About a year ago, my colleagues and I published what we believe is the very first study of the helping role that video gaming can play in the lives of transgender individuals. Before I get to that, it’s probably worth noting that there have been studies of how gamers and fans play with sexuality, gender, and the video game Minecraft on YouTube as well as papers discussing whether the gaming industry should cater for marginalized groups and develop games for groups where there is little representation within games (e.g., gay and transgendered characters). For instance, there is now a short autobiographical game by Auntie Pixellante called Dys4ia. This is a WarioWare-style game, played only with the arrow keys, chronicling the experiences of a trans woman rectifying her own gender dysphoria. Such videogames raise interesting questions about how those individuals with gender dysphoria utilize gaming as part of their identity.
In a previous blog I briefly looked at gender swapping in online video games including some of my own research. For instance, in 2003 I published a paper in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior using secondary poll data from online gaming forums. The paper reported that of 10,350 players at the Everlore fan site, 15% had swapped the gender of their main in-game playing character. We also reported a similar finding among 8,694 players at the Allakhazam fan site with 15.5% reporting that they had gender swapped their main in-game character (and more specifically, 14.5% males and 1% were females who had changed the gender of their lead character). In a 2004 follow-up survey among 540 Everquest gamers (again in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior) my colleagues and I reported that 60% had swapped their online in-game characters. The prevalence of gender swapping was probably much higher in this study because the question related to the gender swapping of any online game character not just their main playing character.
In a small exploratory study I published in 2008 with Dr. Zaheer Hussain in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, we examined why people engaged in gender swapping in a self-selecting sample of 119 online gamers (mean age of 28.5 years). We reported that 57% of gamers had engaged in gender swapping (any character not just their main character), and that males adopting an online female persona believed there were a number of positive social attributes to becoming female characters in male-oriented gaming environments. The study also reported that significantly more females than males had gender swapped their character – mainly to prevent unsolicited male approaches on their female characters. Some females appeared to gender swap purely out of interest to see what would happen in the game (as a personal experiment), while others claimed that they were treated more favourably by male gamers when they played as a male character. Others reported that gender swapping enabled them to play around with aspects of their identity that would not be possible to explore in real life. Other reasons for gender swapping were that (i) female characters had better in-game statistics, (ii) some specific tools were only available with female characters, (iii) the class of character was sometimes only available in one gender, (iv) they played for fun, and/or (v) they did it to so something that they would not normally do in the game (i.e., they did it for a change in their usual playing behaviour).
Outside of online gaming, a 2002 paper by Hegland and Nelson in the International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies noted that the Internet more generally can be used as a tool for expressing gender identity because it allows identities to cross cultural boundaries instantly and without regard for real physical space. They examined 30 cross-dressing websites and argued that for most cross-dressers that visited such websites, the online forum was their primary medium of expression. The users of the website used the Internet to nurture the ability to create a feminine identity, and helped them to pass as a woman in the offline public world. More generally, cross-dressers used the Internet to participate in the larger cultural dialogue of gender.
For an adult to meet current criteria for a diagnosis of transsexualism, the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) reports they must express the desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by the wish to make his or her body as congruent as possible with the desired sex through surgery and cross-sex hormones. This transsexual identity must have been present persistently for a minimum of two years and not be a symptom of another mental disorder or a chromosomal abnormality. The latest (fifth) edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association uses the term gender dysphoria to describe people who are uncomfortable and/or distressed regarding their assigned gender, their physical sex characteristics and/or their associated social roles. Depending upon the intensity of this distress, some individuals may wish to transition from one point on a notional gender scale to another. The most common direction is from a man to a woman (individuals known as trans women), or from a woman to a man (individuals known as trans men). The distress intrinsic to gender dysphoria may be focused around anatomy, physiology, and/or being perceived and treated as someone of a gender with which the person does not identify. However, these diagnostic labels do not apply to all trans individuals for a multitude of reasons because some people will not identify themselves as a man or as a woman
The World Health Organisation working group has recommended that the latest ICD replace the term Transsexualism with Gender Incongruence) and remove it from the mental and behavioural disorders chapter. Gender incongruence denotes the incongruence between a person’s gender identity and their assigned sex and/or congenital primary and secondary sex characteristics. The terminology in this field has changed over the years and the terms ‘transgender’ and ‘trans’ have been used in the literature as umbrella terms to cover a wide variety of atypical gender experiences and expressions which may lead to permanent change of social gender role but does not necessarily involve treatment with cross-sex hormones or surgical intervention. A recent study has reported an prevalence for transsexualism of 4.6 in 100,000 individuals; 6.8 for trans women and 2.6 for trans men, which is primarily based on studies looking at individuals attending clinical services. (However, it should be noted that recent population studies have reported a significantly higher prevalence rate of atypical gender experiences and expressions).
The study we published in the journal Aloma originated from initial observations made by Dr. Jon Arcelus that a number of gender dysphoric clients presenting at the national (UK) gender dysphoria clinic admitted that they gender-swapped while playing online games. After I met with Dr. Arcelus I suggested he revisit his case files and and to write them up as case studies (as no study in the gaming field has ever examined online gaming among those with gender dysphoria). The main objectives of our study were to use exemplar case studies to highlight that gaming – in some circumstances – appears to be a functional way of dealing with gender identity issues, and that gender swapping in gaming may help such individuals to come to terms with their gender dysphoria.
Our paper featured four case studies who attended an assessment at the National Centre for Gender Dysphoria in Nottingham. All four individuals described in our paper were given pseudonyms and the content of their histories were anonymised (and included ‘Mary’ a 26-year old natal male who fully transitioned to the female social role six months prior to our study; ‘Mark’ a 20-year old natal female who first attended for an assessment in the female role; ‘Paul’ a 31-year old natal male who would like to be female, but still living full-time as a male; and ‘Harry’ a 23-year old natal male who presented for an assessment as a male). If you want to read about each case in detail, the paper can be downloaded for free from here).
The four case studies outlined in our paper are only a selected sample of the number of cases attending a national clinic for people with gender dysphoria. However, they were in no way unusual to the other clients that have sought help at the Centre. However, these individual accounts were specifically selected to demonstrate the different ways that video gaming may help people with gender dysphoria come to terms with their gender identity. For example, gaming can be used among trans people as a psychological tool to increase one’s awareness of gender identity and/or as part of the self. Gaming may therefore be a useful way to express one’s experienced gender identity in a safe, non-threatening, non-alienating, non-stigmatizing, and non-critical environment. This appears to mirror other the findings of other studies outside of the online gaming environment.
Articles published in the mass media have reported that online games such as World of Warcraft provide a creative space that allows gamers that might be questioning aspects of their identity to explore their lives as different individuals. Some have even gone as far as to argue that this could help gamers transform their ‘offline’ identity, as is the case with some trans gamers. This was also demonstrated in the case studies described in our study. Other authors have asserted that the online medium offers an infinite space for development and resistance to traditional gender roles, and that online interaction enables a transgression of the dichotomous categories of male and female, constructing trans (or even genderless) social identities and relationships. However, although such anonymous online communities may provide trans individuals with the power to subvert their physical sex.
