Net advantage: Another brief look at the psychology of online poker

From everything that I’ve observed over the last decade in the gambling world, the one thing that has caught my eye more than anything else is the number of online gambling stories – particularly about the rise of online poker. Clearly, online poker and traditional poker are not synonymous. As I outlined in one of my previous blogs, a very useful psychological tool in poker is to ‘read’ a player through their body language and their verbalisations. When playing online poker, a gambler is denied this advantage. Poker players must therefore seek to manipulate their poker-playing opponents by using the psychological tools at their disposal. One of my colleagues who has researched this area (Dr. Adrian Parke), believes that in a ‘SunTzu’-type way, an online poker player must take their weakness (in this case, not being able to physically see other players) and turn it into a positive strength. Put simply, a player must use the non-transparency inherent in the situation to their advantage.

Online poker permits players to create a false identity. As a player you could portray the façade of being a young attractive novice female player when in fact you are actually a very experienced recognised pro. On a psychological level, the key to a ‘hustle’ or manipulating other players in poker is by projecting a character and hiding your identity. Essentially it is about representing a façade, whether it is for one hand or the whole of the game. While playing poker online, a player can adapt any ‘character’ they wish to suit any game in which they engage in. For instance, if you are playing with novices it may be profitable to portray an experienced professional in order to intimidate players into submission.

Using the messaging systems provided, it is easier for online poker players to develop their persona(s). The tone and pitch of what a player “says” is not revealed in the text on the screen. At a fundamental level all players are acting with their most unemotional ‘poker face’. In these situations, players can exude confidence as they go all in on a psychological bluff, when in reality they may have shaking hands and be sweating like a pig. The key to winning on a psychological level is by inducing emotional reactions from other players, so with knowledge of the opponent, it is possible to ‘tailor’ interactions to induce the desired response.

Social interaction at the online poker table is not confined to adversarial chastising. It is also possible to develop amiable relationships between players. Online poker – particularly at low stakes tables – is often more about entertainment than making profits. In poker it is not necessary to reveal your hand if nobody calls (i.e., pays to see it). Without seeing cards it is more difficult to understand player behaviour. However, at more sociable tables, players will reveal what they had to opposing players, if nothing else but to indulge the observers. Creating false ‘alliances’ is a way of ascertaining more information about your opponents and improving your ability to ‘read’ them.

From a psychological perspective, there are also some things to be aware of in the online gambling world. At a basic level, what separates professional gamblers and novice (or problem) gamblers is the factor of self-control. The rule of thumb is to avoid becoming emotionally involved in the game. Inducing emotional rather than logical reactions from gamblers is what makes the gambling industry so profitable. By remaining unemotional gamblers can protect themselves from recklessly chasing losses and avoid going on ‘tilt’. People gambling online are particularly at risk from engaging in chasing losses for the simple reason that they have 24-hour convenient access from their home or workplace and have the potential to be constantly subjected to temptation. What’s more, in this asocial world, they often lack friends acting as a “social safety net” to give objective appraisals of the player’s behaviour.

The best ways of avoiding becoming emotionally engaged online is to have (i) reflective time outs and (ii) an objective attribution of outcomes. Having reflective time-outs simply refers to playing slowly, making gambling decisions with accrued knowledge (for example, knowledge of probability and of opponents). It is advisable after a ‘bad beat’ to be disciplined enough sit out one or two hands to regain composure before playing again. Determining objective attributions of outcomes occurs at a psychological level and concerns the gambler’s locus of control. For the gambler, this means having an external locus of control when assessing the cards they have and an internal locus of control regarding what they do with the cards available.

The mantra of poker players is that ‘You can only play the hand you were dealt’. All players will experience streaks of both desirable and poor hands, and it is how a player responds to these streaks that will determine their success. It is very easy to become frustrated while in a negative streak. Likewise, it is easy in a positive streak to become narcissistic and complacent. It is the knowledgeable player that understands probability and who realises that over a continuous playing period, positive and negative streaks are inevitable and transient.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Biolcati, R., Passini, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). All-in and bad beat: Professional poker players and pathological gambling. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). What differentiates professional poker players from recreational poker players? A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 243-257.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Parke, A., Griffiths, M., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.

Recher, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory qualitative study of online poker professional players. Social Psychological Review, 14(2), 13-25.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008). Why Swedish people play online poker and factors that can increase or decrease trust in poker websites: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 80-97.

The must of lust discussed: Why isn’t sex addiction in the DSM-5?

Please note: A shorter and slightly different version of this blog first appeared on addiction.com

Sex addiction appears to be a highly controversial area among both the general public and those who work in the addiction field. Some psychologists adhere to the position that unless the behaviour involves the ingestion of a psychoactive substance (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, cocaine heroin), then it can’t really be considered an addiction. But I’m not one of them. If it were up to me, I would have given serious consideration to including sex addiction in the latest (fifth) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Given that ‘gambling disorder’ was reclassified from a disorder of impulse control to a behavioural addiction in the DSM-5, there is now no theoretical reason why other behavioural addictions can’t be added in the years to come. So why wasn’t sex addiction included in the latest DSM-5? Here are some possible reasons.

Some researchers think that sex addiction just doesn’t exist (for moral and theoretical reasons): Many scholars have attacked the whole concept of sex addiction saying it is a complete myth. It’s not hard to see why, as many of the claims appear to have good face validity. Many sociologists would argue that ‘sex addiction’ is little more than a label for sexual behaviour that significantly deviates from society’s norms. The most conventional attack on sex addiction is a variation on the position outlined in my introduction (i.e., that ‘addiction’ is a physiological condition caused by ingestion of physiological substances, and must therefore be defined physiologically). There are also attacks on more moral grounds with people saying that if excessive sexual behaviour is classed as an addiction it undermines individuals’ responsibility for their behaviour (although this argument could be said of almost any addiction).

The word ‘addiction’ has become meaningless: There are also those researchers within the social sciences who claim that the every day use of the word ‘addiction’ has rendered the term meaningless (such as people saying that their favorite television show is ‘addictive viewing’ or that certain books are ‘addictive reading’). Related to this is that those that work in the field don’t agree on what the disorder (e.g. ‘sex addiction’, ‘sexual addiction’, ‘hypersexuality disorder’, ‘compulsive sexual behaviour’, ‘pornography addiction’, etc.) should be called and whether it is a syndrome (i.e., a group of symptoms that consistently occur together, or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms) or whether there are many different sub-types (pathological promiscuity, compulsive masturbation, etc.). 

There is a lack of empirical evidence about sex addiction: One of the main reasons that sex addiction is not yet included in the DSM-5 is that the empirical research in the area is relatively weak. Although there has been a lot of research, there has never been any nationally representative prevalence surveys of sex addiction using validated addiction criteria, and a lot of research studies are based upon those people who turn up for treatment. Like Internet Gaming Disorder (which is now in the appendix of the DSM-5), sex addiction (or more likely ‘Hypersexual Disorder’) will not be included as a separate mental disorder until the (i) defining features of sex addiction have been identified, (ii) reliability and validity of specific sex addiction criteria have been obtained cross-culturally, (iii) prevalence rates of sex addiction have been determined in representative epidemiological samples across the world, and (iv) etiology and associated biological features of sex addiction have been evaluated.

The term ‘sex addiction’ is used an excuse to justify infidelity: One of the reasons why sex addiction may not be taken seriously is that the term is often used by high profile celebrities as an excuse by those individuals who have been sexually unfaithful to their partners (e.g., Tiger Woods, Michael Douglas, David Duchovny, Russell Brand). In some of these cases, sex addiction is used to justify the individual’s serial infidelity. This is what social psychologists refer to as a ‘functional attribution’. For instance, the golfer Tiger Woods claimed an addiction to sex after his wife found out that he had many sexual relationships during their marriage. If his wife had never found out, I doubt whether Woods would have claimed he was addicted to sex. I would argue that many celebrities are in a position where they were bombarded with sexual advances from other individuals and succumbed. But how many people wouldn’t do the same thing if they had the opportunity? It becomes a problem only when you’re discovered, when it’s in danger of harming the celebrity’s brand image.

