Category Archives: Addiction
All forms of gambling lie on a luck-skill dimension. Neither games of pure skill nor games of pure chance are particularly attractive to serious gamblers. Games of chance (like lotteries) offer no significant edge to serious gamblers and are unlikely to be gambled upon. While games of skill provide a significant edge for the gambler, serious gamblers need more than an edge – they need an opponent who can be exploited. Serious gamblers gravitate towards types of gambling that provide an appropriate mix of chance and skill. This is one of the reasons why sports betting – and in particular horse-race betting – is so popular for gamblers. In the most recent British Gambling Prevalence Survey published in 2011, the results indicated that betting on horse-races in the past year had slightly decreased to 16% (down from 17% in the 2007 survey) with men (21%) being more likely than women (13%) to have bet on horse-races. The survey also showed that 7% of the sample had gambled on horse-races in the past week. The survey also indicated that horse-race bettors were more likely to be classed as ‘high spenders’ compared to most other types of gambler.
The edge available in horse-race gambling can be sufficient to fully support professional gamblers as they bring their wide range of knowledge to the activity. There is the complex interplay of factors that contributes to the final outcome of the race. There is the form of the horse, the length of the race, the reputation of the jockey, trainer and stable, breeding, weight, the conditions of the racetrack, etc. From this mix of information the horse-race bettor will, broadly speaking, do one of two things. Either they try to select a winner, or they try to select a horse that offers the best odds in terms of its true chances. Assessing these odds (i.e., handicapping), is done by developing ratings based on the available information. Precisely how all these factors can be combined to select a horse is a matter about which most gamblers disagree, but it is reasonable to assume that many punters believe that their knowledge of these factors gives them an edge over other punters that they are competing against.
Individuals clearly differ in how they use complex information to select horses. There has been some interesting research on the psychology of handicapping particularly in whether good handicappers are more intelligent. For instance, American psychologists, Dr. Steve Ceci and Dr. Jeffrey Liker studied a group of experienced horse-race gamblers all of who had been serious gamblers for over eight years and who attended racetracks most days. In a paper that had published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they divided the gamblers into experts and non-experts on the basis of predicting the favourite and the rank order according to odds of the three most favoured horses. Expert gamblers were those who correctly picked the favourite in at least nine out of ten races and correctly picked the top three horses in rank order in at least five out of ten races. In contrast, the best of the non-experts correctly identified the favourite in only five out of ten races, and selected the top three in only two of the ten races. The two groups were then given a number of intelligence quotient (IQ) tests. Ceci and Liker predicted that the experts would have higher IQs on the basis of their handicapping ability but was very surprised to find no difference at all between the two groups’ intelligence levels.
When the psychologists did some follow-up interviewing, they found that one of the best handicappers was a construction worker with a low IQ (of 85). He managed to pick the top horse in terms of post-time odds 100% of the time and picked the top three horses in correct order in five out of ten races. They also highlighted the case of a high IQ lawyer who picked the top horse only 30% of the time and got the rank ordering of the top three horses correct only once. One of the things concluded was that there is probably more than one type of intelligence and that the IQ test that was used may not have measured the types of skill needed in the handicapping of horses. At least Ceci and Liker’s findings give some hope to us all!
Psychologists have also shown that gamblers (including those who bet on horse racing) can be very biased in their thinking. The occasional punter expects to lose but this isn’t the case for serious gamblers. Each bet is part of a pattern of bets that the gambler expects to yield a positive return overall. To the gambler, winning bets confirm that their system is successful. However, losing bets do not convince gamblers that their system is a failure. Gamblers may explain losing bets as an error in implementing their system or to factors beyond their control. In essence, (and as I have shown in some of my own research studies) many gamblers attribute wins to their skilful gambling but explain away losses as something due to external factors or the environment that they gamble in. On a psychological level, the serious gambler is able to maintain their belief that they have a winning system despite mounting losses through biased evaluations of the outcomes. Since winning is central to the gambler’s self-concept and self-esteem, they cannot quit while losing as this would invalidate the core of the self-concept and initiate intense negative effects (such as depression).