Our case studies also demonstrated the different functions of gaming in trans people (e.g., the function of “testing out” their gender feelings). For instance, using gaming to ‘come out’ to other people, by initially coming out in the online community, which is perceived as a safe environment, and then gradually coming out in real life. Gaming, as for many non-trans individuals, can derive psychological benefits and a sense of escapism. This is even more relevant among trans people as it may be the only time that they feel they can be themselves, allowing them to feel happy, relaxed, and achieving a sense of completeness. This could develop into a powerful coping skill substituting unhealthy behaviours, such as self-harming behaviour. This is particularly important in this population as research shows a strong association between being trans and mental health problems, particularly depression and self-harm as a way to manage one’s trans feelings. This is not surprising as the discomfort and distress about assigned gender and body dissatisfaction may lead to a sense of hopelessness, which can bring low mood, self-injury and even suicide.
Although gaming appears (at least initially) to be a positive and beneficial activity for many trans people, there is also the risk that staying in the game becomes too much of a secure and safe environment. This can create a vicious circle where the trans person does not wish to move out of the secure online world, and back into reality. Spending an increasing amount of time in online gaming carries the risk of developing a gaming dependence or addiction. This may not only affect one’s personal relationships, work and/or study, but may also impair real life social gender role transition, as in many cases, the individual is expected to socially transition before they can be considered for treatment.
Obviously our paper only included four participants and may be perceived by some researchers as ‘anecdotal’ because the data were not collected for this specific study but were retrospectively collated. However, our findings showed that for a trans individual, the online gaming environment was perceived as “safe” but further research is needed to establish what the distinctive elements of online gaming are that help to raise gender awareness (or not as the case may be). With the rates of gender dysphoria attending clinical services increasing significantly, future research should investigate (i) the rates and severity of gaming among this population as well as its function, and (ii) the rates of gender dysphoria among game addiction as coming out may help their addiction. The game industry may also want to consider how they can use games as a way of helping trans people being more accepted within society by developing game industry may want to co-observe how their games can prepare and assist individuals to socially transition. Online games also provide a safe environment that provides people access to a platform where individuals can discuss and experiment with gender identity.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Arcelus, J., Bouman, W. P., Witcomb, G. L., Van den Noortgate, W., Claes, L., & Fernandez-Aranda, F. (2015). Systematic review and meta-analysis of prevalence studies in transsexualism. European Psychiatry, 30, 807-815.
Arcelus, J., Jones, B., Richards, C., Jimenez-Murcia, S., Bouman, W.P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Video gaming and gaming addiction in transgender people: An exploratory study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 6, 21–29.
Dale, L. K. (2014, January 23). How World of Warcraft helped me come out as transgender. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2014/jan/23/how-world-of-warcraft-game-helped-me-come-out-transgender
Griffiths, M.D., Arcelus, J. & Bouman, W.P. (2016). Video gaming and gender dysphoria: Some case study evidence. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 34(2), 59-66.
Griffiths, M. D., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2003). Breaking the stereotype: The case of online gaming. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 81-91.
Griffiths, M.D., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2004). Demographic factors and playing variables in online computer gaming. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 479-487.
Griffiths, M. D., Kiraly, O., M. Pontes, H. M. & and Demetrovics, Z. (2015). An overview of problematic gaming. In Starcevic, V. & Aboujaoude, E. (Eds.), Mental Health in the Digital Age: Grave Dangers, Great Promise (pp.27-55). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fahs, B., & Gohr, M. (2012). Superpatriarchy meets cyberfeminism: Facebook, online gaming, and the new social genocide. MP: An Online Feminist Journal, 3(6), 1-40.
Hegland, J. E., & Nelson, N. J. (2002). Cross-dressers in cyber-space: Exploring the Internet as a tool for expressing gendered identity. International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, 7(2-3), 139-161.
Huh, S., & Williams, D. (2010). Dude looks like a lady: Gender swapping in an online game. In Online worlds: Convergence of the real and the virtual (pp. 161-174). London: Springer.
Hussain, Z., & Griffiths, M. D. (2008). Gender swapping and socialising in cyberspace: An exploratory study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11, 47-53.
Lewis, A., & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Confronting gender representation: A qualitative study of the experiences and motivations of female casual-gamers. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciencies de l’Educacio i de l’Esport, 28, 245-272.
McLean, L., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Female gamers: A thematic analysis of their gaming experience. International Journal of Games-Based Learning, 3(3), 54-71.
Osborne, H. (2012). Performing self, performing character: Exploring gender performativity in online role-playing games. Transformative Works and Cultures, 11. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0411.
Potts, A. (2015). ‘LOVE YOU GUYS (NO HOMO)’ How gamers and fans play with sexuality, gender, and Minecraft on YouTube. Critical Discourse Studies, 12(2), 163-186.
Shaw, A. (2012). Do you identify as a gamer? Gender, race, sexuality, and gamer identity. New Media and Society, 14(1), 28-44
Taylor, T. L. (2003). Multiple pleasures women and online gaming. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 9(1), 21-46.
Todd, C. (2012). ‘Troubling’ gender in virtual gaming spaces. New Zealand Geographer, 68(2), 101-110.
Over the years I have written about many different body part fetishes and paraphilias including a number involving human hair (or the lack of it). These have included individuals that are sexually aroused by (i) human hair in general but usually head hair (trichophilia/hirsutophilia), (ii) female body hair fetishism, (iii) beard fetishism (pogonophilia), (iv) haircut fetishism, (v) armpit hair fetishism (maschalagnia), (vi) depilation and shaving fetishism, and (vii) baldness fetishism (acomophilia). [I’ve also written articles about uncombable hair syndrome and hair dryer dependence].
The reason I mention all this was that a few months ago I got an email from a man asking if I had ever come across individuals with a fetish for eyebrow hair. He claimed he had a fetish for women with “big bushy eyebrows” and gave the example of Cara Delevinge (the model and actress who played the Enchantress June Moone in the film Suicide Squad). I wrote back to him and told him that I had never come across anyone but would have a look into it (and this blog is the consequence).
As far as I am aware, not only is there no academic or clinical research on the topic of eyebrow fetishes, but there aren’t even any articles (this I believe is the first ever article on the topic). There was nothing between in Dr. Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices and nothing in Dr. Anil Aggrawal’s Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Eyebrows weren’t even mentioned in the list of fetishized body parts in Dr. C. Scorolli and colleagues’ excellent paper on the prevalence of fetishes in their 2007 paper in the International Journal of Impotence Research (a study I have cited countless times in relation to my blogs on other sexualized body parts).
As a final resort I went searching on the internet but was unable to locate a single online forum that was dedicated to those who have eyebrow fetishes. However, I did locate a few individuals that claimed they had eyebrow fetishes (or at least some behaviour indicative of some kind of eyebrow fetish). Here are a few examples:
- Exract 1: “I’m not that attracted to a lot of girls. I mean yeah there’s hot girls but [I’m just not] into them. ([I’m] not gay). But I’ve notice the girls I am interested are while girls with thick wavy eyebrows and I admire those, and yeah the girls are pretty too. But I find it weird that I like eyebrows really much!
- Extract 2: “I’m not sure, but I think people think I’m weird. I like to stare at other people’s eyebrows, sometimes I reach out to touch them but they run away…One time, I masturbated in class over Casey’s bushy brow and I squirted everywhere. The teacher and everyone were staring with a sort of disgusted look on their faces. I don’t know why though? Is this not normal?”
- Extract 3: “Okay, is it weird that I find guys with really nice eyebrows sexy or when a guy has a nice beard, not puffy…like Adam Levin’s beard. AND WHEN A GUY HAS BOTH….YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT IT DOES TO ME…When a guy has nice eyebrows, I just want to fangirl over them and stare at them. Too bad, the guys my age don’t have nice eyebrows”
- Extract 4: “I know I have [a nose and eyebrow fetish], and if someone doesn’t have a nose shape I like I just can’t be attracted to them – same with the eyebrows. It’s the weirdest thing, I could literally pet a man’s eyebrows for prolonged periods of time”.