The evidence for sex addiction is inflated by those with a vested interest: One of the real issues in the field of sex addiction is that we really have no idea of how many people genuinely experience sex addiction. Sex addiction specialists like Patrick Carnes claims that up to 6% of all adults are addicted to sex. If this was really the case I would expect there to be sex addiction clinics and self-help support groups in every major city across the world – but that isn’t the case. However, that doesn’t mean sex addiction doesn’t exist, only that the size of the problem isn’t on the scale that Carnes suggests. Coupled with this is that those therapists that treat sex addiction have a vested interest. Out simply, there are many therapists worldwide who make a living out of treating the disorder. Getting the disorder recognized by leading psychological and psychiatric organizations (e.g., American Psychiatric Association, World Health Organization) legitimizes the work of sex addiction counselors and therapists so it is not surprising when such individuals claim how widespread the disorder is.

There may of course be other reasons why sex addiction is not considered a genuine disorder. Compared to behavioural addictions like gambling disorder, the empirical evidence base is weak. There is little in the way of neurobiological research (increasingly seen as ‘gold standard’ research when it comes to legitimizing addictions as genuine). But carrying out research on those who claim to have sex addiction can face ethical problems. For instance, is it ethical to show hardcore pornography to a self-admitted pornography addict while participating in a brain neuroimaging experiment? Is the viewing of such material likely to stimulate and enhance the individual’s sexual urges and result in a relapse following the experiment? There are also issues surrounding cultural norms. The normality and abnormality of sexual behaviour lies on a continuum but what is considered normal and appropriate in one culture may not be viewed similarly in another (what is often referred to by sociologists as ‘normative ambiguity’). Personally, I believe that sex addiction is a reality but that it affects a small minority of individuals. However, many sex therapists claim it is on the increase, particularly because the Internet has made sexual material so easy to access. Maybe if sex addiction does eventually make it into future editions of the DSM, it will be one of the sub-categories of Internet Addiction Disorder rather than a standalone category.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Understanding the role of shame and its consequences in female hypersexual behaviours: A pilot study. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 3, 231–237.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). A systematic review of online sex addiction and clinical treatments using CONSORT evaluation. Current Addiction Reports, DOI 10.1007/s40429-015-0055-x

Goodman, A. (1992). Sexual addiction: Designation and treatment. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 18, 303-314.

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. (2001). Addicted to love: The psychology of sex addiction. Psychology Review, 8, 20-23.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Addicted to sex? Psychology Review, 16(1), 27-29.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dhuffar, M. (2014). Treatment of sexual addiction within the British National Health Service. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 561-571.

Kafka, M. P. (2010). Hypersexual disorder: A proposed diagnosis for DSM-V. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 377–400.

Orford, J. (2001). Excessive sexuality. In J. Orford, Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of the Addictions. Chichester: Wiley.

Frock ‘n’ roll: A beginner’s guide to petticoating

In a previous blog I examined transvestism and noted that people who cross-dress typically fall into one of four types. These were (i) transvestic fetishists who cross-dress for sexual pleasure and that in some cases may involve sexual arousal from a very specific piece of clothing, (ii) female impersonators who cross-dress to entertain, (iii) effeminate homosexuals who may occasionally cross-dress for fun, and (iv) transexuals who cross-dress because they fell they have been biologically assigned to the wrong sex and typically suffer from a gender identity disorder. However, while researching a previous blog on clothing fetishes, I came across a fifth type of cross-dressing that I didn’t mention in my first blog on cross-dressing. This fifth type is called ‘petticoating’ (sometimes spelt ‘pettycoating’ and also referred to as ‘pinaforing’). According to a Wikipedia entry:

“Petticoating or pinaforing, refers to a type of forced feminization that revolves around the practice of dressing a boy in girls’ clothing for the purpose of humiliating punishment or behaviour modification (or to the literature, erotic fiction, or roleplaying of such a fantasy). While this practice is rare in modern society (as the humiliation of children has become socially unacceptable) it has occasionally been observed. However, the terms ‘petticoating’ and ‘pinaforing’ nearly always refer to the sexual fantasy, as opposed to the actual practice”.

Academically, I’ve come across very few references to such sexual behaviour although Dr. Anil Aggrawal makes a number of references to it in his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. In relation to homeovestism (“sexual attraction towards the clothing of one’s own gender”), Dr. Aggrawal describes ‘petticoat punishment’ as a variation of transvestism. More specifically, he writes that: “a male paraphiliac, afflicted with transvestism and masochism, derives pleasure in getting spanked when he is dressed like a school girl or servant girl”. Elsewhere in his book, in a small section on ‘petticoat discipline’, Dr. Aggrawal defines the practice as”

“…a kind of roleplay or fantasy that revolves around a male being dressed as a girl in front of his mother, sisters, or in some cases, girls of his own age whom he had offended by his boorish behavior. Many mothers who discipline their sons in this fashion have either wanted daughters for long or find it erotic to feminize their sons. This type of punishment is also found in the history of some people who eventually develop transvestic fetishism”.

Dr. Brenda Love also has a section on ‘petticoat discipline’ in her Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. Interestingly, she claims the practice is Scottish in origin and relates to the wearing of kilts. I don’t know where her evidence originates (as there are no references to back up any of the claims she makes) but Dr. Love states that:

“Petticoat discipline refers to the discipline used on young males whereby they are forced to wear kilts without the sporran (purse) by their mother, sister, governess, or aunt. English and Scottish mothers both used this method for controlling an unruly boy. The ploy worked by humiliating or embarrassing the boy so much that he was careful not to engage in any type of activity that would draw attention to himself, thus making him easy to control in public. Older males were sometimes subjected to this type of humiliation due to the power a widowed mother had over their inheritance”.

She then asserts later in the same section that:

“Sexual literature often relates fiction stories of fourteen to twenty year old boys who are humiliated by a female, other than their mother. These females add frills to their shirt, shoes, or underpants. The kilt may be cut short so that the lace underwear will show if they bend over. As often is the custom, underpants are not worn with kilts. Most of the story lines include embarrassment suffered from having others look up their skirt, pull their pants down for a spanking, or having females rub against their genitals. Petticoat discipline differs from cross-dressing or transvestism because the intent is to have the masculinity and the identity of the male remain prominent. The male is not trying to pass as female, the change in gender identity would humiliate him nearly as much”.

A number of (non-academic) articles that I have read on petticoating also appear to concur with Dr. Aggrawal and Dr. Love, and refer to the practice being used within sadomasochistic activity as a form of discipline and/or humiliation (so-called ‘petticoat punishment’) that dates back to the mid-1800s. The feminization aspect of petticoating also means that it goes beyond clothing, and that individuals may also be forced to have make-up applied and to carry female accessories such as purses and handbags, in addition to engaging in other activities that might be more associated with females – particularly female girls – such as playing with dolls. The Wikipedia article also notes that:

“’Pettycoat punishment as a sexual fetish interest, involves imagining or reenacting this scenario. However, as a fetish interest, these activities are usually heavily exaggerated and sexualized, including elaborate humiliation and public nudity. They often involve the male being feminized into a sissy (the term used to describe a feminized male) by a powerful female presence (often a mother or aunt) in front of his cousins, sisters, or in some cases, girls of his own age whom he had offended by his boorish behaviour…Sometimes, boys were made to perform tasks that they considered to be ‘girls’ work’ and to appear in public in girls’ clothing with their mothers, who occasionally dressed in matching outfits. Some people claim that for the mothers, pinaforing sometimes had a sexual context, and many mothers who disciplined their sons in this fashion either had long wanted daughters or found it erotic to feminize their sons. In addition, according to the folklore of people with this condition, this type of castigation is found in the history of some of those who later develop transvestic fetishism”.

There is clearly a large fantasy and/or roleplay aspect to petticoating, and prior to being forced to wear women’s clothing, submissive males are often forced by their dominatrix partners to strip naked (and may also be part of ‘CFNM’ sexual play – ‘clothed female, naked male’). Other mildly sexually sadistic acts may accompany the petticoating (such as ‘erotic spanking’). The Wikipedia article also claims that:

“Petticoat discipline also occurs in the context of some marital relationships, as a means by which a wife may exert control over her husband. This may involve various items of feminine clothing or underwear in a variety of contexts, ranging from the husband having to wear a feminine apron around the house whilst performing household chores, to the wife insisting that the husband wears a brassiere on a full-time basis under ordinary male clothing. In all such circumstances, there is a strong reliance on the element of humiliation, whether actual or potential, should the husband’s secret be discovered”.