Although horse-race gamblers treat their pastime as a skilful activity, it has been estimated that at least 40% of the relevant information that determines the winner of a race is not accessible to any gamblers. Furthermore, despite years of practice, frequent gamblers may still be very poor at assessing the chances of different horses.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Ceci, S. J., & Liker, J. K. (1986). A day at the races: A study of IQ, expertise, and cognitive complexity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 115, 255-266.
Griffiths, M.D. (1994). The role of cognitive bias and skill in fruit machine gambling. British Journal of Psychology, 85, 351-369.
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The psychology of sports betting: What should affiliates know? i-Gaming Business Affiliate, August/September, 46-47.
Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Mobile sportsbetting: A view from the social sciences. i-Gaming Business, 69, 64-65.
Parke, A., Griffiths, M.D. & Irwing, P. (2004). Personality traits in pathological gambling: Sensation seeking, deferment of gratification and competitiveness as risk factors, Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 201-212.
Parke, J., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, A. (2007). Positive thinking among slot machine gamblers: A case of maladaptive coping? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 39-52.
Wardle, H., Moody, A., Spence, S., Orford, J., Volberg, R., Jotangia, D., Griffiths, M., Hussey, D. & Dobbie, F. (2011). British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. London: The Stationery Office.
Wardle, H., Sproston, K., Orford, J., Erens, B., Griffiths, M.D., Constantine, R. & Pigott, S. (2007). The British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2007. London: The Stationery Office
“There is a monster on the loose, and it is out to eat your brain. Pitiless in its advance and deadly in its cunning, Sudoku, a seemingly simple numbers game, has become the biggest puzzle craze to hit the world since Rubik’s Cube. It’s all over the newspapers, spreading across the Internet and heading for television in Britain, yet its phenomenal popularity raises some puzzling questions. Such as why, in a high-speed, hyper-technological age – without noticeable fanfare or promotion – would millions of people become addicted to a game invented more than 200 years ago by a blind Swiss mathematician?…Yet ominous reports pour in of ‘Sudoku seizure’. In workplaces in Britain, stories are circulating of people unable to make their children’s breakfasts, leave for the office or go to bed at night until they have solved their Sudoku” (The Telegraph of India, June 30, 2013).
In a previous blog I took a brief look at the psychology of doing crosswords. Today’s blog is arguably as frivolous as I thought I would turn my attention to Sudoku puzzles. Anecdotally I have read about people who claim to be ‘hooked’ and ‘addicted’ to Sudoku (such as a US woman – Mrs. C. Mills – who wrote about her ‘addiction’ to playing Sudoku on her i-Pad blog by Violet Njo Dicksonin her blog, and a claiming ‘I was a Sudoku addict’). There have also been various journalistic articles such as ‘Addicted to Sudoku’ in a 2006 issue of Newsweek. However, I haven’t seen any real evidence to convince me that anyone has ever developed a genuine addiction to such puzzles (although I don’t rule out that it’s theoretically possible). I certainly know a few people who spend more than a few hours a day doing Sudoku but they have the time to do them because they are unemployed or retired. In these cases, excessive Sudoku use is something clearly adds to these individuals’ lives rather than takes away from it (and on that criterion alone it is not an addiction for such individuals). According to The Telegraph [of India] news article:
“Sudoku – or something very similar to it – was invented in the 1780s by Leonhard Euler, a mathematical virtuoso from Basle. When he lost his sight in early middle age and was unable to work from books, he developed the ability to compute complex sums in his head and a talent for composing puzzles. He invented a grid-based puzzle and named it ‘Latin squares’. It was, in all material aspects, identical to Sudoku, yet it remained barely noticed until it turned up – renamed the ‘number place game’ – in America in the 1980s. It was spotted by Nobuhiko Kanamoto, employee of a Japanese puzzle magazine. The Japanese made the game slightly more difficult and renamed it Sudoku, meaning ‘number single’. Today there are at least five Japanese Sudoku magazines with a total circulation of 660,000. It began appearing in [British newspaper] The Times and has since spread to every newspaper. A mobile phone version is up and running. TV pilots are being planned. Certainly nothing comparable has been seen since 100 million Rubik’s Cubes were sold in the early 1980s”.