- Extract 5: “I have an eyebrow fetish for as long as I can remember…I’ve been through A LOT of different eyebrow stages, caterpillar eyebrows, Yankee eyebrows. Then came the flat eyebrows without much of an arch. And now I finally have eyebrows that people might say are normal”
- Extract 6: “I have had a fetish with eyebrows. I can’t help but study a woman’s brows when we are talking or am looking at someone at a distance. I have been shaping my brows for over 20 years and over past 10 years my brows have gone from shaped to thin and even shaved off couple times smooth. Yes I said smooth. I currently have very thin eyebrows. Like 2-3 hairs wide from start to end. Usually they are a little thicker like maybe 5 hairs wide. My wife is a hairdresser and she waxes them every 2 weeks or so. I have worn them for a while clippered next to skin and thin. I wax my wife’s brows every 3 weeks but she likes a more natural look and arched. I did however get her to let me clipper cut them shorter so they were not so thick ‘n’ long. looks great now that they are shorter. My ex-wife allowed me to keep her brows fairly thin and that was great”.
- Extract 7: “I love shaved naked eyebrows on ladies or very thin/pencil thin arched eyebrows on ladies. I think it is very sexy and unique. I myself very thin eyebrows. Like 3 hairs wide from start to finish. [I] have shaved them smooth several times while on vacation from work…I am attracted to ladies with very thin eyebrows. Just something I notice and love”.
Obviously I can’t vouch for the veracity of these quotes but they appeared to be genuine. However, based on the self-confessions I found, there is little in the way of definitive conclusions. All of the individuals appeared to be heterosexual and males were more likely than females to claim they had such a fetish (five of the seven extracts were by males). None of the information I found gave any clue as to the etiology of their love for eyebrows although no-one found their fetish in any way problematic. Two of the individuals said their fetish for eyebrows was not their only focus of sexual attraction (with noses and beards also being cited as an additional source of sexal arousal). Given the apparent rarity, I doubt that this type of fetish or paraphilia will ever be the topic of academic or clinical study.
Given the complete lack of scientific study relating to eyebrow fetishes I have decided to name a new paraphilia – if it exists – based on traditional nosology using the Greek words for ‘eyebrow’ (frýdi) and ‘love’ (philia) – thus this ‘new’ paraphilia is called frýdiphilia.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Baring, J. (2013). Perv: The Sexual Deviant In All Of Us. New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.
Gates, K. (2000). Deviant Desires: Incredibly Strange Sex. New York: RE/Search Publications.
Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.
Scorolli, C., Ghirlanda, S., Enquist, M., Zattoni, S. & Jannini, E.A. (2007). Relative prevalence of different fetishes. International Journal of Impotence Research, 19, 432-437.
Olfactophilia (also known as osmolagnia, osphresiolagnia, and ozolagnia) is a paraphilia where an individual derives sexual pleasure from smells and odours. Given the large body of research on olfaction, it is unsurprising that in some cases there should be an association with sexual behavior. The erotic focus is most likely to relate to body odors of a sexual partner, including genital odors. One of my favourite papers examining sex and smell was a 1999 paper by Dr. Alan Hirsch and Dr. Jason Gruss published in the Journal of Neurological and Orthopaedic Medicine and Surgery. As they note in the introduction to their study, sex and smell have a long association:
“Historically, certain smells have been considered aphrodisiacs, a subject of much folklore and pseudoscience. In the volcanic remnants of Pompeii, perfume jars were preserved in the chambers designed for sexual relations. Ancient Egyptians bathed with essential oils in preparation for assignations; Sumarians seduced their women with perfumes. A relationship between smell and sexual attraction is emphasized in traditional Chinese rituals, and virtually all cultures have used perfume in their marriage rites. In mythology, rose petals symbolized scent, and the word ‘deflowering’ describes the initial act of sex…Dramatic literature abounds with sly references to nasal size as symbolic of phallic size, as in the famous play Cyrano De Bergerac…Psychoanalysis has made much of these associations. Fliess, in his concept of the phallic nose, formally described an underlying link between the nose and the phallus. Jungian psychology also connects odors and sex”.
In contemporary society, perfumes for women and colognes for men are marketed aggressively because it is a multi-billion pound business and are advertised in a way that suggests sexual success for those who use such fragrances. Hirsch and Gruss argue that:
“The prominent connection between odors and sex among diverse historical periods and cultures implies a high level of evolutionary importance. Freud suggested that odors are such strong inducers of sexual feelings that repression of smell sensations is necessary to civilization. Anatomy bears out the link between smells and sex: the area of the brain through which we experience smells, the olfactory lobe, is part of the limbic system, the emotional brain, the area through which sexual thoughts and desires are derived. Brill  suggests that people kiss to get their noses close together, so that they can smell each other (the Eskimo kiss). Or possibly they kiss to get their mouths together so they can taste each other since most of what we call taste is dependent upon olfaction”.
One of the research areas that I have published a couple of papers with Dr. Mark Sergeant (see ‘Further reading’ below) in is on the area of pheromones (i.e., chemical substances “produced and released into the environment by an animal, especially a mammal or an insect, affecting the behaviour or physiology of others of its species”). Pheromones are known to exist across the animal kingdom from insects to primates (possibly including humans but most robust scientific studies have shown the evidence is relatively weak, and if pheromones do exist in humans the effects are likely to be very subtle). As Hirsch and Gruss note:
“Inside the human brain, near the top of the nose is an anatomical feature that gives us reason to believe that human pheromones exist: the vomeronasal organ. Its function is unknown, but in subhuman primates, this is the area where pheromones act to increase the chance of procreation…When we exercise, we sweat through endocrine glands. But when we are embarrassed or sexually excited, we sweat through apocrine glands that release high-density steroids under the arms and around the genitalia; their role is unknown. In subhuman primates, the same apocrine glands release pheromones”.
Other evidence for the existence of pheromones are the studies showing that women’s menstrual cycles tend to synchronize over time when living or working closely together (the so-called ‘McClintock Effect’ named after Martha McClintock, the person who first reported it in a 1971 issue of the journal Nature). Other research by Dr. Hirsch has shown evidence that links smell with sexual response. For instance, in one of his studies, 17% of patients that had “olfactory deficits” had developed some kind of sexual dysfunction.
In Hirsch and Gruss’ 1999 study, they examined the effects of 30 different smells on male sexual arousal of 31 American male participants (aged 18 years to over 60 years). They underwent various (question-based) smell tests and their sexual arousal was assessed experimentally by measuring penile blood flow with a penile plethysmograph. The smells comprised 24 different odourants in addition to six combination odourants. All 30 odours produced an increase in penile blood flow (Table III). They reported that:
“The combined odor of lavender and pumpkin pie had the greatest effect, increasing median penile-blood flow by 40%. Second in effectiveness was the combination of black licorice and doughnut, which increased the median penile-blood flow 31.5%. The combined odors of pumpkin pie and doughnut was third, with a 20% increase. Least stimulating was cranberry, which increased penile blood flow by 2%…Men with below normal olfaction did not differ significantly from those with normal olfaction, nor did smokers differ significantly from nonsmokers”.