A 1998 issue of the International Journal of Transgenderism included papers that had been presented at the ‘Third International Congress on Sex and Gender’. One of the papers by Dr. Stella Gonzalez-Arnal was entitled ‘The ambiguous politics of petticoating’. She argued that petticoating is a politically incorrect form of sexuality. More specifically she argued that:

“The submissive in a petticoat feels humiliated by having to dress as a woman and by having to behave as a woman. Petticoating has all the ingredients of a straightforward politically incorrect form of sexuality. It considers women’s clothing and women’s traditional occupations as inferior and humiliating; reinforcing undesirable stereotypes by characterizing females as submissive, passive, helpless and subservient. From a feminist perspective it is a practice that should be avoided…Petticoating is a politically ambiguous form of sexuality”.

(The same journal issue also featured the work of Peter Farrer who has documented almost all of the Victorian literature from 1840 onwards that has made reference to the practice of petticoating. He has also edited many books on the topic although the extracts I found online are from the tradition of literary criticism rather than psychology or sociology).

As with many of the rarer sexual practices I have covered in my blog to date, I can’t see there ever being much academic research into petticoating as between consensual adults it is not likely to be perceived as problematic or have any negative psychosocial impact on those practitioners that engage in it.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Bullough, B. (1993). Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ekins, R. (1996). Blending Genders: Social Aspects of Cross-Dressing and Sex-Changing. London: Routledge.

Farrer, P. (2001-2002). Petticoat punishment in erotic literature (Parts 1-7). Located at: http://www.petticoated.com/0603/petpunessay7SU03.html

Gonzalez-Arnal, S. (1998). The ambiguous politics of petticoating. International Journal of Transgenderism, 2(3). Located at: http://www.iiav.nl/ezines/web/IJT/97-03/numbers/symposion/whittle_congress.htm

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Deal love: Bargain hunting as an addiction

“Bargain hunting may save money, but for some people, looking for the next ‘great deal’ becomes an addiction. The call of the clearance rack wins out over practical matters – like whether you need or want what you found, or even have a place to put it” (Tesh Media, ‘Are You Addicted To Bargain Hunting?’)

A couple of weeks ago, I did some background research for a newspaper interview on the psychology of bargain hunting (only for the journalist then to interview somebody else about it). Instead of wasting all the material collected, I decided to use it for this article. Most of the material in this article borders on ‘pop psychology’ but I found it interesting nonetheless. For instance, in a recent article on the BBC News website, the (anonymous) author provided some basic rules on how to be a more savvy shopper and bargain hunter (which I am quoting verbatim):

  • “Try to avoid stores that are too busy with loud music. This can confuse and distract you from judging what is a genuine offer.
  • Ask the sales rep to repeat the sales details in a clear and slow manner and if possible ask him/her to write them down.
  • Before you make a decision take a break, count from one to ten and think again about the benefits and perils of the offer.
  • Can you shop alone? Peer pressure has been proven to be a key indicator for individuals buying products that they do not need.
  • Never shop when you are feeling emotionally upset. Purchasing to overcome any mood or behavioural troubles is not beneficial in the long term.
  • Go shopping after a meal or when in a good and clear mood. There is evidence that shopping when you feel peckish can make you spend more than intended”.

As soon as we enter any shop (online or offline) we are being bombarded with psychological tactics in an attempt to get us to buy more products (such as selling products that have a price ending in 99p). The BBC article interviewed consumer psychologist Dr. Dimitri Tsivrikos who said:

“These prices are obviously used to convince you that you are spending less than you actually are. A price reduction makes it even more tempting. The bargain price is appealing to you because it challenges the status quo. The retailer appears not to be in complete control of the final price of the product, and this makes you feel that you are now in control. And because of that you feel you can negotiate the final price that you have to pay – whether that is the sale price or even a buy one get one free deal…Brain studies have shown that when we are excited by a bargain, this interferes with your ability to clearly judge whether it is actually a good offer or not”.

When I started researching online, I came across a number of articles claiming that for a small minority, bargain hunting was addictive (as the opening quote demonstrates). In another article on the Tesh Media website, reference was made to April Lane Benson’s edited book I Shop, Therefore I Am. According to that article (which merges bargain hunting addiction with shopping addiction more generally):

“[Benson] says that when it comes to bargain-hunting addictions, what people buy isn’t as important as how big the price reduction is. In fact, the bigger the price cut, the more tempting a purchase is. After all, if something’s 80% off the original price – you’re saving 80 percent! What you may not consider is that by not buying, you’ll save 100%. Bargain addicts also make illogical purchases, like grabbing up sale-price auto parts for cars they don’t own, or bargain kid’s clothes for children they don’t have…So, why is a bargain-hunting addiction so common? Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois, says it’s a way for people to ease insecurities, and feel more competent and in control. In fact, shopping addicts often don’t realize they have a problem, even when the bags and bills start stacking up. It usually takes a big event to bring it to their attention, like divorce, a new baby, unemployment, or retirement. Or they simply max out their credit cards, and have no more spending power”

In the same article published on the Tech Media website, it claimed the five signs of being ‘addicted’ to bargain hunter were:

  • “You hit sales and clearance racks when you feel angry or blue. Or you feel guilty after shopping and hide your purchases.
  • You spend more money than you can afford.
  • You see sales as opportunities you can’t pass up.
  • Another clue you’re a bargain addict: You spend so much time tracking down deals that it intrudes on your time with family and friends.
  • You often forget what you bought, and find things in your closets you’ve never used”.

Obviously some of these ‘warning signs’ tap into what I believe are the core components of addiction (such as the fourth bullet point that taps into ‘conflict’), however, most of the criteria have nothing to do with ‘addiction’ whatsoever. Using bargain-hunting as a way of making oneself feel better mirrors what is found in other addictions, but characteristics such as not being able to pass up a bargain, and forgetting what has been bought are not core signs of addiction but are idiosyncratic consequences that specifically relate to bargain hunting. Another online article also noted:

“According to new survey findings from Consumer Reports, 23% of women say they sometimes buy things they don’t need just because they’re on sale. For most of us, getting a discount is enough of a reward: 80% say they would hunt for a bargain even if money weren’t an issue for them. In general, the survey found bargain shopping has increased significantly, from 76% in 2011 to 83% today. That shift may be due in part to the growing use of smartphone coupons, which has increased from 11% in 2011 to 24% today. Human psychology may help explain the irresistible allure of a discount. Research suggests that people tend to enjoy bargains, regardless of whether any financial gain is involved. You might even be able to blame your bargain hunting on Mom and Dad, because some experts say genetic differences make certain people predisposed to finding pleasure in raiding the sale rack”.

This paragraph provided a hyperlink to some genuine academic research carried out by Dr. Peter Darke and his colleagues (published in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology). They carried out a couple of experiments examining both the financial and non-financial motivations underlying bargain hunting. They reported that:

“Subjects read scenarios that described the purchase of a television set. Scenarios differed in terms of whether a bargain was received, whether there was personal financial gain, and whether the sale was acquired through skill or luck. The results suggest that subjects generally enjoyed bargains regardless of any financial gain, thereby implying that nonfinancial motives might also be involved. Surprisingly, bargains acquired skillfully were not enjoyed more than lucky bargains. Thus, achievement motives could not explain why subjects enjoyed bargains when there was no associated financial gain. Instead, it seemed that acquiring a bargain was primarily considered a matter of luck”.

I was also interested in the claims that bargain hunting might be underpinned by genetic influences. These claims were made by Mark Ellwood in his 2013 book Bargain fever: How to shop in a discounted world. Ellwood summarized his book in an article for Time magazine and wrote:

“As it turns out, a passion for finding bargains is genetically preprogrammed in all humans, although it’s activated much more in some than others. Spotting special offers triggers a release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter that I like to think of as ‘buyagra’. Dopamine is such a powerful chemical that our brains have developed a built-in system to clean it up as quickly as possible. One in four Caucasians has an otherwise harmless flaw in what’s known as the COMT gene. While the rest of us can flush our brains free of dopamine with the efficiency of a Dyson, those with an iffy COMT gene can brandish only a hand broom. It takes more time and effort to flush their brains clean of buyagra – and so they are physiologically more prone to splurge, especially on bargains”.