I’m not sure when I first came across Sudoku but I used to do (or at least try to do) the daily puzzle in The Guardian (in the days when I still read a daily newspaper). I had certainly been doing Sudoku puzzles for a while before I did my first media interview about them. I was even more surprised when some of my press comments made it into the preface of Alan Tan’s 2007 book Sudoku for Experts. I was quoted as saying:
“Part of the appeal is that it is relatively easy to play. No mathematics involved. Once grasped, the objective is childishly simple, yet infuriatingly difficult to achieve. It looks easy. But to do it well requires real thought. The rules are fairly simple, but the scope for skill is limitless. When you solve the problem you feel terrific”.
In the article in The Telegraph, Marcel Danesi, professor of semiotics at Toronto University (and author of The Puzzle Instinct) was interviewed about the popularity of Sudoku and was quoted as saying: “You cannot find a culture, no matter how technologically primitive or advanced, that does not have puzzle traditions”. I was also interviewed for the same article and was asked if Sudoku was something we should be worried about from an addiction perspective. My only comments that made it into the article reiterate what I said above:
“I don’t think it will be a problem as long as it remains an enthusiasm and doesn’t become an addiction. An enthusiasm gives you something. An addiction takes something away.”
I’m not aware of much scientific research on Sudoku, although in my blog on crosswords I mentioned a study led by Dr. Joshua Jackson published in a 2012 issue of the journal Psychology and Aging. The paper claimed that doing Sudoku and crosswords could change some aspects of personality among old-aged people. More specifically, they examined whether an intervention aimed to increase cognitive ability in older adults (i.e., doing crossword and Sudoku puzzles) affected the personality trait of openness to experience (i.e., being imaginative and intellectually oriented). In their study, old-aged adults completed a 4-month program in inductive reasoning training that included weekly Sudoku and crossword puzzles. They were then assessed continually over the following 30 weeks. Their findings showed that those who did Sudoku and crossword puzzles increased their openness scores compared to the control group. The authors claimed that this study is one of the very first to demonstrate that personality traits can change through non-psychopharmocological interventions.
On the same kind of theme, a non-academic article by Siski Green for the Saga website reported on how Sudoku, the card game bridge, and board games boost both body and mind. In a small section entitled ‘Sudoku to survive’ the article claimed that:
“A simple game of Sudoku could trigger the activation of ‘survival genes’ in your brain, making cells live longer and helping to fight disease. According to a study conducted at the University of Edinburgh, unused genes in brain cells are activated during stimulation like that caused by completing the puzzles. [The researchers] found that a group of these [survival] genes can make the active brain cells far healthier than lazy, inactive cells”
In my writings on the psychology of games more generally, I have noted that there are a number of key factors that determine whether games like Sudoku become firmly established or simply fade away. This includes the capacity for skill development, a large bibliography, competitions and tournaments, and corporate sponsorship. For instance, all good games are relatively easy to play but can take a lifetime to become truly adept. I would therefore argue that the capacity for continued skill development is important for Sudoku’s continued popularity and future existence. In short, there will always room for improvement. Also, for games of any complexity, there must be a bibliography that people can reference and consult. Without books and magazines to instruct and provide information there will be no development and the activity will die. The sheer number of books on Sudoku is an indication of perhaps how healthy the state of Sudoku play is.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Bennett, J. (2006). Addicted to Sudoku. The Daily Beast, February 22. Located at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2006/02/22/addicted-to-sudoku.html
Dickson, V.N. (2013). I was a Sudoku addict. March 13. Located at: http://christianitymalaysia.com/wp/sudoku-addict/
Green, S. Playing games for health: How bridge, sudoku and board games boost both body and mind. Saga, April 14. Located at: http://www.saga.co.uk/health/mind/health-benefits-of-playing-games.aspx
Jackson, J.J., Hill, P.L., Payne, B.R., Roberts, B.W., & Stine-Morrow, E.A. L. (2012). Can an old dog learn (and want to experience) new tricks? Cognitive training increases openness to experience in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 27, 286-292.
Mills, C. (2012). Sudoku addiction solved forever. December 9. Located at: http://claudiamillsanhouraday.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/sudoku-addiction-solved-forever.html
Tan, A. (2007). Sudoku for Experts. Malaysia: M & M Publishers.