The findings supported their hypothesis that positive smelling odours would increase sexual arousal, and then speculated a number of reasons why this might be the case:
“The odors could induce a Pavlovian conditioned response reminding subjects of their sexual partners or their favorite foods. Among persons raised in the United States, odors of baked goods are most apt to induce a state called olfactory-evoked recall. Possibly, odors in the current study evoked a nostalgic recall with an associated positive mood state that affected penile blood flow. Or the odors may simply be relaxing. In others studies, lavender, which increased alpha waves posteriorly, an effect associated with a relaxed state. In a condition of reduced anxiety, inhibitions may be removed and thus penile blood flow increased…Another possibility, odors may act neurophysiologically…Nor can we rule out a generalized parasympathetic effect, increasing penile blood flow rather than specific sexual excitation…The specific odors that affected penile blood flow in our experiment were primarily food odors…Does this support the axiom that the way to a man’s heart (and sexual affection) is through his stomach?…We certainly cannot consider the odors in our experiment to be human pheromones, therefore we believe they acted through other pathways than do pheromones”.
Shortly after this study, Hirsch and his colleagues repeated the study on females (assessing their vaginal blood flow) and found similar effects that they reported in the International Journal of Aromatherapy. In this second study they found that the largest increases in vaginal blood flow were from candy and cucumber (13%), baby powder (13%), pumpkin pie and lavender (11%), and baby powder and chocolate (4%). Obviously there are major limitations with both of these studies (such as small sample sizes, all the odours being selected by the researchers, and blood flow being the sole measure of arousal).
Odours that are sexually arousing are likely to be very specific and (in some cases) strange and/or bizarre. For instance, I published the world’s first case study of eproctophilia (sexual arousal from flatulence and a sub-type of olfactophilia) in a 2013 issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior (a topic that I examined in a number of previous blogs such as those here and here). I’ve also come across anecdotal evidence of other strange smells that sexually arouse people. For instance, in an article on ’15 Surprising & Weird Fetishes’, number 11 in the list was ‘air freshener’ fetish:
“One Reddit user reports becoming aroused as a teenager whenever he walked into a room that uses a specific brand and scent of air freshener! After some questioning from other conclusions, he suspects that the scent has become associated withe the first time he watched porn. Other users report being turned on by scents such as perfume samples that were included in ‘Playboy’ magazine”.
Some paraphilias may have an element of olfaction. For instance, antholagnia refers to individuals who are sexually aroused by flowers (and the arousal may depend on the sight and/or smell of the flowers). The Kinkly website notes (without empirical evidence to back up any of the claims made):
“People with antholagnia typically have a preference for certain flowers, just as most people are sexually aroused by certain body types. They are likely to become aroused while visiting a florist shop, a floral nursery, or a botanical garden. They may also seek out images of flowers online for sexual gratification. Most people with antholagnia learn to manage their condition and enjoy healthy sex lives. They may even use the scent of flowers during foreplay or intercourse. However, if antholagnia starts to interfere with a person’s professional or personal life, he or she may wish to seek treatment. Treatment for antholagnia may consist of cognitive or behavioral therapies, psychoanalysis, or hypnosis”
I also came across an online 2013 article (‘Scents that trigger sexual arousal’) by Susan Bratton that summarized recent research (although she based most of it from material in Dr. Daniel Amen’s 2007 book Sex On The Brain). More specifically, the article note that:
“Current research also suggests the scent of musk closely resembles that of testosterone, the hormone that enhances healthy libido in both sexes. In scent studies at Toho University in Japan, floral and herbal essential oils were found to impact sexual arousal in the nervous system. But depending on whether you need to stimulate or relax your partner to get them in an amorous mood, you would use different scents. To stimulate the Sympathetic Nervous System use jasmine, yang-ylang, rose, patchouli, peppermint, clove and bois de rose. To relax the Parasympathetic Nervous System use sandalwood, marjoram, lemon, chamomile and bergamot…Many of these scents are also commonly found in tea such as peppermint and chamomile. Many candles are scented with rose, jasmine, patchouli, sandalwood and bergamot”.
There are plenty of websites that list various scents that turn people on and a lot of these appear to be based upon on the research carried out by Dr. Hirsch and his colleagues. Research into sex, smell and olfactophilia appears to be a growing area and hopefully my own research has played a small part in stimulating research into the area.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Amen, D. (2007). Sex on the Brain: 12 Lessons to Enhance Your Love Life. London: Harmony.
Bratton, S. (2013). Scents that trigger arousal. Personal Life Media, October 10. Located at: http://personallifemedia.com/2013/10/scents-that-trigger-arousal/
Brill, A.A. (1932). Sense of smell in the neuroses and psychoses. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1, 7-42
Gilbert, A. N. (2008). What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life. Crown.
Graham, C.A., & McGrew, W.C. (1980). Menstrual synchrony in female undergraduates living on a coeducational campus. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 5, 245-252.
Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Eproctophilia in a young adult male: A case study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 1383-1386.
Hirsch, A., & Gruss, J. (1999). Human male sexual response to olfactory stimuli. Journal of Neurological and Orthopaedic Medicine and Surgery, 19, 14-19.
Hirsch, A. R., Schroder, M., Gruss, J., Bermele, C., & Zagorski, D. (1999). Scentsational sex Olfactory stimuli and sexual response in the human female. International Journal of Aromatherapy, 9(2), 75-81.
Hirsch, A.R., & Trannel, T.J. (1996). Chemosensory dysfunction and psychiatric diagnoses. Journal of Neurological and Orthopaedic Medicine and Surgery, 17, 25-30.
McClintock, M. (1971). Menstrual synchrony and suppression. Nature, 229, 244-245.
Sergeant, M., Davies, M.N.O., Dickins, T.E. & Griffiths, M.D. (2005). The self-reported importance of olfaction during human mate choice. Sexualities, Evolution and Gender, 7, 199-213.
Sergeant, M.J.T., Dickins, T.E., Davies, M.N.O. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Hedonic ratings by women of body odor in men are related to sexual orientation, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 395-401.
According to Dr. Anil Aggrawal in his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices nyctophilia is a sexual paraphilia where the individual derives sexual pleasure and arousal by a “love of night”. In the same book, Aggrawal defines similar (if not the same conditions) including scotophilia (“turned on by darkness”), lygophilia (“love of darkness”) and achluophilia (“arousal from darkness”). Another related condition is arguably amaurophilia (“arousal by a partner who is blind or unable to see due to artificial means such as being blindfolded or having sex in total darkness”, a paraphilia that I examined in depth in a previous blog). Other sources (such as Dr. Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices doesn’t mention any of these, apart from amaurophilia) whereas other medical dictionaries conflate darkness and night together and define nyctophilia as a “preference for the night or darkness. Also called scotophilia”.
As far as I can ascertain, there is no empirical research on this topic at all. There are many references to the similar sounding scopophilia (viewed by many as another term for ‘voyeurism’) but as Dr. Aggrawal notes:
“Several terms have been used as synonyms of voyeurism, although some writers have constantly pointed out subtle differences. The terms scopophilia and scoptophilia are taken as synonyms to voyeurism by most writers. However, others have pointed out a minor difference. If the victim is unsuspecting and non-consenting, the act is voyeurism, but if the other party is consenting, the act is scopophilia or scoptophilia. Furthermore, if the person watched is in the act of disrobing, or nude, the act is voyeurism, but if the person watched is engaged in sex, the act is either mixoscopia (if the watched person is the voyeur’s lover) or allopellia (if the watched persons are complete strangers)”.