Ellwood claimed that as soon as “bargain addicts sees one ‘Sale’ sign – cue a jolt of dopamine – they’re hooked”. More specifically, he goes on to argue that:

“Of course, a propensity for bargain hunting isn’t purely genetic…Many hardcore coupon cutters I’ve interviewed cite hardscrabble childhoods or food-bank visits as the foundation of their frugality. Certainly, in the past decade, deal hunting has gone from a sign of indigence to one of intelligence; thanks to the roiling economy and an uncertain future, more people have migrated to the markdown section than ever before…Internet-equipped smartphones turned price comparison into a one-step process in your palm — the practice known as showrooming that’s so detested by retailers. But in our search for bargains, we would do well to ask ourselves whether we are really trying to economize or whether we’re being driven by an even stronger impulse: the chemical drive to get a good price”.

Given that I believe shopping can be an addiction in a minority of individuals, it doesn’t take too much of a leap to suggest bargain hunting could be an addiction (or even a sub-type of shopping addiction). However, as far as I am aware, there has never been any empirical research examining ‘bargain hunting addiction’ more specifically. Based on the few online articles that I read, it certainly appears that we are living in a time and an age where such research would be worth carrying out.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

BBC News (2015). The psychology of shopping for bargains. Located at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/consumer/23818336

Benson, A.L. (2000). I Shop Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. Jason Aronson Inc. Publishers.

Consumer Reports (2014). America’s bargain-hunting habits. What shoppers will and won’t do to save a buck. April 30. Located at: http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2014/04/america-s-bargain-hunting-habits/index.htm

Darke, P. R., & Freedman, J. L. (1995). Nonfinancial Motives and Bargain Hunting1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25(18), 1597-1610.

Davenport, K., Houston, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Excessive eating and compulsive buying behaviours in women: An empirical pilot study examining reward sensitivity, anxiety, impulsivity, self-esteem and social desirability. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 474-489.

Ellwood, M. (2013). The genetics of bargain hunting. Time, October 21. Located at: http://ideas.time.com/2013/10/21/the-genetics-of-bargain-hunting/

Ellwood, M. (2013). Bargain fever: How to shop in a discounted world. London: Portfolio.

Lebowitz, S. (2014). Extreme bargain hunters: How far would you go for a deal. LearnVest, May 2. Located at: http://www.learnvest.com/2014/05/extreme-bargain-hunters-how-far-would-you-go-for-a-deal-123/

Maraz, A., Eisinger, A., Hende, Urbán, R., Paksi, B., Kun, B., Kökönyei, G., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Measuring compulsive buying behaviour: Psychometric validity of three different scales and prevalence in the general population and in shopping centres. Psychiatry Research, 225, 326–334.

Tesh Media Group (2015). Are you addicted to bargain hunting? Located at: http://www.tesh.com/story/money-and-finance-category/are-you-addicted-to-bargain-hunting/cc/12/id/9141

Williams, A. (2013). Bargain fever: The new secrets of shopping in a discounted world. The Week, November 5. Located at: http://theweek.com/articles/457383/bargain-fever-new-secrets-shopping-discounted-world

Mould on tight: A brief look at plaster cast fetishism

Back in the early 2000s I remember watching Plaster Caster, a documentary film that looked at the life of artist and groupie, Cynthia Plaster Caster (i.e., Cynthia Albritton). Cynthia is in/famous for her plaster casting of rock star penises such as Jimi Hendrix and Noel Redding (both in the Jimi Hendrix Experience), Eric Burdon (The Animals), Wayne Kramer (MC-5), Jello Biafra (The Dead Kennedys), and Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks), She began her career in erotic plaster casting in 1968 but now includes women as her artistic clients (and typically makes plaster casts of their breasts). Her plaster casting skills have also been immortalized in song by both Kiss (‘Plaster Caster’) and Jim Croce (‘Five Short Minutes’). As her Wikipedia entry points out:

“In college, when her art teacher gave the class an assignment to ‘plaster cast something solid that could retain its shape’, her idea to use the assignment as a lure to entice rock stars to have sex with her became a hit, even before she made a cast of anyone’s genitalia. Finding a dental mould making substance called alginate to be sufficient, she found her first client in Jimi Hendrix, the first of many to submit to the idea. Meeting Frank Zappa, who found the concept of ‘casting’ both humorous and creative as an art form, Albritton found in him something of a patron”.

However, sexual plaster casting does not begin and end with Cynthia Plaster Caster. In a previous blog, I briefly mentioned the practice of mummification within a sadomasochistic context. According to Dr. Aggrawal’s 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices, mummification is:

“An extreme form of bondage in which the person is wrapped from head to toe, much like a mummy, completely immobilizing him. Materials used may be clingfilm, cloth, bandages, rubber strips, duct tape, plaster bandages, bodybags, or straitjackets. The immobilized person may then be left bound in a state of effective sensory deprivation for a period of time or sensually stimulated in his state of bondage – before being released from his wrappings”.

One type of restrictive mummification practice not mentioned by Dr. Aggrawal is that of plaster cast fetishism. Although there is little academic research on the topic, a quick Google search throws up many dedicated online sites and hundreds of video clips for sale and/or sharing. For instance, I came across the Casted Angel website (that claims to be the oldest ‘cast and bandage site’), the Cast Fetish website, the Cast Paradise website, and the Fantacast website (please be warned that if you click on any of the links, all of these sites are sexually explicit)

The Wikipedia entry on mummification reports that such activity is typically used to enhance the feelings of total bodily helplessness (which would be totally fulfilled by those engaging in plaster cast fetishism), and is incorporated with sensation play (i.e., a group of erotic activities that facilitate particular physical sensations upon a sexual partner). As a 2010 article on ‘The Erotic Secrets of the Mummy’ notes:

“A variant of this extreme and spectacular form of bondage is mummification made with plaster…Anyone who has taken an arm or leg immobilized by a cast can imagine how restrictive it is to use this material for bondage. Obviously there are safety precautions which must be taken: you must cover the body of the person to be bound with a protective layer (e.g. plastic) so the plaster does not come into direct contact with skin, and make sure to have safety scissors around for easy removal of the bindings. It is also important to note that mummification increases body temperature and therefore sweating, so you must make sure to hydrate the person being bound. An example of complete plaster mummification can be seen in a nonsexual context, in the comedy After Hours by Martin Scorsese”.

As well as being a form of extreme mummification, plaster cast fetishism is also a sub-variant of ‘cast fetishism’ that according to the Encyclopedia Dramatica comprises erotic “concentration on orthopedic casts (plaster, polymer, bandage, etc.) It is usually related to the fetishes of feet, stockings, shoes and amputees”. Cast fetishists derive sexual pleasure and arousal from people (typically the opposite sex) wearing casts on their limbs (but may also be additionally aroused by people using crutches or who have a limp). I’ve come across dozens of people who have posted in online forums and claiming they have cast fetishes and/or fixations. Here are just a few:

  • Extract 1: “It is no bad thing to have a cast fetish when you have an ongoing foot injury. This morning I got [a plaster cast] for my left leg as my foot is giving trouble. Wanting to keep my foot up when riding in my friend’s car I put the window down and rested my cast on the top of the door. The wind blowing across my bare casted toes as we drove down the street was just the ultimate turn-on!”
  • Extract 2: “Since I was a child I had a strong fetish for casts and bandages. When I was 6 or 7 years old I saw a girl in at the local hospital, with a freshly applied plaster [cast] in her right leg, and how she cleaned her toes with a damp cloth. That’s still one of the memories that arouses me. Two years ago, I had a girlfriend, who came to know about my fetish, it was kinda difficult for me to say, but she liked the idea and I put her in a homemade [plaster cast], then I painted her toenails and put a toe-ring. It was a shame that it was one night only and the plaster didn’t dry at all, but it was so good to stay with her and kiss her toes wiggling out of her cast. It was one of the most pleasant nights that I’ve had”.
  • Extract 3: “I have been in love with casts since about 13 yrs old. I have had the chance to [wear a] dual hip [cast] and several short and long term casts but want to wear possibly a full body one day if I find the right cast partner”.
  • Extract 4: I’ve had an interest seeing girls in casts for quite some time now. I think it started when I was a little kid and broke my leg. Probably since then I have always wanted to be in a cast, but didn’t want to hurt myself! I just recently discovered the ease and community around the world of recreational casting. I have a short leg cast and it’s an amazing feeling!”
  • Extract 5: “I have always had a fascination for seeing people in a cast, and in particular girls in long leg casts. It may have something to do with the restricted movement I don’t know. I am not interested in the associated, implied pain aspect but more the caring aspect. I always thought that this was an idea peculiar to me but, I was recently inspired to search the net and found a whole community subscribing to the cast fetish idea with many images…I have never fractured a limb so I have never had a cast but, I have made a couple of attempts at self-casting”
  • Extract 6: “I love being in a cast. For years I have studied the casting processes in both plaster and fiberglass. I have honed these skills to the point [that] nobody, [not] even an orthopedic assistant can tell it was not applied professionally”
  • Extract 7: “I have always wanted to have a cast on my leg and or arm. I have tried hitting my hand on the ground but I still have not fractured it…I would even pay someone to break both my arm and leg”