The Telegraph (India). Your number’s up. June 30. Located at: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1130630/jsp/sudoku/story_5123700.jsp#.Ug9dmr-9pO1
“The quest to have children can become a vortex that gets faster and faster and sucks people in. Women will sell everything and anything to have the treatment if they are short of funds. They will risk their lives, there’s no doubt about it. I have treated young women with cancer who have refused to have treatment for their illness until they have got pregnant and given birth, knowing they are risking their lives. Some of these women do, indeed, go on to die [from cancer], but they die happy, feeling that they have achieved something greater than their own continued existence. Everyone involved in these scenarios is trying to do the right thing, but the extraordinary energy of a couple’s determination creates a vicious circle. [Some couples are driven by] an urge stronger than addiction and more powerful than obsession” (Professor Sammy Lee, Chief Scientist of the IVF [in-vitro fertilization] programme at Wellington Hospital, London; The Guardian, 2009).
Today’s blog started as an email from one of my PhD students, Manpreet Dhuffar, who sent me an interesting article in the New York Times entitled ‘Addicted to IVF, or addicted to hope?’ The opening quote by one of the UK’s pioneers in IVF egg donation certainly believes that the urge for childless couples to have children is stronger than the urges addicts feel for their drugs or behaviours of choice and that their pursuit is obsessive. In the UK, the maximum number of IVF cycles is three but Professor Lee admitted that some couples had gone through 12 cycles and that he knew of clinicians that had continued providing IVF treatment even when they knew there was little chance of pregnancy success.
On one level, I obviously don’t believe that undergoing IVF can be a genuine addiction. To me, undergoing IVF treatment appears to be similar to those people who claim to be addicted to plastic surgery or having more and more tattoos. These are activities that are salient and preoccupying but are not activities that are engaged in day-in, day-out. Although there are no papers on ‘IVF addiction’ a 2002 paper in the journal Nursing Inquiry by Dr. Sheryl de Lacey analysed the discourse of women with infertility problems and that had undergone IVF and discontinued. Dr. de Lacey reported:
“[IVF treatment was described as] a metaphor of lottery in discourses of infertility…showing how when women are situated as gamblers, the metaphor is instrumental in polarising them into ‘winners’ or ‘losers’ in relation to the subjectivity of motherhood. I further deconstruct these subjectivities, showing how ‘winners’ are valorised and ‘losers’ are pathologised. But importantly, I show how infertile women who are not mothers resisted locating themselves as ‘losers’ in a metaphor of lottery and instead situated themselves in a contesting metaphor of investment as diligent ‘workers’ and as active agents in choosing the best employment of their bodily and monetary resources”.
I found these types of discourse myself in various online parenting and infertility forums. For instance, at websites such as babycenter.com and the Pursuit of Motherhood blog, women wrote:
- Extract 1: “I once read/heard a storyline that started with ‘Addicted to IVF’. I never thought that I might be one of them. The hope that comes with each cycle erases all the negativity, pain, injections, miscarriages, etc. that has already happened. The hope makes you think that it’s possible, even when no one really knows why my babies are sticking around long enough to grow. Each time, I say that I’ve had enough, yet I find myself going back. Even now, I’m ‘taking a break’ to lose the 30 pounds I’ve gained and lower my now raised blood pressure. Now that I’m 4 months off and halfway to my goals, I’m ready to jump in to IVF again. But, really, what’s different? There are no answers to why I can’t seem to hold on to a healthy pregnancy, yet my prognosis is ‘favorable’ since I have always responded ‘textbook’. Am I doing this out of vain, or is there, sometime in my future, a baby waiting to be mine? Thank goodness my insurance limits my tries to 6 fresh cycles because I don’t know if I’ll ever lose hope or stop trying
- Extract 2: “I’ve been thinking about New Year’s resolutions. I know it’s only the 29th of December but there’s nothing I like more than a resolution. I want to be brave enough to make Number 1 on the list: Give up IVF. And if that sounds like IVF is an addiction as much as drugs and alcohol that’s because it is. In fact, it’s definitely more expensive than a Class A habit. Even as I think and write it, my heart starts to palpitate because where IVF is concerned maybe I have become an addict. Just like an alcoholic who is convinced that happiness lies in that next drink, I’ve become convinced that happiness lies in our next round of IVF. I should start a support group. IVF Anonymous”