The reason I mention this is because in a paper by Dr. Patrick Mahony on voyeurism in a 1989 issue Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association noted that the “alternate spelling scoptophilia, preferred by some of the older German psychoanalysts, must not be confused with scotophilia or love of darkness”. This appears to have happened in other academic papers I found directly referring to ‘scotophilia’. For instance, one paper dating back almost 70 years was that of Dr. F.S. Caprio who wrote a paper entitled ‘Scotophilia–exhibitionism: A case report’ in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Psychopathology but it was actually a paper about voyeurism. More specifically, the paper reported the cases of a mother and son who constantly watched residents for sexual arousal in the mother’s rooming house via drilled holes in the wall. A 1966 theoretical review paper by Dr. Jerome Sattler on embarrassment and blushing published in the Journal of Social Psychology claimed that “stage-fright and erythrophobia [fear of blushing] are not simply expressions of the warding off of heightened exhibitionism and scotophilia but also develop as a result of previous instinctual conflict”. Here again, scotophilia appears to be a synonym for voyeurism rather than a sexual love of darkness.
I was pleasantly surprised to find dozens of references to nyctophilia in the scientific literature but the overwhelming majority of papers were biological in origin and all referred to non-human species. For instance, a recent 2016 paper Dr. Luis Espinasa and colleagues in the journal Subterranean Biology reported that cave amphipods are eyeless troglobitic crustaceans found in caves located in the Northeastern (Allegheny) region of the United States and who “exhibit nyctophilia” (literally meaning they love darkness, and has absolutely nothing sexual whatsoever).
I only managed to find one non-biological academic reference on nyctophilia and this was a 1994 paper by Dr. Lewis Lawson in the journal Papers on Language and Literature. In actuality, the use of the word ‘nyctophilia’ was mentioned in passing and noted that the term was defined by psychoanalyst Bertram Lewin as “an erotic pleasure in darkness, which enters as a wish-fulfillment element on fantasies of being in the ‘womb,’ or more properly, as the German word Mutterlieb suggests, of being in the mother’s body”. I was unable to track down the original source so I don’t know the context in which Lewin used the word but the definition is certainly used in a sexual sense rather than the general ‘love of darkness’ used in the biologically-based papers.
In a more general search on the internet, located dedicated photographic sites for nyctophilia, a number of fictional books with the title of Nyctophilia (such as the novel by Welsh author K.A. Hambly), and even the name of a 2014 film (although details about it are sketchy to say the least). I also came across one first-person account of nyctophilia online from someone who has written a number of different articles about the condition such as ‘What is nyctophilia?’, ‘What is it like to have nytophilia?’ and ‘Everything you wanted to know about nyctophilia symptoms’. However, detailed reading of these articles suggests that any sexual element is secondary to a general love of darkness. Here are a few extracts from the articles:
Extract 1: “I have a confession to make. I am a nyctophiliac…Well, a lot of people have told me that I am an insomniac. An insomniac is someone who has difficulty sleeping at night. But I have realized over time that I am not just an insomniac. Insomnia is a physical condition, not a psychological one. Nyctophilia, on the other hand, is purely a psychological condition. Many say that nyctophiliacs are sexually aroused by the dark. Is that true? Well, yes and no. I like darkness, but I am not always sexually aroused by it. I just love it for what it is. It gives me a sense of relief and it makes me happy”.
Extract 2: “To help you understand nyctophilia symptoms, [here] I reveal some uncomfortable details of my life. Every night, I try to sleep at 10 pm. I take sleeping pills such as Klonopin and get myself a good book to read. When I do fall asleep, at around 10:30 pm or 10:45 pm, I find myself waking up at 12:00 am sharp, as fresh as the day, as though I’ve been asleep for 9 hours. I am wide awake at this time and no matter what I do, I cannot go to sleep. Unlike an insomniac, who would turn the lights on and perhaps watch TV, that’s the last thing on my mind. I just want to sit in the bedroom chair in the dark, all alone, with just darkness as my company. I love the darkness. It makes me happy. I feel a sense of relief as I sit in the dark and listen to the sound of the clock ticking by. I know it’s not good for me to stay awake like this, like a ghost, in complete darkness. I tell that to myself several times and often I try my very best to sleep. That is when I get those dreams. Those horrible dreams. The nightmares. I find myself in impossible situations, either getting tortured like Mel Gibson in Braveheart or dying of a dreadful disease, like a child affected by the Ebola virus in Africa”.
Extract 3: “There isn’t much of an awareness of nyctophilia, or nyctophilia symptoms, out there on the Web…The UrbanDictionnary.com defines nyctophilia as ‘The love of darkness or night, or feeling like you belong in the dark” and adds that the condition ‘usually applies to those who often feel sadness!’ Nyctophilia is a condition that makes you want to sit in the dark all by yourself late at night, wide awake…You may wander off late at night in the dark. This will get you in trouble with the authorities, who do not really understand the nyctophilia meaning and cannot even comprehend how you feel. So you may get mistaken for a sex addict or a pervert, or possibly a criminal. Your neighbors would avoid you and report you to the law enforcement agencies. They would want you to leave the neighborhood and move somewhere else. They would feel distinctly uncomfortable about your condition and word would get around about the fact that you stay up all night in the dark, basically doing nothing”.
Extract 4: “There are many who say that nyctophialiacs find darkness sexually arousing. They compare the condition to a form of sex addiction. Indeed, have been given medication for sex addiction, such as GnRH, a long lasting gonadotropin releasing hormone that suppresses sexual desires. If you feel that you have any of the nyctophilia symptoms…it is important to get yourself treated by a qualified psychiatrist, preferably someone who has experience of working with modern or unusual psychiatric conditions. Take the medications that are suggested to you and ask support from your friends and family”
In all the reading I have done on this topic, there appears to be very little genuine evidence that scotophilia and nyctophilia exist, and if the condition does exist, few people appear to suffer major problems as a consequence, unless their love of the dark leaves the person feeling so sleep-deprived that it interferes with their day-to-day functioning. Maybe this condition is a sub-type of insomnia but that the underlying reasons for not going to sleep are very different from the usual reasons for not being able to sleep.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Caprio, F. S. (1949). Scoptophilia, exhibitionism; a case report. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Psychopathology, 10(1), 50-72.
Espinasa, L., Collins, E., Finocchiaro, A., Kopp, J., Robinson, J., & Rutkowski, J. (2016). Incipient regressive evolution of the circadian rhythms of a cave amphipod. Subterranean Biology, 20, 1-13.
Love, B. (1992). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books.
Lawson, L. A. (1994). The dream screen in The moviegoer. Papers on Language and Literature, 30(1), 25.
Mahony, P. J. (1989). Aspects of nonperverse scopophilia within an analysis. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 37(2), 365-399.
Sattler, J. M. (1966). Embarrassment and blushing: A theoretical review. Journal of Social Psychology, 69(1), 117-133.
Recently, I did an interview with a journalist about ‘love bombing’ described by her as a new phenomenon occurring in online dating and is “when someone showers you with attention, promising the world but when you respond they go cold and stop responding”. However, there is nothing new about ‘love bombing’ because the term has been around since the 1970s except it has traditionally been described as a practice by religious organisations and cults in relation to the indoctrination of new recruits. According to a number of different sources, the term ‘love bombing’ was coined by the Unification Church of the United States founded by Sun Myung Moon (and why individuals in the cult are often referred to as ‘Moonies’). A number of academics have written about ‘love bombing’ within cult movements. For instance, Thomas Robbins in a 1984 issue of the journal Social Analysis noted that:
“Many elements involved in controversies over alleged cultist brainwashing entail trans-valuational conflicts related to alternative internal vs. external perspectives. The display of affection toward new and potential converts (‘love bombing’), which might be interpreted as a kindness or an idealistic manifestation of devotees’ belief that their relationship to spiritual truth and divine love enables them to radiate love and win others to truth, is also commonly interpreted as a sinister ‘coercive’ technique (Singer, 1977)”.