One of the most detailed I have come across is this one:

“I have a strong sexual attraction to, and erotic fascination with, the sight of the female leg wearing an orthopaedic cast, particularly along its full extent, from toes to hip. Now in my mid-forties, I have been aware of this ‘interest’ since my early teens, which might explain my particular attraction to plaster casts, as were the norm at such a time, which somehow seem heavier and more of a physical entity than contemporary casts. For many years, I assumed this peculiar attraction to be mine alone, and looked forward to those rare occasions when I might see a woman with a leg in plaster in public or otherwise find a picture in a newspaper or magazine, which I would collect. However, since the advent of the internet, I have become aware that a number of like-minded souls exist all over the world, that the ‘cast fetish’ is out there in the world of cyberspace, is shared and enjoyed by people and is practised recreationally in the real, everyday world by those who have the inclination and means to do so”.

“As the online aspect of this fetish has developed over recent years, I now find I am able to better satisfy my visual needs through the large number of available images, of both medically and recreationally-worn leg casts. I have obsessively built a large collection of pictures of women wearing leg casts, and frequently enjoy these. Sometimes I feel a certain frustration that my need to satisfy the desire to find and see more images consumes more time than I have available to ‘waste’, but this is not something over which I have full control – it is a compulsion and needs to be fulfilled in this way, in the manner of such a condition, even if it never seems possible to have quite enough of such images, there is always the thrill of the anticipation of finding a new, ‘perfect’ picture of a cast and its wearer. I have always assumed that my obsession is based on the aesthetics of the leg cast, being related as it is to my general attraction to women’s legs, feet, toes, boots, etc. The leg cast is very much an ‘object of desire’ in its appearance and in the manner it objectifies the leg inside, I enjoy the way a cast looks and find this arousing”.

“However, I wonder whether my ‘interest’ may have other underlying, hidden causes and inspirations, and exactly what might have triggered this fetish? I wonder this because although I have never had occasion to wear a cast myself (and thus experienced the physical restrictions imposed by one), and neither has anyone with whom I might spend regular, extended periods of time, such as a family member or close friend, I have often imagined that female friends might have to have a leg in plaster that I might be around them, or that I might meet and form a relationship with a woman in such a situation (not that I have any desire to see anyone come to harm, suffer an injury, etc, but I would love to see the effect of such – the wearing of a cast – if it ever occurred). I have a very strong desire to be in the presence of a leg cast as it is being worn, that I might interact with it and the wearer, that I might experience the sexuality of such, and it is something about which I have frequent sexual fantasies, being the most arousing situation I am able to imagine”.

In a short 2006 article on ‘Women with Plaster Casts’ at the online Trendhunter website, Hernando Gomez Salinas wrote about the Cast Fetish website and then used the writings of Sigmund Freud to provide some theoretical insight into the fetish:

“According to Freud, fetishism is considered a paraphilia or sexual deviation as a consequence of an infantile trauma with the fear of castration. When a kid discovers the absence of penis in his mother, he looks away from her terrified, and the first object he stares at after the trauma turns into his fetish object. So, according to Freud, it is possible that the fans of [the Cast Fetish webpage] saw their fathers or a relative with a plaster cast”

I am not a fan of Freud’s theorizing, and I personally believe that the origin of such fetishes is most likely behavioural conditioning (classical and/or operant). However, given the complete lack of empirical research, this was the only article I came across that featured anything vaguely academic in relation to the fetishizing of plaster casts. It would appear from both anecdotal evidence that plaster cast mummification (particularly within a BDSM context) comprises a significant minority interest and is probably nowhere near as rare as some other sexual behaviours that I have covered in my previous blogs.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Forbidden Sexuality (2004). Mummification bondage. Located at: http://www.forbiddensexuality.com/mummification_bondage.htm

Salinas, H.G. (2006). Women with plaster casts. Trend Hunter, November 29. Located at: http://www.trendhunter.com/trends/weird-fetishism-women-with-plaster-casts

Wikipedia (2013). Sensation play (BDSM). Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensation_play_(BDSM)

Wikipedia (2013). Total enclosure fetishism. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_enclosure_fetishism

Wikipedia (2013). Mummification (BDSM). Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mummification_(BDSM)

In dependence days: A brief overview of behavioural addictions

Please note: A version of this blog first appeared on addiction.com

Conceptualizing addiction has been a matter of great debate for decades. For many people the concept of addiction involves the taking of drugs. Therefore it is perhaps unsurprising that most official definitions concentrate on drug ingestion. Despite such definitions, there is now a growing movement that views a number of behaviours as potentially addictive including those that do not involve the ingestion of a drug. These include behaviours diverse as gambling, eating, sex, exercise, videogame playing, love, shopping, Internet use, social networking, and work. I have argued in many of my papers that all addictions – irrespective of whether they are chemical or behavioural – comprise six components (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse). More specifically:

  • Salience – This occurs when the activity becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialized behaviour). For instance, even if the person is not actually engaged in the activity they will be constantly thinking about the next time that they will be (i.e., a total preoccupation with the activity).
  • Mood modification – This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of engaging in the activity and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or paradoxically a tranquilizing feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’).
  • Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of the activity are required to achieve the former mood modifying effects. This basically means that for someone engaged in the activity, they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend engaging in the activity every day.
  • Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.) that occur when the person is unable to engage in the activity.
  • Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (e.g., work, social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual (e.g., intra-psychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) that are concerned with spending too much time engaging in the activity.
  • Relapse – This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive engagement in the activity to recur, and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive engagement in the activity to be quickly restored after periods of control.

In May 2013, the new criteria for problem gambling (now called ‘Gambling Disorder’) were published in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and for the very first time, problem gambling was included in the section ‘Substance-related and Addiction Disorders’ (rather than in the section on impulse control disorders as had been the case since 1980 when it was first included in the DSM-III). Although most of us in the field had been conceptualizing extreme problem gambling as an addiction for many years, this was arguably the first time that an established medical body had described it as such.

There had also been debates about whether or not ‘Internet Addiction Disorder’ should have been included in the DSM-5. As a result of these debates, the Substance Use Disorder Work Group recommended that the DSM-5 include ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ [IGD] in Section III (“Emerging Measures and Models”) as an area that required further research before possible inclusion in future editions of the DSM. To be included in its own right in the next edition, research will have to establish the defining features of IGD, obtain cross-cultural data on reliability and validity of specific diagnostic criteria, determine prevalence rates in representative epidemiological samples in countries around the world, and examine its associated biological features. Other than gambling and gaming, no other behaviour (e.g., sex, work, exercise, etc.) has yet to be classified as a genuine addiction by established medical and/or psychiatric organizations.

In one of the most comprehensive reviews of chemical and behavioural addictions, Dr. Steve Sussman, Nadra Lisha and myself examined all the prevalence literature relating to 11 different potentially addictive behaviours. We reported overall prevalence rates of addictions to cigarette smoking (15%), drinking alcohol (10%), illicit drug taking (5%), eating (2%), gambling (2%), internet use (2%), love (3%), sex (3%), exercise (3%), work (10%), and shopping (6%). However, most of the prevalence data relating to behavioural addictions (with the exception of gambling) did not have prevalence data from nationally representative samples and therefore relied on small and/or self-selected samples.

Addiction is an incredibly complex behaviour and always result from an interaction and interplay between many factors including the person’s biological and/or genetic predisposition, their psychological constitution (personality factors, unconscious motivations, attitudes, expectations, beliefs, etc.), their social environment (i.e. situational characteristics such as accessibility and availability of the activity, the advertising of the activity) and the nature of the activity itself (i.e. structural characteristics such as the size of the stake or jackpot in gambling). This ‘global’ view of addiction highlights the interconnected processes and integration between individual differences (i.e. personal vulnerability factors), situational characteristics, structural characteristics, and the resulting addictive behaviour.

