrary it lies in this immediate, possibly unknown, future that is so attractive to the gambler, and that opens up through the performance of choice; specifically in choosing an alternative to simply having more of the same.
Equally one imagines that over the course of a life a great many false trails are followed in the exercise of this freedom. As often as not perhaps, the course of life takes a direction other than that we may have hoped for - how commonplace is the unsatisfying career, the unhappy relationship, or the bad investment, and so on? In fact, whatever way one looks at it, the opportunities to alter one’s life for better or worse are immeasurable. And if the successful consolidation of life becomes recognisable as ultimately a kind of moral and material upbuilding, an act of raising oneself clear of the swamp of base existence, it seems equally obvious that once such an exalted position is arrived at, the abyss below yet again awaits a fall when one again veers towards the precipice in search of the new.
In the history of philosophy modern freedom was written as a kind of bargain; in short, to guarantee freedom we must live under constraints. By contrast with this a notion of absolute freedom was a meaningless dream. This was summed up in the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, who wrote in 1651 that the weak and irrational (“Children, Fooles and Mad-men”) must be ‘personated’ by guardians as a means of minimizing the harm they may cause to others within society (as well as to themselves). What was notable in such thinking was that it was specifically a failure of reason that would have debilitating effects on society as a whole. By the 20th century social concerns over the irrational gave rise to a new science of the individual, and whilst philosophers like Hobbes did indeed develop a psychology of the failure of thought, belief and action, there was no medical division of such terrain, as, for example, we find with the modern discipline of psychiatry (like psychology, undoubtedly a development from this early modern philosophy). Thus, where society now looks for the pill-bottle or towards therapeutic interventions to find a way to accommodate the variety of ‘disorders’ that assail the modern individual, things were somewhat more straightforward in the time of the philosopher Hobbes. Although, when it comes to gambling - and importantly, the context within which Understanding and Treating the Problem Gambler emerges - there is perhaps more continuity in the basic understanding of what makes the activity ‘wrong’ or in what designates it a ‘disorder’ than may seem apparent to the casual observer.
When, in 1664, an act of the English Parliament identified one specific category of unfortunate men as deserving of assistance for their calamitous descent from virtue and good sense, it did so by implicitly recognising that the exercise of freedom came before a fall - failure was the implicit risk of freedom. The men known as plungers - ex-soldiers fallen on hard times, who had turned to gambling - were awarded a King’s pension both in mitigation of their circumstances and in recognition of loyal service to the crown. This is notable as one of the earliest example of an attempt by the well meaning to guide the apparently helpless back onto the straight and narrow, and more importantly in this context, it may be the first recorded remedial measure taken to mitigate the ill-effects of gambling.
Another crucial insight one may gain from this fact is the continuity it suggests between the early modern understanding of gambling as a kind of uncontrollable movement (plunging) and the modern explanation of gambling found within the pages of Understanding and Treating the Problem Gambler as a subjective inability to control movement (the problem gambler suffers from an ‘impulse control disorder’).
Similarly, both conceptions have a lot to say about how we understand freedom. In particular, freedom without limit in both cases becomes more like the opposite of freedom as subjectively imagined - that is, it transforms into an oppressive and motiveless causal void (what we may call the universe of chance) where events seemingly explode into being, the result of some unknown ‘inflammable’ causal mixture.
It is my belief that there is much to be gleaned from the historical leftovers that lie behind a journey that takes us from the notion of a moral and/or rational decline or abandonment (e.g., plunging) to a contemporary notion of illness (e.g., impulse control disorders). Unfortunately such an approach has been overlooked by the authors of this book in favour of the straightforward acceptance of an explanatory model that has, in recent decades, gained much ground due in large part to the influence within the medical profession of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association.
Whilst much of the research in this field is concerned with identifying the reasons for the development of problem gambling, Robert Ladouceur and his co-authors - who all work as researchers and clinicians in psychology - seek to take valuable lessons from previous attempts to understand and treat problem gambling (which have ranged from drug therapy to, at an extreme, electro-shock therapy). The book thus contains two distinct parts, with the latter chapters providing an evaluation of treatment interventions that would be useful for practitioners having no prior experience of dealing with gamblers (the presumable audience for the book). The opening chapters on the history and psychology of gambling, and on the history of treatment, are a valuable (though very short) introduction to the evolution of a growing field of study. It is in the following, middle chapters of the book - on assessing the gambler, and on the elaboration of what the authors call ‘the fundamental principle of gambling’ - that I find the difficulties with the whole enterprise become apparent.
