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Step 59: Gambling, the Death Drive, & Libertarian Neutrality

Gambling has grown, as has an addiction to gambling. With technology improvements driven by behavioral science, gambling is more addictive than ever. While it may be your choice to gamble, the cards are stacked against you, and more gambling addicts commit suicide than any other addiction group.

Exactly how do we get addicted, why do we begin gambling in the first place, and if it is a flaw in our society why do we persist in thinking of it as a personal psychological failure? How does our culture’s decree to find your “individual freedom” lead to a circumstance where the only path seems to be death? And perhaps that niggling doubt you have about libertarianism choice and free markets at the heart of the Las Vegas experiment is key to understanding how we got here.

The World Beyond Your Head

Matthew Crawford (2015)

Part 1: Gambling

Part 2: Autism

Part 3: the Death Drive

Part 4: Libertarian Neutrality


the world beyond your head
Step 59: Gambling, the Death Drive, & Libertarian Neutrality

Part 1: Gambling

Gambling has a very sordid past, but it seems like we have overcome that just by renaming it “gaming.” Just drop a couple of letters and we completely forget it was a mafia-run racket.

Hollywood portrays gambling as urbane James Bond-style poker or roulette where well-dressed people throw around insane sums of money. It’s not so often that you see the darker side in movies like “uncut gems.” What you also don’t see are the boring, monotonous, and tragic scenes of nearly two-thirds of Vegas’s residents who are addicted to gambling.

It looks a little more like this, you wake up in your box of an apartment, late in the afternoon because you have a night shift. You drive to work in a box on wheels, go to work at a boxy casino with a cartoonish facade, and after sitting in your boxy cubicle you cash out your daily earnings so you can go to your own preferred box -the casino where you are part of a “loyalty membership program”… and 82% of residents are- and then you spend the next 6 to 12 hours sitting in front of a box that whirs, rings, and flashes until you are out of money. 

Maybe you have a favorite slot machine, a box with only a mildly garish theme or maybe a really garish theme. It used to be close to the ATM, so you didn’t have to walk so far… because you don’t want to be disrupted if you really get into the zone while playing. Of course, now there is an ATM built in so nothing can slow you down. However, your machine isn’t near the bathroom, so you wear dark pants because you’ve learned before it’s harder for others to see the wetness when you pee yourself. 

Machine gambling, such as video poker and slot machines, accounts for 85% of all Las Vegas profits (2015), and it appears more as hunched zombies enthralled by whirring, chiming screens.

The Vegas metamorphosis, after being Mafia-run, began around 1980 as it transferred gambling into legalized corporations, which conveniently provide protections for stakeholders so they are under less scrutiny. This gentrification through legal whitewashing gentrifies all of Vegas, increasing tourism fourfold from 1980 to 2008. 

Sure, tourism isn’t always gambling, but Vegas is an environment designed to disrupt your normal inhibitions and the ability to self-regulate. We’ve already discussed how our environment alters the way we react and think: our mind reacts to what is afforded to us and the “choice architectures” in Vegas all lead to losing track of time, confusion, normalizing imprudent behavior, and emptying out your pockets. 

How successful is it at emptying your pockets?

 Gambling has increased to $53 billion per year. Which is more than movies books and music combined. If gambling is “entertainment” it’s outstripping the creative arts… and what is returning back to our society?

 Statistically, the gambling association says about 1 in 300 people are at risk of harm by gambling, but other studies show it is more like 3 in 100, and 1 in 10 for men. (PDF here, Gaurdian article )

Machine gambling specifically is addictive because there have been technological nnovations and behavioral science-based alterations. Similar to how Facebook or YouTube are driven to increase your “time on platform,” machine gambling is designed to increase “time on device,” so they work hard to remove all inconveniences that might pull you away… 

need an ATM? We built one in. Does your but hurt? We will add more padding? Does pulling the lever bother your shoulder? Just tap this button. Our newest upgrade includes a catheter. 

Yet, the design of the machines remains outwardly similar to old-school (gear-driven) machines. For instance, they keep the same number of symbols as classic machines even though on a digital platform you could choose any number you wanted. Crawford says people have an inbuilt trust for the naturalistic laws of the mechanical that does not carry over to computer algorithms. That big lever? Leave it, for nostalgia, but by adding buttons and other advances, you go from being able to play 300 games in an hour to 1200 games in an hour. 

While you may think that would just make you go broke quicker, the speed of play actually makes gambling more engaging and more stimulating. It also allows for the key function: more cycles of play allow the machine to better train and addict the gambler. 