There are many individual (personal vulnerability) factors that may be involved in the acquisition, development and maintenance of behavioural addictions (e.g. personality traits, biological and genetic predispositions, unconscious motivations, learning and conditioning effects, thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes), although some factors are more personal (e.g. financial motivation and economic pressures in the case of gambling addiction). However, there are also some key risk factors that are highly associated with developing almost any (chemical or behavioural) addiction such as having a family history of addiction, having co-morbid psychological problems, and having a lack of family involvement and supervision. Psychosocial factors such as low self-esteem, loneliness, depression, high anxiety, and stress all appear to be common among those with behavioural addictions.

This article briefly demonstrates that behavioural addictions are a part of a biopsychosocial process and not just restricted to drug-ingested (chemical) behaviours. Evidence is growing that excessive behaviours of all types do seem to have many commonalities and this may reflect a common etiology of addictive behaviour. Such commonalities may have implications not only for treatment of such behaviours but also for how the general public perceive such behaviours.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Berczik, K., Griffiths, M.D., Szabó, A., Kurimay, T., Urban, R. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Exercise addiction. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.317-342). New York: Elsevier.

Demetrovics, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Behavioral addictions: Past, present and future. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 1-2.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Gambling addictions. In A. Browne-Miller (Ed.), The Praeger International Collection on Addictions: Behavioral Addictions from Concept to Compulsion (pp. 235-257). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Addicted to sex? Psychology Review, 16(1), 27-29

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Behavioural addiction: The case for a biopsychosocial approach. Transgressive Culture, 1(1), 7-28.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Workaholism: A 21st century addiction. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 24, 740-744.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Social networking addiction: An overview of preliminary findings. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.119-141). New York: Elsevier.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Király, O., Nagygyörgy, K., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Problematic online gaming. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.61-95). New York: Elsevier.

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., Karila, L. & Billieux, J. (2014).  Internet addiction: A systematic review of epidemiological research for the last decade. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 20, 4026-4052.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

Bowling a maiden over: A very brief look at ‘damsel in distress’ fetishes

“I have a fetish for damsels in distress.” “Don’t be sexist.” “Not at all. My services are also available to gentlemen in distress. It’s an equal opportunity fetish.” (From the 2009 book City of Glass, the third book in the Mortal Instruments six-part series of books written by Cassandra Clare)

While researching various other blogs including ones on sexual sadism, sexual masochism, and knismolagnia, I kept coming across references to ‘damsel in distress’ [DiD] fetishes, all of which involve the basic concept of a helpless female victim who may (but sometimes may not) need rescuing from a captor and/or some kind of perilous situation.

“The subject of the damsel in distress or persecuted maiden is a classic theme in world literature, art and film. She is almost inevitably a young, nubile woman, who has been placed in a dire predicament by a villain or a monster and who requires a hero to dash to her rescue. She has became a stock character of fiction, particularly of melodrama. Some claim the popularity of the damsel in distress is perhaps in large measure because her predicaments sometimes contain hints of BDSM fantasy” (Nation Master encyclopedia entry on ‘Damsel in distress’).

“The figure of the damsel in distress is a feature of certain established fetishes within the field of BDSM. In particular, actresses playing damsels in distress in mainstream movies and television shows are often shown bound or restrained, resulting in images that appeal to some bondage fetishists” (Wikipedia entry on ‘Damsel in distress’).

“One specific paraphilia involving a gag relates to video depictions in which the captor gags the damsel in distress to stop her screaming for help. Some people are sexually aroused by such imagery, even if there is no nudity or sexual act present, or even if the victim is only gagged but not restrained in any way” (Wikipedia entry on ‘Gag [BDSM]’).

It is mostly males who have DiD fetishes and can be very specific including (but not restricted to) such things as (i) ‘kidnap and rescue’ fetishes (sexual pleasure from watching or engaging in women being kidnapped and/or rescued from potentially life-threatening scenarios where they are cuffed, bound and/or controlled by another person or persons), (ii) tickle bondage fetishes (sexual pleasure from watching or tickling women while they are tied up), (iii) quicksand fetishes (sexual pleasure from watching women sink in quicksand), and (iv) ‘pedal pumping’ and ‘cranking’ fetishes (sexual pleasure from watching women stranded in their cars with repeated pressing of the gas pedal and revving up – which also has elements of foot fetishism – while turning the key in an attempt to get the engine to start). According to an Everthing2.com article on the topic, such fetishists prefer the ‘raw’ and natural ‘non-stylized’ DiD scenarios rather than the ‘glossy’ role-playing type DiD scenarios. The same article also stresses that:

“Sexual menacing or assault is not necessary to create an appealing DiD scene. In fact, in judging DiD scenes in movies and television, violence against the damsel is often a detraction. Blood or bruises make the scene less pretty. More often, it is the idea of a woman being helpless and begging for release. A woman crying, pleading, or trying to speak through a gag, referred to in DiD discussions as “mmphing” is also attractive”.

A quick internet search reveals there is a dedicated DiD fan community that host a range of online forums and discussion groups (such as the Staked Damsels website for anyone
who finds burning at the stake, bondage and damsels in distress erotic” or the Danger Island website where you’ll find all your ‘damsel in distress’ fetish needs met”) as well as a wide range of YouTube video clips (type ’pedal pumping cranking’ into Google and you’ll see what I mean). There are also websites that provide lists of films and television shows that feature DiD scenarios (such as the 1981 made-for-television film Terror Among Us which according to Wikipedia has become a cult film among the DiD fan community because of its lengthy portrayal of bound and gagged women), and links to YouTube clips just showing the relevant DiD video capture (‘vidcap’) scenes from films (called ‘Didcaps’ among the DiD fan community). The Wikipedia entry also notes:

“Outside the mainstream, the fetishistic subculture of specialized bondage magazines and videos that has thrived since the late 1970s is a variation on the damsel in distress of literature, but with one major difference. Here, the helplessness of the bound and gagged victim is eroticized and celebrated as an end in itself, occasionally with no rescuing hero or hope of escape”.

Unsurprisingly, and given the ‘underground’ status of the DiD fetish community, there is no academic research on the topic. I did manage to track down a small (non-scientific) survey carried out on the Deviant Art website where 226 DiD enthusiasts responded to a question relating to their favourite DiD scenario. The results (in order of preference) were cheerleader or schoolgirl in uniform (24%), princess/medieval/dragons (13%), vampire (13%), kidnapped by thugs (13%), ancient mythology (8%), sci-fi alien attack (8%), mad scientist (6%), prisoner of war (4%), monster/troll/ogre (3%), and (non-specific) other (7%). Obviously this was a based on a self-selected sample of DiD enthusiasts who could be bothered to respond so we have no way of knowing if the respondents were representative of all DiD fans. It remains to be seen whether any academic or clinical research ever gets carried out on this particular sub-domain of sadomasochism but I won’t be holding my breath.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Everything 2 (2002). Damsels in distress bondage. June 25. Located at: http://everything2.com/title/damsels+in+distress+bondage

Nation Master (2012). Damsel in distress. Located at: http://www.statemaster.com/encyclopedia/Damsel-in-distress

Pop Crunch (2010). Quicksand, Pedal Pumping, Tickle Bondage, Women in Distress in general. May 11. Located at: http://www.popcrunch.com/the-17-most-wtf-fetishes-imaginable/

Wikipedia (2015). Damsel in distress. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damsel_in_distress

Prophet share: A case study of ‘addiction to fortune telling’

In the latest issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, there are two papers that I co-authored on muscle dysmorphia as an addiction (see ‘Further reading’ below). The reason I mention this is because in the same issue there was a case study report by Dr. Marie Grall-Bronnec and her colleagues of a woman (Helen) that was ‘addicted’ to fortune tellers. As noted in their paper:

“Clairvoyance consulting, also known as fortune teller consulting, is a behavior that may seem harmless, but can also become excessive. Fortune telling is defined as the practice of predicting information about a person’s life, using for example…astrology, cartomancy or crystallomancy”.

