Positive friction: Can subtle changes prevent major harms?

| By Marese O'Hagan | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Safer gambling week special: With the resignation of prime minister Liz Truss shelving the Gambling Act Review until further notice, it could be even longer until tougher affordability checks and more stringent payments measures are put in place to protect players. Marese O'Hagan speaks to Aisling Ní Chonaire, head of the gambling policy and research unit at the Behavioural Insights Team and Matt Smith, UK head of external affairs at Betknowmore about what measures can currently be put in place to prevent large losses.
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In the limbo between Truss stepping down and a new Conservative Party leader stepping up, improving efforts to deal with gambling harm will likely continue to fall to the industry until further notice.

So far, policies that have looked to minimise problem gambling have often focused on large measures that directly impact a player’s spend.

But in the meantime, smaller-scale efforts to limit how much players can deposit could make a surprisingly large difference. If players experience friction when seeking to deposit large amounts of money consistently, it may provide enough time to reflect and for those that should not be depositing these sums to rethink.

The Behavioural Insights Team’s gambling policy and research unit (GPRU) was created for reasons such as this. It consists of specialists who test methods and approaches created to reduce gambling harm, and is based on gambling work carried out by the Team over the last five years.

Aisling Ní Chonaire, head of the gambling policy and research unit at the Behavioural Insights Team, says the GPRU is a necessary force in the fight to minimise all facets of gambling harm in the UK.

“The overall mission of the GPRU is to discover, test and scale ways to minimise gambling related harm,” says Ní Chonaire. “Any of the projects we launch should have an end goal to reduce at least one of the following; resource harm, health harm, or social harm caused by gambling.”

Many of the changes the GPRU has proposed seem almost unnoticeable. But Ní Chonaire says they make a serious difference.

“We know that the current market standard for gambling management tools isn’t good enough,” she says. “Our research found that simple changes such as providing free text boxes rather than drop-down menus help people to set more effective deposit limits that better align with their preferences.

“A small change almost halved the deposit limits that people set, making them much more realistic and effective.”

Payments woes

While some changes involve introducing friction for high spend, removing friction for safety measures is also important. Ní Chonaire believes there should be more responsibility on operators to implement automatic affordability checks, making these much smoother so that players aren’t driven away by having to provide bank statements.

“Gambling operators should do more to ensure that their customers can afford to make bets on their platforms,” she says. “Most operators do complete affordability checks for some customers – however, many people are falling through the cracks.

“Affordability checks that are frictionless and easy to use should just be a normal part of gambling, and there is no reason why the vast majority of these can’t happen automatically in the background.

“However, there is much more that can and should be done across the sector to help people manage their gambling spend. This is something that we at BIT will be doing more of in the coming year and we are looking forward to close collaboration with banks.”

These will likely play a part in any harm strategy. But Matt Smith, UK head of external affairs at Betknowmore, is inclined towards a vulnerability focus, placing the onus on operators as opposed to affordability providers, in order to get a more holistic picture of whether customers are at risk.

“I think the key is that it’s not necessarily a financial issue,” he says. “Operators have been talking about financial checks, but I think it’s more to do with vulnerability checks.

“Operators and those associated with them need to be speaking to customers more.”

Whose responsibility?

Much of the discussion on gambling harm involves working out who is responsible for preventing it. Operators are one party that naturally have to take a large amount of responsibility.

“I think the key is that it’s not necessarily a financial issue,” Smith says. “Operators have been talking about financial checks, but I think it’s more to do with vulnerability checks.

“Operators and those associated with them need to be speaking to customers more.”

However, Ní Chonaire says that the wider finance sector has an undeniable role to play here too.

“Banks and the finance sector have a very important role to play here,” she says. “Firstly, banks have a duty to protect all of their customers and, secondly, they are in a very privileged position to help protect people from gambling harms given their unique overview of their customers’ financial health and spending across multiple gambling operators.”

Smith is positive about the role of the financial sector, believing that the technology and data are all in place to prevent serious losses. It’s just a matter of using it now.

“The thing is with payments, I think there is more being done,” he says. “For example, we have the open banking system. When I apply for a loan they [the bank] can access my account and see what’s going in.”

Beyond the finance and payments industry, Smith says that some much-needed change might only come from above. A single customer view – to be trialled by the Gambling Commission in the next few months – may be the ultimate behind-the-scenes solution to harmful gambling.

“We’re all waiting for the white paper,” says Smith. “The important part will be the single customer view. So the operators are kind of working together to see one customer’s activity.

“At the moment I could gamble all my money with one operator and spend it all, then I could go to another operator and do the same, and another. We need a single view so all operators can see that customer’s activity.”

But both Ní Chonaire and Smith concede that there is room for improvement even before then.

“Some key players are already stepping up here,” says Ní Chonaire. “Monzo for example have developed their own Gambling Block tool to help their customers who want to stop gambling. This is very encouraging.”

Smith agrees, seeing it as an inherently collaborative issue.

“But there should be collaboration and tightening up together. For those who have gambling problems, there should be more checks.”

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