For instance, there are a lot of little psychological behavioral hacks embedded, while the number of symbols on the machine may be the same they now divide up the white space between the symbols as “virtual stops.” This means the Cherry symbol might land just off-screen, or just barely above the centerline. Argh, so close to a win! 

This “near miss” is known as the “frustration theory of persistence” or “cognitive regret”… and we have all experienced it, because it is how we learn to navigate the world. 

When you were learning how to cook, or perhaps do a craft like drawing painting or woodworking, the way we perceive the world or apprehend reality, is to perceive patterns and work to refine them. This takes a kind of oscillating back and forth, narrowing down, where maybe the eggs are a little too runny the first time maybe a little too cooked the next, but that near-miss helps train you to become competent, even masterful. 

The “near miss” in life is proof you can master a skill. Our ability to affect change in the world is tied to these feelings which the machines evoke.  

“Our ability to apprehend reality is intimately bound up with our own agency.” 

Matthew Crawford

As such, machine gambling generates what is called “autotelic activities“. This is when you were trying to bring something valuable into view, or to reality, through your activity. The activity itself is a way to generate insight. The problem is in autotelic activities the target moves, only revealing itself when pursued. 

In machine gambling, you have to play (pay) more to discover the pattern. In pursuit of this pattern, gamblers feel like they are learning an “arcane skill” or forming an intuitive connection: they are on the edge of discovering something. This level of focus allows gamblers to get into the zone, into a flow state

This is the fundamental design of the machine: to keep you engaged as it sets up a “reinforcement schedule” -which is like “operant conditioning” (BF Skinner) or “pavlovian training”- and the algorithm gives just enough reward and near-miss sensations to keep someone engaged. This stimulation gradually diminishes the activity in the prefrontal cortex, and the player ceases to self-identify or self-regulate, making them passive and pliable. 

Gamblers describe getting into the zone as losing a sense of themselves, dissolving and becoming one with the machine, where “their own actions become indistinguishable from the machine.” 

“I no longer feel my hand touching the machine, I feel connected like it it’s an extension of me.” 

an automatic slot machine Gambler

This is the way race car drivers and master craftsmen talk. 

Natasha Dow Schull says the appeal of the games is that the player has a sense of control, and the effects can be reliably reproduced where the player “loses themself in the machine” in a state of “absorbed automaticity.” 

“They give themselves over to the logic of the machine, and are rewarded by a feeling of efficacy. That is, you lose yourself and thereby you gain control.” 

Matthew Crawford
Step 59: Gambling, the Death Drive, & Libertarian Neutrality

Part 2: Autism

Losing yourself, in a contradictory fashion, is a way to gain control by giving up control. 

In your search for “agency,” which is to know your actions have an effect on the world, you attempt to master an occult set of symbols rotating in front of you in a fun, magic box. It is kind of fun and tantalizing and when you touch a button something happens… and at least here, sunk into this interaction, you get something beyond distraction, something you deeply, psychosocially crave. 

“I don’t care if it takes coins or pay coins the contract is that when I put a new coin in and press those buttons I’m allowed to continue. So it isn’t really a gamble at all in fact it’s one of the few places I’m certain about anything. If you can’t rely on the machine then you might as well be in the human world where you have no predictability either.” 

a machine gambler

Dress it up however you like, but the world is precarious and unpredictable. We are told to “be free!” but genuine agency is scarce. Afraid, alone, angry, and insecure, we are looking for some stability, some semblance of control. 

In our daily life, we must follow the generic script of our cubicle job, we drive the same route back to our box apartment… this routine sounds secure, but it the box is a trap stripping us of agency… we can’t change anything so we never learn to fix anything, we eat box dinners and watch the flat box on the wall, and if something goes wrong or we want better food we use our tiny, slick little boxes to call immigrant populations to fix our lives. 

We are not secure, we are stuck in a confusing and impersonal world.

 “The very possibility of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own may come to seem illusory.“

Crawford says we attempt to exist living between this highly individualist ideal, where we’re supposed to be an unencumbered self who acts freely, yet in reality, we are frustrated by the insecurities and obscurities of our world, and must Retreat into the autistic ideal. 

The autistic state is easiest to understand if you consider childhood development. When a child is born up until about 3 months they want what is called perfect contingency, that is where the child’s actions and external world aligned perfectly. This sounds great, but it becomes really boring and we would never grow or evolve if we stayed in this state. 

After three months children tend to want imperfect contingency, that is challenges and novelty, mysteries. 