In a 2002 issue of the journal Human Relations, Dennis Tourish and Ashly Pinnington wrote that the practice of ‘love bombing’ is derived from the interpersonal perception literature and is a form of ‘ingratiation’ (taken from Edward Jones’ 1964 book of the same name). They then cite from Jones’ 1990 book Interpersonal Perception:
“There is little secret or surprise in the contention that we like people who agree with us, who say nice things about us, who seem to possess such positive attributes as warmth, understanding, and compassion, and who would ‘go out of their way’ to do things for us”.
Tourish again (this time with Naheed Vatcha) in a 2005 issue of the journal Leadership noted that cults use ‘love bombing’ as an emotionally draining recruitment strategy and that it is a form of positive reinforcement. More specifically, they noted that:
“Cults make great ceremony of showing individual consideration for their members. One of the most commonly cited cult recruitment techniques is generally known as ‘love bombing’ (Hassan, 1988). Prospective recruits are showered with attention, which expands to affection and then often grows into a plausible simulation of love. This is the courtship phase of the recruitment ritual. The leader wishes to seduce the new recruit into the organization’s embrace, slowly habituating them to its strange rituals and complex belief systems. At this early stage resistance will be at its highest. Individual consideration is a perfect means to overcome it, by blurring the distinctions between personal relationships, theoretical constructs and bizarre behaviors”.
More recently, the practice of ‘love bombing’ has been used in other contexts such by gang leaders or pimps as a way of controlling their victims (as outlined in the 2009 book Gangs and Girls: Understanding Juvenile Prostitution by Michel Dorais and Patrice Corriveau), and within the context of everyday dating and online dating. One article that has been cited a lot in the press relating to the use of ‘love bombing’ in day-to-day relationships is a populist article written for Psychology Today by Dr. Dale Archer. He noted that:
“Notorious cult leaders Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and David Koresh weaponized love bombing, using it to con followers into committing mass suicide and murder. Pimps and gang leaders use love bombing to encourage loyalty and obedience as well”.
Dr. Archer says that ‘love bombing’ works because “humans have a natural need to feel good about who we are, and often we can’t fill this need on our own”. He says that there are times of high susceptibility to being ‘love bombed’ such as losing a job or going through a divorce. Irrespective of why or where the susceptibility has arisen, Archer claims that love bombers “are experts at detecting low self-esteem, and exploiting it”. He then goes on to claim that:
“The paradox of love bombing is that people who use it aren’t always seeking targets that broadcast insecurity for all to see. On the contrary, the love bomber is also insecure, so to boost their ego, the target must at least seem like a great “catch.” Maybe she’s the beautiful woman, who’s lonely because her beauty intimidates people, or he’s the guy with the great career whose wife left him for his best friend, or she’s the hard-nosed businesswoman, who’s avoided marriage and motherhood because her childhood was so traumatic. On paper, these folks are attractive, but something makes them doubt their own value. Along comes the love bomber to shower them with affection and attention. The dopamine rush of the new romance is vastly more powerful than it would be if the target had a healthy self-esteem, because the love bomber fills a need the target can’t fill on her own”.
My own expertise on ‘love bombing’ is limited (to say the least). However, I did attempt to answer the questions I was asked, and here are my verbatim replies.
It seems like [‘love bombing’] quite an addictive and compulsive behaviour – what do you make of it?
There is no evidence that love bombing is either addictive or compulsive and is simply a specific behaviour that although may be repetitive and habitual is not something that would be done compulsively (because the love bombing is planned and focused) or addictively (because love bombing not something that they would do that compromises everything else in their life).
Are there any psychological reasons why people behave like this?
I don’t know of any psychological research that has been done on love bombing but the concept is not new as it has been in the academic literature since the 1970s in relation to indoctrinating individuals into religious cults. Love bombing is a manipulative strategy to make individuals more emotionally pliable. My guess is that in a relationship setting (rather than a cult setting) the individuals engaged in love bombing are likely to be egomaniacs and/or narcissists who like to feel dominant and powerful and/or love psychologically humiliating others.
In my experience, and according to some of the people I’ve interviewed who are guilty of ‘love bombing’ – they do it to multiple people at once.
If love bombing is part of an individual’s behavioural repertoire there is no reason why they wouldn’t do it with more than one person at the same time. However, I don’t know of any research that has shown this to be the case but it wouldn’t surprise me if some individuals were unfaithful love bombers (but I’m sure there are serial love bombers who just do it from one relationship to the next without being physically or emotionally unfaithful).
Is it to straightforward to blame tech for such behaviours – is it just an amplification of behaviours people already exhibit in real life? The temptation always seems to be to blame it on the internet.
The internet tends to facilitate pre-existing problematic behaviour rather than cause it. However, it is well known that the internet is a disinhibiting medium and that individuals lower their psychological guard online. In the case of relationships, the perceived anonymity of being online means that individuals reveal things about themselves, often very private things, because the medium is non-face-to-face, non-threatening, non-alienating and non-stigmatising. Individuals can develop deep emotional relationships online without even having met the other person because of the internet’s disinhibiting properties. Consequently, online methods of communication are another tool in love bomber’s armoury in (initially) showering their professed love for somebody and can happen 24/7 (something which couldn’t have happened in the days prior to online ubiquity).
Where and how, if at all, does this sort of problematic behaviour intersect with sex and love addiction?
I don’t see any overlaps between ‘love bombing’ and sex addiction as they are two completely different constructs and have completely different underlying motivations with little in the way of crossover. Obviously, love bombing could be used as a method to increase the likelihood of sex (because flattery goes a long way). However, if the ultimate goal is psychological control of another person’s emotions, sex is simply a by-product of love bombing rather than the main goal.
Anything else you would like to add?
As far as I can tell, there has never been any empirical research on ‘love bombing’ within the context of dating so all my responses to the questions I was asked are speculative. However, I do think this is an area that would benefit from scientific investigation given how important personal relationships are within our lives. At the very least such research might uncover the signs and strategies that ‘love bombers’ typically use and might prevent a lot of emotional pain felt by individuals not rushing head first (or should that be heart first?) into such relationships in the first place.
Archer, D. (2017). The manipulative partner’s most devious tactic. Psychology Today, March 6. Located at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reading-between-the-headlines/201703/the-manipulative-partners-most-devious-tactic
Dorais, M. & Corriveau, P. (2009). Gangs and Girls: Understanding Juvenile Prostitution. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press.
Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Cyber affairs – A new area for psychological research. Psychology Review, 7(1), 28-31.
Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Excessive internet use: Implications for sexual behavior. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3, 537-552.
Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Sex on the internet: Observations and implications for sex addiction. Journal of Sex Research, 38, 333-342.
Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.
Hassan, S. (1988) Combating Cult Mind Control. Rochester: Park Press.
James, O. (2012). Love bombing: Reset your child’s emotional thermostat. London: Karnac Books.
Jones, E. (1964). Ingratiation. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts
Jones, E. (1990). Interpersonal Perception. New York: WH Freeman.
Robbins, T. (1984). Constructing cultist “mind control”. Sociological Analysis, 45(3), 241-256
Singer, M. (1977). Therapy with ex-cultists. National Association of Private Psychiatric Hospitals Journal, 9(4), 15-18.