Some have even gone as far to write a whole book on their ‘addiction’ to IVF (for instance, check out Tertia Albertyn’s (funny, yet moving) book So Close: Infertile and Addicted to Hope). In researching this article, I also came across a good article (‘Are you addicted to IVF?) on the Fertility Lab Insider website written by ‘Carole’. She made reference to the research of Dr. Janet Blenner who developed a stage theory relating to those passing through infertility treatment (in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship). Using grounded theory, Blenner explored the perceptions of 25 couples as they underwent infertility assessment and treatment. Her theory consists of three concepts – engagement, immersion, and disengagement. To me this sounds like something that successfully treated addicts also go through. Blenner also describes eight stages that individuals pass through: (i) experiencing a dawning of awareness, (ii) facing a new reality, (iii) having hope and determination, (iv) intensifying treatment, (v) spiralling down, (vi) letting go, (vii) quitting and moving out, and (viii) shifting the focus. As Carole notes in relation to these eight stages:
“They seem similar to stages of grief or stages of finding sobriety after addiction. Some patients get stuck at Step 5, ‘spiralling down’. They are the patients who are confronted with repeated failures and evidence of new hurdles to their fertility, patients for whom even Herculean efforts in terms of effort and expense can be expected to be successful less than 5% of the time. If someone told you that you should bet $12,000, $15,000, even $20,000 on a horse that has a 5% or less chance of winning the race, you’d tell them to get lost, that’s crazy…Yet, IVF patients that go in for multiple rounds of IVF, beyond two or three are doing exactly that. Most clinics have pulled out all the stops, applied all the tricks they know by the third IVF cycle. If it still isn’t working, either the clinic is incompetent or IVF is not the right solution for that patient”.
Here, there is yet another gambling analogy which – given my ‘day job’ as a Professor of Gambling Studies – didn’t pass me by. Another online article by Mia Freedman also talked of infertility treatment as a form of gambling addiction and echoes the preceding quote. Freedman asserted:
“I am writing to express my extreme distress at what appears to be the most expensive lottery ticket in town for over 40s these days – IVF. I know of four women who have undergoing the process – one for the ninth time – and it appears they are constantly being told the next time they will be lucky. At around $10k a cycle, that is a lot of money on a chance that is less than one in 10. I am seeing marriages crumble, hearts break, hormones go wild and mental and physical devastation as a result of every cycle that doesn’t produced much longed for babies. I am seeing women almost lose their minds and empty their bank accounts to feed their obsession to be pregnant. Don’t get me wrong, I think IVF is a wonderful gift and I don’t deny anyone wanting a baby – no matter what their age – to give it a go. But surely, when chances are so low there should be comprehensive counselling where financial, marital, mental and physical heath issues are discussed before a 40 plus woman buys yet another expensive lottery ticket in hope of a baby?”
Although I personally wouldn’t conceptualize persistent IVF treatment as an addiction, there are certainly addiction-like elements in most of the stories I have read. Furthermore, and irrespective of whether such behaviour can be classed as addictive, there is no doubt that the need and want for a child appears to be the single most important thing in the lives of such individuals and that based on some of the accounts that I have come across, the need for children could perhaps be classed as an obsession – at least at the time of undergoing IVF.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Albertyn, T.L. (2009). So Close: Infertile and Addicted to Hope. Gauteng: Porcupine Press.
Blenner, J. L. (1990). Passage through infertility treatment: A stage theory. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 22(3), 153-158.
De Lacey, S. (2002). IVF as lottery or investment: Contesting metaphors in discourses of infertility. Nursing Inquiry, 9(1), 43-51.