Another facet of childhood development is that a child likes to explore and play with mysteries or experience new challenges. When it is too overwhelming the kid scampers back to a parent or a safe place, from which they can process, regroup, and then go out adventuring into the world again. Safety and security, then exploration and play, are in a continual cycle. 

Autistic children, on the other hand, continue to crave perfect contingency, where the external world remains completely predictable and shows no vitality. Routine and sameness are paramount. The autistic child prefers rocking or swinging. These are self-generated self-soothing patterns using the body to create a near-perfect contingency response. Similar to pushing a button repeatedly. 

Crawford brings up, that in an unpredictable world, many people are craving control and tend to seek “personal technologies,” maybe a cell phone, and “manufactured certainties“, like games, to manage the anxieties produced by a world busily capitalizing on experience and attention. 

In this world, in our boxes, we have only the illusion of agency while beset by constant manipulation, bureaucratic confusion, and inhuman expectations.  As Crawford says, the appeal of machine gambling seems to be tied to the human world lacking basic intelligibility, thus we are all becoming autistic. 

Step 59: Gambling, the Death Drive, & Libertarian Neutrality

 Part 3: The Death Drive

We’ve discussed before the Deaths of Despair, which are alcoholism, overdoses, and suicides. A few years ago it was one of the biggest killers of middle-aged white men without a college degree. 

In our Tryanny of Merit episodes, Michael Sandel brings up that Angus Deaton and Anne Case, who wrote the book “Deaths of Despair,” say that it is because these people have lost their place in the world.

 Yet out of any addiction group, the highest suicide rate is among those addicted to gambling. This is even more distressing when you hear about gambling’s rise, with sports betting tripling in the last 2 years. 

This stems from the cultural paradigm of insecurity, and to manage the anxiety we look to “manufactured certainties.” 

If gambling is indeed at first seeking control or agency by learning an arcane pattern recognition skill, and then a gradual addiction through behavioral reinforcement, leading eventually to complete submission to the machine’s algorithmic logic… then you gain relief and security in a new routine… there are no more decisions you need to make. 

You now know what you will do after work, what you will do with your money, and what you will do with your time. You will gamble it all away. 

“the will is relieved of burden.” 

Matthew Crawfrod

This is called “gambling to extinction” where the player works towards loss, attempting to hit zero. 

Dow Schull discusses gamblers actually being annoyed at winning, because they know they are addicted and will just have to sit there longer gambling, getting less sleep. Hitting zero is the only way you can leave. 

Crawford brings up that, in a society predicated on “freedom” the pressure of constantly making choices to reinforce, to claim, your individuality is too much to bear. The passivity of handing over all choices, and submitting completely, grants the gambler freedom from the tyranny of freedom. 

At this point, deeply addicted and destroying yourself, there is only one thing left you can control. The conditions of your death.


 Freud, later in his life, after he acknowledged not everything is about sex, talked about the destructive drive, which he called the “death instinct” or the “death drive.” The death drive (as a concept) makes sense of behavior that at first seems crazy: when cornered and driven beyond your limits death offers a state of rest, stillness, and peace

Psychologically, when we feel we are being controlled, we can run, rebel, or submit. One option (rebel) is to destroy the object that’s controlling us. Yet, for addicts, you can’t run from yourself, and destroying the thing you crave is akin to harming yourself (and not possible in the case of gambling). Once addicted, as Freud would say, you have moved into “a compulsion beyond the pleasure principle.” 

It now primarily gives pain. 

You are under its control and it causes you pain… yet, you cannot lash out and destroy all gambling. Your destructive impulse to lash out, inflamed by anxieties and stress, has only one direction left to turn: yourself. 

With one final middle finger, you can reclaim control by controlling your exit. 

Step 59: Gambling, the Death Drive, & Libertarian Neutrality

 Part 4: Libertarian Neutrality

“People are free to do as they wish. They should be able to make their own decisions.”

Libertarian Slogans

And Las Vegas is a kind of libertarian experiment, a liberal playground, where your right to risk, to play and lose, supports “free market” profits. 

This aligns with another mantra: “government interference is bad for the economy.” Doubtful, but it is undeniable government interference is bad for the bottom line of some very particular people. 

Thus we enter a confusing game of distraction through language: Libertarians site your freedom as a self-regulated individual, and then let loose a $53 Billion industry to scientifically engineer an addictive program leveraging every animal instinct you have against you. 

