Should Gamblers Bear Responsibility for their Habits?

"Friends in Casino on a slot machine; all obviously are winning" by Kzenon / Shutterstock

The morning the trouble began—years before anyone realized there was trouble in the first place—Angie Bachmann was sitting at home, staring at the television, so bored that she was giving serious thought to reorganizing the silverware drawer. Her kids were in school. Her husband worked all the time. Bachmann had gotten married young and had become pregnant almost right away. She had never held down a meaningful job.

At the time, Bachmann had no idea that – someday – she would become one of the most prominent test cases of whether people should bear responsibility for their habits. Bachmann, in fact, would become a defining example of how neurological discoveries in the science of habit formation are challenging our concepts of right and wrong.

That morning, all she knew was that she was really, really bored.

So at about noon, Bachmann put on some makeup and a nice dress and drove to a riverboat casino about twenty minutes away from her house. She made her way to a blackjack table where a dealer patiently explained the rules. When her forty dollars of chips were gone, she glanced at her watch and saw two hours had flown by. That night at dinner, for the first time in a month, she had something to talk about besides outguessing a contestant on The Price Is Right.

After that first trip to the casino, Bachmann started going to the riverboat once a week. Then twice a week. Within six months, she had picked up enough tricks that she could play for two- or three-hours and still have cash in her pocket when she walked away. One afternoon, she sat down at the blackjack table with $80 in her purse and left with $530—enough to buy groceries, pay the phone bill, and put a bit in the rainy day fund.

Over the next decade, Bachmann played regularly. She had never had any problems with drinking or drugs or overeating. She was a normal mom. So the compulsion she felt when she walked into a casino caught her completely off guard. She went whenever she fought with her husband or felt unappreciated by her kids or was just bored. At the tables she was numb and excited, all at once. The high of winning was so immediate. The pain of losing passed so fast. Her gambling, neurologists would later conclude, had essentially become a habit.

All habits, I learned while writing my book, Habit, have a similar structure: First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode. Then there is the routine – the behavior itself – which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular behavior is worth remembering for the future.

For Bachmann, once her gambling became a habit, the cue was almost any emotional upheaval or boredom. The routine was to hit the casino, and the reward was that sense of excited numbness:

When Bachmann's parents died, they left her almost a million dollars. By then, her playing was out of control. She was gambling every day. And soon, she had lost all the money she had inherited. As well as the proceeds from the secret mortgage on her house. She had even signed promissory notes to the casino for $125,000. And when she couldn't pay, the casino sued her, asking for what she owed plus $375,000 in penalties.

Which is when Bachmann's lawyer unveiled his defense. His client's habits, he claimed in a countersuit, had been preyed upon by the casino. They had offered her credit, free suites, and booze, and had taken advantage of her nearly subconscious patterns. She had no control over her behaviors because they occurred automatically.

And there's scientific reasons, it turns out, for why that might be true.

In 2010, a cognitive neuroscientist named Reza Habib asked twenty-two people to lie inside an MRI and watch a slot machine spin around and around.

Half of the participants were "pathological gamblers"—people who had lied to their families about their gambling, missed work to gamble, or had bounced checks at a casino—while the other half were people who gambled socially but didn't exhibit any problematic behaviors. Everyone was told to watch wheels of lucky 7s, apples, and gold bars spin across a video screen. The slot machine was programmed to deliver three outcomes: a win, a loss, and a "near miss," in which the slots almost matched up but, at the last moment, failed to align. None of the participants won or lost any money. All they had to do was watch the screen as the MRI recorded their neurological activity.

"We were particularly interested in looking at the brain systems involved in habits and addictions," Habib told me. "What was really interesting were the near misses. To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. But to a nonpathological gambler, a near miss was like a loss. People without a gambling problem were better at recognizing that a near miss means you still lose."

Two groups saw the exact same event, but from a neurological perspective, they viewed it differently. People with gambling problems got a mental high from the near misses—which, Habib hypothesizes, is probably why they gamble for so much longer than everyone else: because the near miss triggers those habits that prompt them to put down another bet.

The non-problem gamblers, when they saw a near miss, got a dose of apprehension that triggered a different habit, the one that says I should quit before it gets worse.

This helps explain why Angie Bachmann lost control every time she walked into a casino. Gaming companies are well aware of this tendency, which is why in the past decades, slot machines have been reprogrammed to deliver a more constant supply of near wins and casinos redesigned to trigger gambling habits. That's an aspect of the argument that Bachmann's attorney made as her case went all the way to the state Supreme Court. Once the offers from the casino started rolling in, he told judges, once she walked into the casino, her habits took over and it was impossible for her to control her behavior. And so she should bear no responsibility for the outcomes.

The court didn't buy it.

"There is no common law duty obligating a casino operator to refrain from attempting to entice or contact gamblers that it knows or should know are compulsive gamblers," the court wrote. Bachmann, they decreed, was liable for all her debts.

Which resolves the legal question. But it doesn't really answer a deeper, more urgent query: is this fair?

Habits are not as simple as they appear. In my book, The Power of Habit, I argue that habits are rooted in our neurology. Once a habit is ingrained in our neurochemistry, it never really disappears.

But, by the same token, habits aren't destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how. However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits' routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it.

And so Bachmann, by this logic, probably does deserve to be culpable for her losses. Because she was aware of her habits, and once you know a habit exists, you have the responsibility to change it. If she had tried a bit harder, perhaps she could have reined them in. Others have done so, even in the face of greater temptations.

In fact, Bachmann herself seemed to recognize this. After spending significant time discussing her case, Bachmann broke off communication with me, and refused to confirm details on her history or case—even those available in court records. (The name 'Angie Bachmann,' in fact, is a pseudonym, because without the ability to conduct a final fact check, I felt it was unfair to use her real name.) But in one of our interviews, Bachmann explained that she always, at some level, felt like she would finally win it all back.

"This desperation starts once you realize how much you've lost, and then you feel like you can't stop because you've got to win it back," she told me. "Sometimes I'd start feeling jumpy, like I couldn't think straight, and I'd know that if I pretended I might take another trip soon, it would calm me down. Then they would call and I'd say yes because it was so easy to give in. I really believed I might win it back. I'd won before. If you couldn't win, then gambling wouldn't be legal, right?"

On Bachmann's last night of gambling, she said, she hit a hot streak at about six in the morning. Her piles of chips began to grow. A crowd gathered. She did a quick mentally tally: if she kept playing smart, she would come out on top, and then quit for good.

Then the dealer hit 21. Then he hit it again. A few hands later, he hit it a third time. By ten in the morning, all her chips were gone. Bachmann left the table dazed and walked to her suite. It felt like the floor was shaking. When she got to the room, her husband was waiting for her.

"It's all gone," she told him.

"What do you mean?" he said.

"The money is gone," she said. "All of it."

She had lost everything, she explained. She didn't even really know where it had gone. It felt like all the dollars had disappeared almost automatically.

Excerpted with permission from The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Illustrations by Anton Ioukhnovets.