At this stage I must also declare that as a sociologist I am likely not the intended target for this book, but I nevertheless cannot but be detained by a number of philosophical, if not methodological differences (and thus difficulties), between my own, and the authors’ understanding of this important area.
First of all, the development of the idea of gambling as an illness seems to slip too easily into a state of affairs in which the gambler is encouraged to avoid full responsibility for his or her actions. Indeed, it appears that the gamblers are victims of some oppressive contagion that circulates in gambling playgrounds:
Gamblers become victims of their desire to gamble; more specifically, they are not able to control their erroneous thoughts, to postpone their decision to gamble, and to solve their problems. This absence or poor development of these kinds of skills predispose gamblers to contracting an abusive gambling habit.
This is not, by any means, an unusual point of view within the contemporary field of gambling studies, but its repetition does not make it any more plausible as an explanation of why people gamble. What is wrong with it is that it fails to understand that the value of gambling - and by extension the appearance of problems associated with gambling - only make sense, can only be properly elaborated, within a contextual understanding of this modern ideology of the new. For thousands of years (as the authors note) people have gambled. In ancient societies, casting lots or dicing was a means of divining the ‘will of the gods’; if nothing else, an affirmation of the lowly status of the individual within a cosmological order. Which is to say, it did not involve an attempt to break out of ‘reality’ because it did not entail the exercise (or misuse) of freedom that is found to be characteristic of gambling in modern societies: in the philosophical universe of the pre-modern, there is no conception of rational freedom - gamblers act out the will of the gods, and so on.
The crucial point is this: it is not clear that the modern gambler - or specifically the problem gambler - is unable to “control erroneous thoughts” and that due to such a failing subsequently becomes a victim of a dangerous mixture of desire and habit. Is it not the case that gambling in extremis becomes (for the player) the limit point of freedom, and that the step over the precipice is precisely what defines the very order out of which we can make the diagnosis of ‘disorder,’ and thus the means by which we establish ‘normal life’? Equally we may wonder if there is no value at all in experiences that may prove to bring disappointment or pain to an individual? Isn’t to gamble and to lose itself a valuable demonstration of the absolute folly of a belief in untrammelled freedom? This is not to suggest that everyone should be encouraged to push freedom to the absolute limit, but is not the declaration of every misfortune as an illness the warrant of a damaging infantilism that sees us all as ‘Children, Fooles, or Mad-men’ (to repeat Thomas Hobbes)?
Within the context of modern society (where the domain of freedom becomes ever-more regulated) it is apparent that these questions may lead us to an understanding of why an inability to control subjective movement is now designated an illness, and not, as with the 17th century plungers, an unfortunate and pitiful decline. It is because the control of movement has become such an imperative in modern society that such lapses are now seriously addressed through the medium of a drug therapy, risk-free, conception of freedom. The very real danger here is that if we do not know the risks that accompany freedom - its limits - how can we be said to participate in freedom; how can one fashion freedom without the void of motiveless causes that ‘characterises’ unfree, non-human, nature?
A related problem is that it is only by the existence of ill effects (i.e., those identified and demanding of interventions) that this whole ‘pathological’ interpretation stands at all. A term frequently used by the authors is ‘excessive gambling,’ and whilst I have an inkling that this simply means ‘problem gambling,’ it also seems the authors would like this to represent also the many who have not yet admitted to having a problem. The difficulty here is that as a relative, and qualitative, distinction, ‘excess’ is really of little use in allowing practitioners to assess when a problem exists. The distinction seems only to arise when a subject (a victim in the terminology of pathology) has reached the end of some line - by which time, I’m sure the authors would argue, the damage has been done.