In tandem, when players do become addicted, our ballooning field of psychiatry medically designates them as pathological gamblers, sort of implying they have an internal self-regulation defect. As Crawford says since that is a personal problem society has no urgent reason to criticize external forces. 

This misdirection continues as a game of cost-benefit analysis.

If these people cannot control themselves (it is after all an internal defect) then they will lose all their money no matter what safety nets are in place or if you help them… and if all that money is going somewhere (because they are pathological losers), the state might as well get a portion of that money. 

Thus, the state positions itself to profit from corpse making rather than halt the slaughter. 

To clarify, Crawford says the libertarian economic analysis is only seeing the upside to the wealth transfer without considering or even acknowledging the new conditions unleashed where addictive design outstrips a human’s ability to self-regulate. 

But, we are all a bit guilty of this way of thinking, because we have been tied into a freedom pretzel trying to get our freedom cheese. 

 We don’t want to be paternalistically judgmental, it is after all the other person’s right to make their own choices, and perhaps they would flourish, who am I to say? I would hate to come off as righteous or prudish, imposing my values, like some sort of totalitarian nationalist or a religious nut, so I should carefully maintain my neutrality, turning all questioning onto myself rather than the world. 

Crawford says all our talk of autonomy has led to its opposite: our threat now is our liberal commitment to neutrality. Because when we remain neutral and squeamish about confronting the practices that degrade people, there is a void left and capital nimbly slips into the gap. Capital coopts and uses the language of autonomy, which further neutralizes our critical faculties through more misdirection.

So, how do we recover? 

Crawford says we first need to be able to articulate a picture of the good life

As you might remember from Richard Sennett’s “The Culture of the New Capitalism” the younger generations he interviewed could not articulate what a good life would look like. And if you do not know what the good life is, how can you be critical of how you have fallen off the path, or even what the path might look like? 

Instead, we are left with a narrow consideration of what is “good”… and it tends to be economic in nature and wrapped in positive freedom.

Unfortunately, Crawford says for a libertarian to recommend a substantive life, a good life, it would require a substantive ideal, not a policy of neutrality by looking away. Using words like “freedom” and “difference” may sound radically liberal, but if I understand Crawford’s argument right, these terms offer an abstracted, idealistic buffer zone, a neutralizing space, from which no real commitment to others needs to be made. 

Your proclamation allows you, as a libertarian free-market capitalist, to align yourself with caring for people’s rights (you are sovereign and free) while it equally allows you to take advantage when they enslave themselves (someone is going to profit, might as well be me). 

Proclaiming the good life through “freedom of choice” is hard to sustain when you look at Nevada as an example. 

Sure, the state is prosperous, but are its addicted citizens free? Is anyone addicted and in poverty truly free? And is anyone dependent, on a state or employment actually free? See… this freedom thing falls apart pretty quickly, yet remains a potent rallying cry. 

The libertarian stance of “freedom to decide” sounds laudable, but it is neutralizing by remaining disengaged: it covers for a lack of public-spiritedness (that is true social care) and critical engagement (that is it goes conceptual to dismiss obvious contradictions). 

“Libertarians are confused because, unlike King James I, Verizon doesn’t make a straightforward assertion of sovereignty. Instead it wraps you up in the Embrace of rational looking bureaucratic irrationality. while in this embrace (your call is important to us) one catches a distinct odor of bad faith and being suspect that the irrationality one is battling is not due to a system error, but part of the business plan.” 

While the free market, that is Verizon, allows you to freely enter into a contract with them, if you don’t pay you aren’t attacked, instead you have a hit on your credit report. Capital now operates has its own quasi-government reward-punishment patterns, similar to the state or even King James. They just do it in more baroque ways without edicts, increasingly inventing bureaucratic arcane mazes complete with punitive behavioral training. 

This is machine gambling, and behavioral manipulation, on a global scale. 

The confusion here, says Crawford, stems from the paradox of being “free as a sovereign individual” in a society dedicated to leveraging your animalistic instincts against you. 

What we are lacking is a realistic, positive, and full account of what it is to be human, not just economic concerns and other narrowly reductive metrics. What we need is an account of what it is to be an actor in the world in touch with other people.

 Instead, we are left with the “autistic psudeo autonomy of manufactured experiences,” which pale in comparison.   

(This is part seven of several episodes on “The World Beyond Your Head”)

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Natasha Dow Schüll, “Addiction by Design” 2014

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head (2015) _ link

personal technologies examples:

manufacturing certainty, blog post:

Deaths of Despair, Angus Deaton and Anne Case (2020)


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