Tourish, D., & Pinnington, A. (2002). Transformational leadership, corporate cultism and the spirituality paradigm: An unholy trinity in the workplace? Human Relations, 55(2), 147-172.
Tourish, D., & Vatcha, N. (2005). Charismatic leadership and corporate cultism at Enron: The elimination of dissent, the promotion of conformity and organizational collapse. Leadership, 1(4), 455-480.
Wikipedia (2017). Love bombing. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_bombing
Unwanted visual intrusions are characteristic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to Dr. Emily Holmes and her colleagues in a 2009 paper in the journal PLoS ONE, one innovative intervention for inhibiting unwanted intrusions is playing the Tetris videogame, described as a ‘cognitive vaccine’ in preventing intrusions after traumatic events. Playing Tetris consumes heavy visuospatial working memory resources that potentially compete with cognitive resources required for elaboration of visual imagery. Since Holmes and colleagues’ study, other studies have used Tetris to inhibit intrusive imagery including more studies by Holmes and her colleagues and others by Ella James’ research group, as well as some innovative studies using Tetris to reduce drug cravings by Jessica Storka-Brown and her colleagues (see ‘Further reading’ below). However, none of these studies assessed the role of videogame content after playing in relation to Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP), an area that we have carried out a lot of research into (see ‘Further reading’ below).
GTP research has investigated non-volitional experiences (e.g., altered sensorial perceptions and automatic mental processes/behaviours) mostly experienced after gaming. Gamers often report sensorial (visual/auditory) intrusions after playing (e.g., visual and auditory imagery, hallucinations). In a survey of 2,362 gamers that we published in a 2016 issue of the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, most (77%) had visualized images from a variety of videogames (including tile-puzzle games) with closed-eyes, and one-third (31%) had visualized images with open-eyes. Other studies have experimentally induced videogame-related visualizations at sleep onset (including studies by Stickgold and colleagues , Wamsley and colleagues , Kusse and colleagues  – see ‘Further reading’).
James and colleagues’ 2015 study in the journal Psychological Science was the first to make explicit reference to GTP (referred to as the ‘Tetris effect’ [TE]). In 2012, we argued the TE term is misleading as it suggests repetition is the core of transfer effects. However, other factors are involved. Research concerning GTP makes the distinction between sensorial modalities facilitating non-volitional phenomena with videogame content that occur along the continuum from mild to severe. Moreover, the descriptive constructs of GTP are empirically based on our analysis of 3,500+ gamers and have been examined via confirmatory factor analysis demonstrating good reliability and validity.
James and her colleagues tested if playing Tetris offered a protective mechanism against re-experiencing traumatic events. Healthy participants (n=56) were randomly assigned to either playing Tetris for 11 minutes, or doing nothing before exposure to a 12-minute traumatic film. Image-base memories about the film were then registered in a one-week dairy. However, playing Tetris as a proactive interference task before watching the film did not show significant results. James and colleagues offered different explanations including: (i) duration of the task in relation to film length, (ii) temporal contingencies between the tasks, (iii) differences between the task types, (iv) videogame types used, and (v) reactivation of gameplay during the film for aided interference. In a commentary paper published in a 2016 issue of Frontiers in Psychology, we discussed these findings and some of its shortcomings in relation to GTP literature.
- Duration of task in relation to film length: Playing Tetris for 11 minutes may not have been long enough to compete with the consolidation of memory of the 12-minute film. GTP are significantly more likely to occur when playing 3-6 hours. Our research reported only 4% of gamers reported GTP when playing sessions shorter than one-hour. Laboratory experiments have taken days of playing to induce game-related visualizations at sleep onset.
- Temporal contingencies between gaming and film watching: The tasks were performed minutes apart from each other. GTP mostly occur soon after stopping playing but our research has found that gamers have also reported GTP days after playing. In most cases, duration of experience is very short (seconds/minutes) but in some cases hours or longer.
- Differences between the tasks: Previous studies have demonstrated that similar tasks aid interference. However, watching a film is a passive activity while gaming is interactive requiring additional perceptual/motor skills. Therefore, it may be expected that gaming is more potent as interference task, particularly because inducing the subjective sense of presence in the virtual world may strengthen the interference.
- Type of videogame used as interference task and emotional content of film: The unrealistic (geometric) Tetris content may have been overwritten by the film’s traumatic images. Visualization of stereotypical games induced at sleep onset are characterized by lack of emotion, assuming that the amygdala and the reward system are not involved. In GTP research, emotions in tile-matching puzzle-games are incomparable to emotions in realistic videogames.
- Reactivation of gameplay during the film for aided interference: The use of cue reminders may have potential in reviving videogame content. In many cases, thoughts and altered perceptions are triggered by game-related cues. Selective attention toward game-related cues has been demonstrated in experiments. GTP have been reported in variety of videogame genres particularly those that have very realistic graphics and settings. Therefore, more realistic games may aid associations between real life stimuli and videogame content, and may be more effective in competing with memories of traumatic events.
In our Frontiers paper, we noted that playing Tetris is not only an effective visuospatial task (overloading working memory resources needed for imagery-formation while playing), but as demonstrated in our GTP studies, videogame content stays active after playing (e.g., mental imagery, sensory perceptions), and may offer additional benefits for managing unwanted intrusions. GTP may potentially strengthen effects of interference tasks but should be used cautiously, because videogame content not only targets unwanted intrusions, but also influences individual cognitions, perceptions, and behaviours in day-to-day contexts (e.g., attention bias, lack of task awareness, control inhibition failures). Moreover, our studies have shown distress and dysfunction have been reported with GTP.
Consequently, further research needs conducting to identify: (i) videogames that are most effective, (ii) playing duration, (iii) factors that reduce intervention efficacy and strategies to control them, and (iv) individuals that may benefit the most from such intervention. While using videogames as intervention tools for preventing unwanted imagery from traumatic experiences has potential, therapeutically it is still at an early stage.
- (Please note: This blog was co-written with Dr. Angelica Ortiz de Gortari and is based on an article we published in Frontiers in Psychology: Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Playing the computer game Tetris prior to viewing traumatic film material and subsequent intrusive memories: Examining proactive interference. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 260. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00260)
Holmes, E. A., James, E. L., Kilford, E. J., & Deeprose, C. (2010). Key steps in developing a cognitive vaccine against traumatic flashbacks: Visuospatial Tetris versus Verbal Pub Quiz. PloS ONE, 5(11), e13706.
James, E. L., Bonsall, M. B., Hoppitt, L., Tunbridge, E. M., Geddes, J. R., Milton, A. L., & Holmes, E. A. (2015a). Computer game play reduces intrusive memories of experimental trauma via reconsolidation-update mechanisms. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797615583071
James, E. L., Zhu, A. L., Tickle, H., Horsch, A., & Holmes, E. A. (2015b). Playing the computer game Tetris prior to viewing traumatic film material and subsequent intrusive memories: Examining proactive interference. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2015.11.004
Kusse, C., Shaffii-Le Bourdiec, A., Schrouff, J., Matarazzo, L., & Maquet, P. (2012). Experience-dependent induction of hypnagogic images during daytime naps: A combined behavioural and EEG study. Journal of Sleep Research, 21(1), 10-20.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., Aronsson, K., & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing: A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning 1(3), 15-33.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2012). An introduction to Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing. In J. I. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness (pp. 223-250). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Publisher.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014a). Altered visual perception in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 30(2), 95-105.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014b). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning 4(1), 59-75.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014c). Automatic mental processes, automatic actions and behaviours in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study using online forum data. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12(4), 1-21.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015a). Game Transfer Phenomena and its associated factors: An exploratory empirical online survey study. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, 195-202.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Prevalence and characteristics of Game Transfer Phenomena: A descriptive survey study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 32, 470-480.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B., Oldfield, B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). An empirical examination of factors associated with Game Transfer Phenomena severity. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 274-284.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., Pontes, H. M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). The Game Transfer Phenomena Scale: An instrument for investigating the nonvolitional effects of video game playing. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 10, 588-594
Skorka-Brown, J., Andrade, J., & May, J. (2014). Playing ‘Tetris’ reduces the strength, frequency and vividness of naturally occurring cravings. Appetite, 76 , 161-165.