As I have noted in a number of my previous blogs, I subscribe to the view that if there are clinical criteria for addiction and a behaviour fulfils the criteria, it should be classed as an addiction (irrespective of the behaviour). This has led to accusations of me “watering down the concept of addiction” because such criteria have been applied to behaviours as diverse as gardening and chewing gum. According to the authors of the ‘fortune telling addiction’ paper:

“Helen is a 45-year-old woman who declares early on suffering from ‘a clairvoyance addiction’…She has no particular medical history, except for two major depression episodes after romantic breakups, and does not take any medication. She regularly sees a psychiatrist for support psychotherapy because of negative life events (sexual abuse and death in her family). She is divorced and does not have any children. Her career as a manager seems to fully satisfy her. She decides to seek treatment on account of her excessive financial expenditures due to the consultation of fortune tellers. Another motivation that explains her decision is her age. Indeed, she says she is entering a new phase in her life, after renouncing to the idea of becoming a mother one day”.

According to the paper, Helen had been consulting fortune tellers since she was 19 years old. She started using such people for educational and career advice as she claimed that she was poor at reaching important decisions herself and thought the life choices she made would be wrong. The authors noted that her first meeting with a clairvoyant was an event that gave her a feeling of reassurance. In her mid-twenties, her visits to clairvoyants escalated significantly and ended up losing control of her use of fortune telling”. At that particular time, she was visiting clairvoyants to get relationship advice from them (e.g., “Does he really love me?” and “How long will our relationship last?”). Her current ‘addiction to clairvoyants’ dates back to her mid- to late-30s when she got divorced after the failure of her marriage:

“She repeatedly returned to fortune telling to reassure herself about the future of her relationship, and increasingly so as it deteriorated. The breakup worsened the disorder. Since her divorce, she consults fortune tellers – not always the same person – on the phone or online, in a compulsive way, more and more often (up to every day), for longer and longer periods of time (up to 8 hours a day) and spends each time more and more money (up to 200 euros per session). As she is never satisfied with the fortune tellers’ predictions, she will consult again very soon after the latest call or connection. Every choice she has to make, from the most trivial (going to the movies) to the most important (making relationship decisions), leads her to irrationally consult a fortune teller”

Before each consultation she said he got very excited at the prospect and that the experience relieved all of her psychological discomfort (at least in the short-term). However, not long after consultations she would feel incredibly guilty. The paper also reported that during consultations with the fortune tellers, she was totally convinced that they could see her future and that their predictions would come true. He authors went on to report:

“This excessive behavior gives her some kind of reassurance and allows her to make up for her lack of self-confidence. In that sense, the excessive behavior could be considered as an attempt at self-medication or as a way to cope with negative emotions. However, Helen knows that her belief in the fortune tellers’ ability to predict the future is completely irrational. This brings major adverse consequences, particularly in financial terms: despite a comfortable income, she is indebted. She also says having low self-esteem, due to her in- ability to resist her strong urge to consult fortune tellers, and due to her being isolated from the others because of the time spent consulting fortune tellers. Helen succeeds in limiting the consultation of fortune tellers during short periods of time, when her financial situation becomes too critical”.

The authors of the report also used different sets of addiction criteria to determine whether Helen was truly addicted to consulting clairvoyants. They also used my own six criteria (salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse). Here are the authors own description of the behaviour using my components model:

  • Salience: “Consulting fortune tellers becomes the most important activity in Helen’s life and dominates her thinking (preoccupation and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behavior (she has progressively quit all her leisure activities, particularly going out with friends)”.
  • Mood modification: “Helen says feeling excitement before each consultation, but also feels nervous tension and anxiety. This excessive behavior gives her some kind of reassurance and the excessive behavior could be considered as an attempt at self-medication or a way to cope with negative emotions”.
  • Tolerance: “Over time, Helen has been feeling a growing need to consult fortune tellers, and the consultations have to last longer to obtain the same effect of relief”.
  • Withdrawal: “When she attempts to resist the urge to consult or has to refrain from consulting fortune tellers (in the case of her financial situation being too critical, for example), she feels tense and nervous”.
  • Conflict: “Helen knows that her use of fortune telling is problematic, and that it brings very negative consequences. However, she cannot refrain from consulting fortune tellers, leading to an intra-psychic conflict and guilt”.
  • Relapse: “Over the years, Helen has made repeated efforts to reduce and stop this problematic behavior. Her clinical course is characterized by relapses and remissions”.

Based on the evidence presented, there is clear evidence that Helen’s behaviour was problematic. Whether it was genuinely addictive is debatable but the authors provided some evidence that (in this case at least) the behaviour appeared to include some addictive aspects. The authors conclude that in addition to individual risk factors, other situational and structural characteristics may have played a role in the development of problematic behaviour concerning Helen’s ‘addiction’:

Regarding the risk factors related to the object of addiction (i.e. fortune telling use), one might mention, inter alia, the possibility to consult online, which guarantees anonymity. Furthermore, the Internet increases both accessibility and availability. Finally, the money spent during fortune telling sessions seems virtual, which makes it all the more easy to spend. Increased risks related to the Internet have already been described on gambling (Griffiths, Wardle, Orford, Sproston & Erens, 2009). Regarding socio-environmental risk factors, today’s society encourages the need for control and does not give way to uncertainty. In Helen’s case, all the conditions were met for the fortune telling use to become excessive, and we are tempted to conclude that it is an addictive-like phenomenon”.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Foster, A.C., Shorter, G.W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Muscle Dysmorphia: Could it be classified as an Addiction to Body Image? Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 1-5.

Grall-bronnec, M. Bulteau, S., Victorri-Vigneau, C., Bouju, G. & Sauvaget, A. (2015). Fortune telling addiction: Unfortunately a serious topic about a case report. Journal of Behavioral Addiction, 4, 27-31.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M. (2005). A “components” model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191–197.

Griffiths, M.D., Foster, A.C. & Shorter, G.W. (2015). Muscle dysmorphia as an addiction: A response to Nieuwoudt (2015) and Grant (2015). Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 11-13.

Griffiths, M., Wardle, H., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2009). Sociodemographic correlates of internet gambling: Findings from the 2007 British gambling prevalence survey. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 12, 199–202.

Hughes, M., Behanna, R. & Signorella, M. L. (2001). Perceived ac- curacy of fortune telling and belief in the paranormal. Journal of Social Psychology, 141(1), 159–160.

Shein, P. P., Li, Y. Y. & Huang, T. C. (2014). Relationship between scientific knowledge and fortune-telling. Public Understanding of Science, 23(7), 780–796.

Bottling it up: A brief look at penile strangulation

While I was researching a blog on urethral manipulation I came across a paper entitled ‘Penile strangulation by a hard plastic bottle’ by Dr. Satish Jain and his colleagues published in a 2004 issue of the Indian Journal of Surgery. As the paper explains:

“Penile strangulation is a rare injury and most require only removal of the constriction and conservative management. Penile strangulating objects are usually rings, nuts, bottles, bushes, wedding rings etc. in an adult, while in children they tend to be rubber bands threads or hair coils. In adults these constricting penile bands, whether expandable or non-expandable, are placed deliberately by the person himself for masturbation or by the female counterpart to prolong erection. In children these are used to prevent enuresis and incontinence or as an innocent childish experiment. Because these bands occlude penile venous flow, most patients present to the emergency with penile edema” [an edema is a swelling caused by fluid in body tissue].

They reported the case of a 27-year old man who turned up at hospital needing emergency treatment for an extremely swollen penis and unable to urinate. This occurred as a result of placing his penis inside a hard plastic bottle as a masturbatory aid. In short, the neck of the bottle got stuck, constricting the penis base. The paper then described how the bottle was removed:

“The hospital carpenter was called to assist in cutting open that bottle. With the use of iron cutting saw…first the bottle was cut near the neck and then the bottle neck was cut open slowly and diagonally. The penis was held slightly bent downwards. Once one end of the bottle neck was cut open, the plaster spreader (used by orthopaedician) was use to hold the cut ends open and the whole bottle neck was cut opened and removed after 15 minutes of struggle…Penile edema subsided completely in a week and patient had an uneventful recovery. There was no erectile dysfunction or decreased uroflow”.

This case was relatively easy to treat and on the less serious side. Later in the paper, the authors note that more serious medical complaints can arise including ulceration (skin inflammation and/or lesion), necrosis (death of body tissue), urinary fistula (abnormal opening of the urethra) or even gangrene (death and decay of body tissue due to loss of blood supply). Unsurprisingly, these latter conditions most often occur because the patient is too shy or embarrassed to seek medical help.

