October 2020 | Vol. XIX - No. 10
Psychologists and other researchers have made significant advances in the understanding of human behavior as it pertains to rewards, gambling, and why it’s so hard to stop. Combining those factors with tactics to specifically market gambling-like products towards children explains the rise in popularity of mystery boxes.
There are several psychological phenomena one needs to be introduced to, to understand the powerful grip gambling can have on people. Arguably the most important of which, was presented in the late twentieth century by American psychologist B.F. Skinner and his analysis of operant conditioning, a learning process in which the strength of a behavior is shaped by reinforcement or punishment.
How does operant conditioning translate to gambling? According to Brainfacts.org, in an article titled Gambling Addiction and the Brain , the act of gambling activates the ventral striatum, or the reward center of the brain. And recalling the video of B.F. Skinner’s box, it can be assessed that the pressing of the button is what activates the reward center of the brain, and not the anticipated reward itself. Translate that result from an animal in a box, to a human in a casino and the result is just the same. Winning is nice, but in terms of a gambling disorder, it stops being about the prize and more about participating in the activity before the prize.
In 2013, the American Psychology Association, APA officially changed the classification in “Addiction and Related disorders” to include disordered gambling this was important because it helps other researchers more easily understand and categorize theories and results through this interpretive process. If gambling addictions can be compared to alcohol and drug addiction, society can more easily analyze solutions to help those afflicted.
Another reason gambling is very difficult to stop, apart from the physiological response from the brain, is the age old logical fallacy called the “Sunk Cost.”
Julia Galef: The Sunk Costs Fallacy | Big Think Video:
After compounding those ideas, it is now finally time to apply them to toys. When considering the mystery box marketing strategy, it applies to both the operant conditioning theory and the sunk cost fallacy.
Let us analyze one of the newest toys to make use of the blind purchase mechanic that has been gaining a lot of popularity in the last few years, Zuru 5 Surprise Mini Brands This toy, and the people who collect it operate on a similar fundamental level of gambling, with a few key differences. While gambling is usually done with the customer exchanging money for a chance of a return on the investment (although typically not recovering much), Mini Brands always offers a guaranteed five game pieces in every package.
But to children who might not know the difference, they may need to convince their parents to buy dozens of packages to collect them all. Currently there are over 70 different game pieces, not including gold variants of the toys, which add the overall goal of collecting them all.
MINI BRANDS Buying as MANY as I can FIND! Will I complete my MINI BRAND COLLECTION? Video:
Another avenue that funnels children into the mystery box/surprise toy trend is social media. Being exposed to influencers who are in a position to spend large amounts of money to complete collections like Mini Brands can contribute to the overall demand for those products. Sometimes, toys are not the only things being gambled on.
In 2019, popular Youtubers began promoting different websites that mimicked mystery box style methods, and caused a huge backlash as it was blatantly prompting gambling to children.
Both the BBC and the INDEPENDENT newspapers in the UK reported on a rise in child gambling.
Combining the psychology of gambling with popular intellectual property aimed at children has proven to be a major success for the toy makers. But do these businesses have any responsibility towards solving the issue? After all, for the most part children’s spending comes directly from their parents.
A person’s mind is not fully developed until age 25, so it stands to reason that while it is developing, emphasis should be placed on mitigating expectations each time a mystery box toy is purchased, because the probability does not change no matter how many packages are purchased.
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