Fertility Lab Insider (2013). Are you addicted to IVF? June 5. Located at: http://fertilitylabinsider.com/2013/06/are-you-addicted-to-ivf/
Freedman, M. (2010). When does IVF become an addiction? Mama Mia, January 18. Located at: http://www.mamamia.com.au/parenting/when-does-ivf-become-a-form-of-gambling-addiction/
Hill, A. (2009). Women are risking their lives to have IVF babies. The Guardian, September 13. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/sep/13/motherhood-fertility-treatment-cancer-ivf
Klein, A. (2014). Addicted to IVF, or addicted to hope? New York Times, January 27. Located at: http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/27/addicted-to-i-v-f-or-addicted-to-hope/
Winslow, A. (2014). Addicted to IVF. Laughter Through Tears, January 29. Located at: http://laughterthroughtearsblog.com/2014/01/29/addicted-to-ivf/
Zoll, M. (2013). Generation IVF. Making a Baby in the Lab: 10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me. Lilith. Located at: http://lilith.org/articles/generation-i-v-f/
Like many others around the world, last week I was genuinely shocked when I heard about the death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman on February 2 (2014). One of my regular blog readers emailed me a couple of days ago asking if I would be writing a blog on him because of all his well publicized past drug and alcohol addiction. As the Wikipedia entry on his personal life noted:
“In a 2006 interview, Hoffman revealed he had suffered from drug and alcohol abuse and that after graduating from college at age 22, he went to rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. He said he had abused ‘anything I could get my hands on. I liked it all’. Hoffman relapsed more than 20 years later with heroin and addiction to prescription medications. He subsequently checked himself into a drug rehab for about ten days in May 2013”.
I had already decided I would do a belated tribute to Seymour Hoffman but not in relation to his chemical addictions – but in relation to his portrayal of gambling addiction in the 2003 film Owning Mahowny. Although my all-time favourite gambling film is the 1974 movie The Gambler starring James Caan (a film on which I’ve written academically – see ‘Further Reading’ below), Owning Mahowny runs a close second. One of the key strengths of Owning Mahowny was that it was based on a real person. Seymour Hoffman played ‘Dan Mahowny’ (whereas the real life person was Brian Molony).
Brian Malony worked as a Toronto-based bank clerk at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC). Over a one-and-a-half year period – and to fund his gambling addiction – Molony embezzled over $10million from the bank. His story was later the subject of a best-selling book by Gary Ross (called Stung: The Incredible Obsession of Brian Molony, and on which the screenplay to Owning Mahowny was based). Ross wrote his book following 4-5 hours of interviewing Molony every day for a month. Ross was asked what made Molony’s story so interesting:
“I was senior editor at ‘Saturday Night’ magazine at the time the fraud was discovered, right across the street from the Bay and Richmond (Toronto) branch of the CIBC. I assumed it was some sophisticated computer scam – how else could you liberate $10.2-million from a big bank? [I] was intrigued to learn from Eddie Greenspan, Brian Molony’s lawyer, that Molony was a compulsive gambler and that the frauds had been acts of improvised desperation rather than an elegant criminal scheme…Gambling addiction can be every bit as devastating, and as hard to treat, as a drug or alcohol dependency. It’s all the more insidious for being invisible, and it’s far more widespread than most people understand. A lot of social security checks, pay checks, and even liquidated homes end up on the casino’s bottom line”.
Additionally, and according to Molony’s Wikipedia entry:
“Molony, who had developed a passion for the race-track and gambling from the age of ten years, and acted as a bookie for his school-mates, graduated from the University of Western Ontario in London with a degree in journalism. Initially planning to be a financial writer, he did so well in a Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce aptitude test that he was put in their management-training program and hired right out of university. Molony spent a few weeks as a teller before working in savings, current accounts, foreign exchange and loan accounting, then ‘floating’ among some of the Bank’s huge network of some 1,600 branches, which gave him a further broad exposure to the bank’s highly regimented workings and familiarity with its systems and internal weaknesses. On a modest annual salary of about $10,000, Molony led an unassuming lifestyle in Toronto, wearing inexpensive, ill-fitting clothes and leaving carefully calculated seven per cent tips in restaurants, at the same time he was embezzling $10.2 million from CIBC to feed his gambling habit, writing loans in the names of both real and fictitious companies. Molony was then able to transfer millions of dollars out of the bank through a company called California Clearing Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Desert Palace, a Las Vegas casino. This corporation’s only purpose was to let people deposit sums of money into the casino without detection”.