This text also repeats a claim well known in the literature on problem gambling that dates back to a paper published by Ellen Langer (then of Harvard University) in 1976. Langer claimed that players develop an ‘illusion of control’ in gambling situations, believing that decisions they make in a series of bets could influence the outcome of a gambling event in their favour, thus firming up a conviction that their skill can win out against chance. Whilst this claim may simply point to elements of superstition - or hope beyond experience (whatever one may call it) - in the development of psychiatric responses to gambling problems it has had a more serious and problematic life: it has become the evidence that, as the authors of this book claim, gamblers fail to understand ‘the fundamental principle of gambling’ - that gambling outcomes are not causally related (this they refer to as the ‘independence of turns’). This is a surprising conclusion. For a start the Langer research was conducted, not using gamblers at all, but Harvard students in a lab setting who were offered various inducements to participate (where gambling is concerned - an activity that is only given as a sociological reality we must remember - this is a serious failure). In many interviews I have conducted with gamblers I have yet to encounter the player who really believes that ‘skill’ can affect the outcome of a gambling situation. Certainly, most players display an overabundance of hope in an outcome that would see their choice of bet force a convergence of world and will. This can be witnessed in gambling situations as, for example, verbal exhortations of certainty, and so on; but when seen within this context it also becomes part of the game as well - by claiming credit for a victory the gambler participates in the particular social world of gambling.
Thus, I would suggest that it is more likely the case that gamblers, once in the ‘playground,’ entertain a number of symbolic practices: in fact the distance from the rational world (where the need to avoid ‘erroneous thoughts’ is taken for granted) could not be more marked. What is the point of trying to be rational in a gambling situation? None, it seems. In effect the gambler takes a plunge into the unknown, and believes for a time that the course of the future can be altered in their favour. This is well-illustrated by a scene from Karel Reisz’s 1974 film The Gambler, in which the eponymous character is seen at a blackjack table in Las Vegas, ready to blow all his winnings once again on one final turn of the card. His girlfriend, seated beside him says: “You must be mad.” “Mad,” he replies. “Yes. But I’m also blessed.”
The point is that gamblers don’t misunderstand chance - the so-called ‘independence of turns’ - as the authors claim in a number of exceedingly patronising ‘analyses’. One wonders what gamblers they have studied (and herein may lie another problem in generalising research findings from the assessment of self-confessed problem gamblers)? The problem gambler may end up ensnared in a universe of chance, but this is something different: this is the love of the play, the prospect of a future refashioned that the gambler knows as ‘the juice’. This is the problem with gambling because it is where freedom can be loosened from its (rational) foundations. And whilst the authors understand chance within the gambling context as a failure to understand the ‘independence of turns’ they don’t see that in the gambler’s view ‘proper thinking’ can have no use within a situation that is always equiprobable. Which is to say, as an actual event, the experience of wagering is either one of winning or losing: it is, in other words, an absolute and unique experience, and therein lies much of its appeal.
Whilst the authors of this book are correct to highlight the very real dangers of gambling, I feel that the narrow focus on the individual as the site of understanding (and thus providing the basis for treatment) betrays the limits of the ‘problem gambling as illness’ school, of which they are a part.
Perhaps the key to understanding why gambling can become problematic may be found in coming to terms with this ceaseless desire - promoted in modern society - to avoid a life that is a continual repetition of the same. Where the psychiatric definition of gambling as an ‘impulse control order’ is on the mark is in implicitly suggesting that it is the wayward movement of desire - the impulse - that contains so much danger. But where this fails is that it neglects to see gambling within a context of modern demand for novelty (where we are habitually invited to lose or loosen control); within a context of the new experience as the affirmation of a personal existence that can only be made meaningful in subjective terms. It is somewhat ironic that ‘problem gambling’ then becomes most apparent when it reflects an exaggerated form of modern life - that is to say, in an endless cycle of more of the same.
In the repetition of the wager the gambler who loses control attempts to find personal freedom but instead finds only the oppressive force of nature beyond human control. This is the descent of freedom into its paradoxical opposite, the floating suspense of an otherness that has been loosened from the secure ground of rational autonomy.
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© John Scanlan.
John Scanlan, PhD, is a UK-based writer who has previously taught on the subject of gambling at the University of Salford.
Scanlan, J. (2002). When Freedom Becomes the Oppressive Other. Human Nature Review. 2: 269-273.