Skorka-Brown, J., Andrade, J., Whalley, B., & May, J. (2015). Playing Tetris decreases drug and other cravings in real world settings. Addictive Behaviors, 51, 165-170.
Stickgold, R., Malia, A., Maguire, D., Roddenberry, D., & O’Connor, M. (2000). Replaying the Game: Hypnagogic images in normals and amnesics. Science, 290(5490), 350-353.
Wamsley, E. J., Perry, K., Djonlagic, I., Reaven, L. B., & Stickgold, R. (2010). Cognitive replay of visuomotor learning at sleep onset: Temporal dynamics and relationship to task performance. Sleep, 1(33), 59-68.
Last week, the UK Gambling Commission put out a press release relating to student gambling. Having been in the university sector for as long as I have been researching gambling (i.e., 30 years), student gambling is an area that has always been close to my professional heart. I have published dozens of papers on youth gambling and student gambling over the last three decades (see ‘Further reading’ below for a few examples).
With my daughter leaving home to go to university this week there are lots I could potentially worry about and gambling isn’t necessarily my main concern where my daughter is concerned, but gambling is still of concern to me especially because a study I published back in 2012 with Luke Benson and Dr. Christine Norman (in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction) found that first year university students gambled more than final year students and were more susceptible to problem gambling compared to final year students.
The Gambling Commission have just published their own research into the topic. They hired Youth Sight who conducted 1,000 online interviews with undergraduate students in August 2017 (the students were part of an online panel recruited from applicants through Universities and Colleges Admission Service). The quotas chosen reflected the UK student population in terms of gender, course year and university group. Here are some of their key findings:
- Two-thirds of students had gambled in the previous month
- Over half of student gamblers (54%) engaged in gambling to make money
- Two-fifths of students said they felt guilty after they had gambled
- One in eight student gamblers had missed lectures due to gambling
- One in four student gamblers (25%) had spent more money gambling than they could afford
- One in 25 student gamblers (4%) were in debt because of their gambling
- One in four students that had a gambling debt, had a debt of over £10,000
The Gambling Commission noted there were are number of limitations with the study. They specifically noted that gambling participation rates may have been higher than if the data had been collected using other methodologies (telephone, face-to-face interviews) due to the self-selecting nature of online surveys. However, online surveys were chosen due to students’ access to technology and the availability of a representative panel via this method.
On the back of their survey, the Gambling Commission also provided their top ten tips to help students avoid getting into trouble with gambling. I have reproduced them here verbatim.
- Ask yourself why you are gambling: Are you gambling to escape debt or as a way to make quick money? Think carefully about your motivations to gamble. Gambling shouldn’t be seen as the answer to improving your personal finances. If you have concerns about money, speak to a financial adviser or student support services.
- Monitor how often you’re gambling online: Websites must give you access to historic account activity. This means you can see exactly when, how much and what you’ve been gambling on over time and make well-informed choices about what to do next.
- Keep track of how much time you’ve spent gambling: With a reality check, you can set alerts to pop up on screen, which help you to monitor the time spent gambling either online or on gaming machines in a betting shop.
- Limit how much you can spend: If you’re concerned about how much money you’re gambling, you can set a limit on how much you spend across individual gambling products online. You can also set a limit on how much you spend on gaming machines in a betting shop.
- Give yourself a timeout: During a timeout, you can block yourself from gambling online for a set amount of time, of up to 6 weeks, and even bar yourself from gambling during a specific time of day.
- Need a longer break? Self-exclude from gambling firms for a minimum of 6 months: If you think you are spending too much time or money gambling – whether online or in gambling premises – you can ask to be self-excluded. This is when you ask the company to stop you from gambling with them for a period of time. The exclusion will last for a minimum of least six months. Self-exclusion can be used if you think you have a problem with gambling and want help to stop. [The Gambling Commission] are also working with industry representatives to develop a national online self-exclusion scheme.
- Read the terms and conditions: Did you know almost 80% of gamblers haven’t read the terms and conditions on the websites they are gambling on? By taking the time to read the T&Cs, you can ensure you understand exactly what you are gambling on, and what restrictions are attached to promotions and bonus offers (such as a minimum spend level before the bonus is paid) – this will help you make an informed decision.
- Make sure the website you’re gambling with is licensed: Make sure you’re gambling with a Gambling Commission licensed business. This means you’ll be protected by gambling and consumer protection rules in Great Britain. Licensed gambling businesses must display that they are licensed and provide a link to our licence register where you can see what type of activities they are allowed to offer and also if we have taken any regulatory action against them.
- Check how your money is protected: Any gambling business that holds customer funds must explain in their T&Cs how customer funds are protected if the business goes bust – this should help you decide who you want to gamble with.
- Feel it’s getting too much? Talk to someone: There are a number of gambling support groups available if you feel your gambling is getting out of control or too much. More information about the signs of problem gambling can be found on the Gambleaware and Gamcare websites [You can call the National Gambling Helpline on Freephone 0808 8020 133]. They also provide general information about gambling, including how to gamble safely and where to get help if you or someone you know has problems with their gambling.
Benson, L., Norman, C. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The role of impulsivity, sensation seeking, coping, and year of study in student gambling: A pilot study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 461-473.
Canale, N., Griffiths, M.D., Vieno, A., Siciliano, V. & Molinaro, S. (2016). Impact of internet gambling on problem gambling among adolescents in Italy: Findings from a large-scale nationally representative survey. Computers in Human Behavior, 57, 99-106.
Canale, N., Vieno, A., Lenzi, M., Griffiths, M.D., Borraccino, A., Lazzeri, G., Lemma, P., Scacchi, L., Santinello, M. (2017). Income inequality and adolescent gambling severity: Findings from a large-scale Italian representative survey. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1318. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01318
Gambling Commision (2017). Commission raises awareness of potential risks for students who gamble. September 12. Located at: http://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/news-action-and-statistics/news/2017/Commission-raises-awareness-of-potential-risks-for-students-who-gamble.aspx
Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Adolescent Gambling. London: Routledge.
Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Adolescent gambling: What should teachers and parents know? Education and Health, 20, 31-35.
Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Gambling and Gaming Addictions in Adolescence. Leicester: British Psychological Society/Blackwells.
Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Adolescent gambling in Great Britain. Education Today: Quarterly Journal of the College of Teachers. 58(1), 7-11.
Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent gambling via social networking sites: A brief overview. Education and Health, 31, 84-87.
Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Adolescent gambling and gambling-type games on social networking sites: Issues, concerns, and recommendations. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 33(2), 31-37.
Griffiths, M.D. & Calado, F. (2017). Adolescent gambling. Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology (pp. 1-12). Oxford: Elsevier.
Griffiths, M.D. & Linsey, A. (2006). Adolescent gambling: Still a cause for concern? Education and Health, 24, 9-11.
Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2010). Adolescent gambling on the Internet: A review. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 22, 59-75.