After 18 months of spending his employer’s money (including $4,732,000 lost at Caesars between February 7, 1981 to April 23, 1982), Molony lost half a million dollars at the Caesars casino playing table games in Atlantic City (AC). Molony had led the life of a ‘high roller, and was being heavily ‘comped’ with free luxury hotel rooms and access to a Lear jet to fly between AC and Vegas. Molony was eventually arrested (April 27, 1982), the day after he lost the money at Caesars. Later in the year (November 1983), Molony admitted during his trial that he had embezzled all the money from CICB and served 30 months in jail. One of his activities since leaving prison has been to lecture publicly on gambling addiction. At the same time that Molony went to jail, CIBC filed a federal lawsuit claiming that Caesars’ staff members should have realized that the money Molony was gambling with was not his own. The case was eventually settled out of court with the terms of the settlement remaining private.
Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Molony was excellent and provides true insight into life as a problem gambler. Obviously there is some artistic license in the dramatization of Molony’s life but all the key elements in the film were true. The film is noteworthy because (like The Gambler) the story concerns the effects of gambling addiction on the gambler and those around him rather than the glitz and glamour of gambling in Vegas and AC. Gary Ross, author of Stung was asked whether Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal bore similarity with Brian Molony. He replied:
“Remarkably so. They have the same stocky build, bushy moustache, glasses, slightly unkempt look, and earnestness. And Philip somehow managed to assimilate the psychic essence of Molony – a yawning emptiness that nothing except gambling was able to fill…It’s remarkably faithful to what actually happened. I assumed a great many liberties would be taken in the transition from page to screen, and I’m pleased that the changes were minor and inconsequential. The pathos and grimness of what happened is there in the movie”.
Griffiths, M. (2004). An empirical analysis of the film ‘The Gambler’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1(2), 39-43.
Ross, G. (1987). Stung: The Incredible Obsession of Brian Molony. London: Stoddart.
Wikipedia (2014). Brian Molony. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Molony
Wikipedia (2014). Owning Mahowny. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owning_Mahowny
Wikipedia (2014). Philip Seymour Hoffman. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Seymour_Hoffman
Back in 1996, I published a paper on behavioural addictions in the Journal of Workplace Learning. One of my introductory paragraphs in that paper noted:
“There is now a growing movement (e.g. Miller, 1980; Orford, 1985) which views a number of behaviours as potentially addictive, including many behaviours which do not involve the ingestion of a drug. These include behaviours diverse as gambling (Griffiths, 1995), overeating (Orford, 1985), sex (Carnes, 1983), exercise (Glasser, 1976), computer game playing (Griffiths, 1993a), pair bonding (Peele and Brodsky, 1975), wealth acquisition (Slater, 1980) and even Rubik’s Cube (Alexander, 1981)! Such diversity has led to new all encompassing definitions of what constitutes addictive behaviour”.
The reason I mention this is that I was recently asked to comment on a story about ‘wealth addiction’ and I vaguely remembered that I had mentioned (in passing) Philip Slater’s 1980 book (also entitled Wealth Addiction). Slater’s book was written from a sociological standpoint and was both controversial and provocative. Slater claimed on the book cover that: ““Money is America’s most powerful drug. Here’s how it weakens us and how we can free ourselves”. I also came across an interesting 2012 article by journalist Scott Burns (on ‘wealth addiction revisited’) who noted that:
“One of the hallmarks of wealth addiction is very simple: more possessions but less use. We become so interested in possessing the thing that we lose the experience it provides. This can be as vast as owning homes all around the world, as some of the very rich do, as simple as Bernie Madoff’s shoe collection, or as obsessive as a collection of rare watches. Whatever it is, the wealth addict confuses possession with experience”.
Slater argued that our increasing reliance on money and all of the things that it can buy has the potential to become an obsession that can destroy individual lives. According to short article by Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, wealth addiction has three key characteristics:
- Tolerance: More and more money is needed to attain a baseline level of satisfaction.
- Withdrawal: The thought of losing money or not making it fills a person with fear, anxiety and stress.
- Negative consequences: In their pursuit of money, the person forgoes emotional fulfillment, intimate relationships and peace of mind.
These are actually three of the six criteria that I personally believe comprise genuine addictive behaviour (although I use the word ‘conflict’ rather than ‘negative consequences’; the other three criteria are salience, mood modification and relapse – see my previous blog on behavioural addiction for further details).
The reason why wealth addiction has made a re-appearance over the last month is because of an article published in the New York Times by Sam Polk, a former hedge fund trader that worked on Wall Street (and who since the article has been published has been compared to Jordan Belfort, the person that Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed in the true story film The Wolf of Wall Street).
Polk’s article is an interesting read (whether you think wealth addiction exists or not) and I thought I would pick out some of the text and relate it to my own views about what constitutes addictive behaviour.
- Extract 1: “In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million – and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted”
Here, Polk refers to his work bonuses becoming bigger and bigger and that they were never enough. To me, this sounds like some kind of tolerance effect with more and more money needed to achieve the desired (presumably mood modifying effect). Polk also claims – after the fact – that he had become addicted.
- Extract 2: “I was also a daily drinker and pot smoker and a regular user of cocaine, Ritalin and ecstasy. I had a propensity for self-destruction that had resulted in my getting suspended from Columbia for burglary, arrested twice and fired from an Internet company for fist fighting”.
Polk openly discusses his previous use of potentially addictive substances and made the comparisons himself between his self-confessed behavioural (wealth) addiction and his previous self-destructive chemical abuse. Some readers may jump to the conclusion that Polk had (or has) an ‘addictive personality’ but this is not something that I personally believe in. To me, Polk is displaying ‘reciprocity’ (swapping one potential addiction with another) rather than being a function of an underlying personality trait. Giving up one addiction often leaves a large void and sometimes the only way to fill it is by engaging in other behaviours that provide similar feelings and sensations.
- Extract 3: “My counselor didn’t share my elation [at earning more and more money]. She said I might be using money the same way I’d used drugs and alcohol – to make myself feel powerful — and that maybe it would benefit me to stop focusing on accumulating more and instead focus on healing my inner wound”.
Here, Polk’s therapist appears to hit the nail on the head in relation to what money represented for Polk. I would describe the feeling that Polk gained from both drugs and money was omnipotence (something that I have also written about in relation to my research on gambling).
- Extract 4: “I was terrified of running out of money and of forgoing future bonuses. More than anything, I was afraid that five or 10 years down the road, I’d feel like an idiot for walking away from my one chance to be really important. What made it harder was that people thought I was crazy for thinking about leaving. In 2010, in a final paroxysm of my withering addiction, I demanded $8 million instead of $3.6 million. My bosses said they’d raise my bonus if I agreed to stay several more years. Instead, I walked away”.
Polk’s language here is very much rooted in what addicts say about their drug or behaviour of choice (“terrified” of being without the thing they love doing). The weighing up of the costs clearly led to a decision for Polk to quit his “withering addiction” and there are obviously signs both here (and the rest of the article if you read it) that leaving behind the wealth left him with some feelings of regret.
- Extract 7: “The first year was really hard. I went through what I can only describe as withdrawal — waking up at nights panicked about running out of money, scouring the headlines to see which of my old co-workers had gotten promoted. Over time it got easier — I started to realize that I had enough money, and if I needed to make more, I could. But my wealth addiction still hasn’t gone completely away. Sometimes I still buy lottery tickets”.
Here, Polk uses addictive terminology (i.e., withdrawal) to describe giving up the activity that led to him gaining wealth. Again, the fear of running out of money appears psychologically similar to the fear that other more traditional addicts have about running out of their drug of choice. It could also be argued that he has given up one form of gambling (financial trading) with partially doing another (buying lottery tickets).
- Extract 8: “I was lucky. My experience with drugs and alcohol allowed me to recognize my pursuit of wealth as an addiction. The years of work I did with my counselor helped me heal the parts of myself that felt damaged and inadequate, so that I had enough of a core sense of self to walk away”
Polk uses his experiences in giving up drugs with the help of his therapist as a way of helping him give up wealth acquisition. Knowing you have managed to give up one addiction shows that you have the mental strength to give up another.
Obviously I have never met Polk and I can only go on how he described his experiences during his time on Wall Street, However, the insights shared do seem to suggest that some of the wealth acquisition behaviour had addictive elements and that there was at least some evidence that Polk – at least on some occasions – experienced salience, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and mood modification. Whether he was genuinely addicted to money in the same way as drug addicts are addicted to psychoactive substances is debatable. However, theoretically, I can see how someone might be become addicted to wealth. There are also interesting questions as to whether wealth acquisition may be an underlying motivation for those addicted to work.
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