It was after reading this paper that I went searching for other cases and found many papers on the topic (far too many to outline here). However, I thought I would pick out some that caught my eye. Penises stuck inside bottles seemed (somewhat predictably) to feature quite heavily. For instance, Dr. C.K. Ooi and colleagues reported two cases of “unusual” penile strangulation in a 2009 issue of the Singapore Medical Journal. One of the cases was a 77-year old man who got his penis stuck in a bottle. Although the bottle was successfully removed in the emergency ward the patient subsequently developed post-obstructive diuresis (i.e., excessive urination). The second case was a 60-year old man who got his penis stuck inside a metallic ring. An orthopaedic cutter was used to remove the ring and there were no long-term complications. Another paper by Dr. Matthias May and colleagues in a 2006 issue of the International Urology and Nephrology reported the case of a 49-year old man who got his penis stuck in a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle. (Ethylene terephthalate is a light plastic material that is – according to various papers I read – “nearly indestructible”). After trying to cut the bottle off with a scalpel and then a glass saw, the bottle was finally removed by cutting it longitudinally with an oscillating saw (that was normally used for cutting off patient plaster casts).

A more recent case in a 2011 issue of the International Journal of Biological and Medical Research by Dr. Uday Shamrao Kumbhar and colleagues reported the case of a 46-year old man who got a plastic bottle neck stuck on the base of his penis following attempted masturbation. More specifically, they reported that:

“The man came after 14 [hours] with gross penile edema and impaired penile sensation distal to the constriction…The nature of the plastic bottle neck was such that an attempt at cutting the device was difficult. We retrieved the constructing device by cutting it by soldering gun (used for electrical soldering by electrician). Cuts were taken at two places – 3 and 9 o’clock positions. The only hurdle was heat generated during the soldering, which was overcome by intermittent soldering and pouring cold normal saline in between”.

The patient recovered fully and following removal had a normal erection, could masturbate and have sex without problems. The most recent case I came across was published in a 2014 issue of Case Reports in Urology. The authors (Dr. Avinash Chennamsetty, Dr. David Wenzler and Dr. Melissa Fischer) reported the case of a 49-year-old man that turned up at the Emergency Department complaining that his penis was swollen and painful. The authors reported that nine days prior to coming into hospital the man had placed a metallic constriction device over his penis for an autoerotic motive” but then found that he couldn’t remove it. The authors noted that:

“He was able to urinate but had a decreased force of stream. Physical exam revealed a tightly encircling metallic ring with peripheral cogs placed on the mid shaft of the penis causing severe penile engorgement and edema. The metal appeared to be a very hard alloy with thickness measuring 5–7mm depending on the location. The penile skin under the ring was excoriated and necrotic. Due to the incarceration time, degree of necrosis, and significant distal edema, simple lubrication, compression, and manual removal were not an option for fear of amputation. Manual and electric ring cutters were used, but after several attempts, we were unable to do more than scratch the surface of the metal ring. The patient was given procedural sedation and a tongue depressor was placed beneath the metal ring to provide soft tissue protection. Using the pin cutter, enough force was generated in one attempt to snap the ring into two separate pieces”.

Another different kind of penile strangulation – with more serious consequences – was reported by Dr. A. Nuhu and his colleagues in a 2009 issue of the West African Journal of Medicine. In this instance, a middle-aged Nigerian managed to get a round metallic nut stuck on his penis. For five days the man had delayed coming into hospital for treatment even though he was unable to urinate properly (in fact he had trouble urinating at all). By the time he went for medical help, his penis had developed gangrene. Unfortunately, the only treatment option available was a complete amputation of his penis.

It is also worth mentioning that a number of papers I came across purely describe the methods that can be used in the “extrication of penile entrapment” such as a detailed report by Dr. Guang-Ming Liu and colleagues in a 2012 issue of the International Urology and Nephrology that described the technique of suture traction in conjunction with Dundee…performed for the management of penile entrapment in polyethylene terephthalate bottle neck” that they claim can be performed “without any special tools required in the management of penile entrapment involving PET bottles [and can] be applied safely for the low-grade penile injury”.

Within two weeks of removal, the man’s penis had fully recovered and he was able to resume sexual activity. Another earlier 2001 paper by Dr. Mark Detweiler in the Scandinavian Journal of Urology and Nephrology outlined treatment guidelines “according to level of penile trauma for penile incarceration by metal devices”. Detweiler analysed all previous cases of penile strangulation (aka penile incarceration) and divided treatment interventions into four groups going from the safest to the most dangerous to perform: (i) string techniques with and without aspiration [removal] of blood from the glans; (ii) pure aspiration techniques; (iii) cutting devices; and (iv) surgical techniques.

Finally, the most tragic case of penile strangulation I came across was one published in 2011 by Dr. Benito Morentin and colleagues in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. They reported that a 58-year old man was found dead at a guesthouse by a flatmate living in the house. The paper reported: 

“According to the flatmate, the deceased had not been out of his room in the last 2 weeks. Two days before the death the flatmate phoned the emergency services asking for help due to the strange behavior of the subject. When the emergency staff arrived the man refused any kind of help claiming that he did not have any medical problems at all. Clinical antecedents included paresis of the left leg due to stroke, smoking, alcoholism, and social behavior disorder. At autopsy, physical examination showed that the penis was engorged and swollen, with dark black color and evident gangrene. A plastic bottle neck was found over the base of the penis. Between the bottle neck and the penis there was a piece of condom…Histologic examination of the penis revealed severe necrosis, intense hemorrhage of the tissue due to stagnated blood, and thrombosis… Death was attributed to multi-organ failure secondary to septic shock”.

This last case is clearly an extreme and tragic case. The authors speculated that the man was simply too ashamed to seek treatment. They also believed that this is the only ever death recorded as arising from penile strangulation.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Chennamsetty, A., Wenzler, D. & Fischer, M. (2014). Removal of a penile constriction device with a large orthopedic pin cutter. Case Reports in Urology, Volume 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/347285

Detweiler, M. B. (2001). Penile incarceration with Metal objects a review of procedure choice based on penile trauma grade. Scandinavian Journal of Urology and Nephrology, 35(3), 212-217.

Ivanovski, O., Stankov, O., Kuzmanoski, M., Saidi, S., Banev, S., Filipovski, V., Lekovski, L. & Popov, Z. (2007). Penile strangulation: two case reports and review of the literature. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 4(6), 1775-1780.

Jain S., Gupta A., Singh T., Aggarwal N., Sharma, S. & Jain S. (2004). Penile strangulation by a hard plastic bottle: A case report, Indian Journal of Surgery, 66(3), 173-175.

Liu, G. M., Sun, G., & Ma, H. S. (2012). Extrication of penile entrapment in a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle: A technique of suture traction and Dundee and literature review. International Urology and Nephrology, 44(5), 1335-1340.

May, M., Gunia, S., Helke, C., Kheyri, R., & Hoschke, B. (2006). Penile entrapment in a plastic bottle – A case for using an oscillating splint saw. International Urology and Nephrology, 38(1), 93-95.

Morentin B., Biritxinaga B. & Crespo L. (2011). Penile strangulation: Report of a fatal case. American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 32, 344-346.

Nuhu, A., Edino, S. T., Agbese, G. O., & Kallamu, M. (2009). Penile gangrene due to strangulation by a metallic nut: a case report. West African Journal of Medicine, 28(5), 340-242.

Ooi, C. K., Goh, H. K., Chong, K. T., & Lim, G. H. (2009). Penile strangulation: report of two unusual cases. Singapore Medical Journal, 50(2), e50-52.

Shamrao Kumbhar U., Dasharathimurumu, D. & Bhargavpak, D. (2011). Acute penile incarceration injury caused by a plastic bottle neck. International Journal of Biological and Medical Research, 2(4), 1184-1185.

Mourning sickness? A brief look at disaster tourism

Last week I did an interview with the Daily Mail about disaster tourism and why people flock to see disaster areas. I briefly mentioned the topic in a previous blog that I wrote on people that collect murder memorabilia (‘murderabilia’) and argued that the psychology behind disaster tourism and murderabilia were very similar. According to the Wikipedia entry:

“Disaster tourism is the act of travelling to a disaster area as a matter of curiosity. Disaster tourism took hold in the Greater New Orleans Area in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There are now guided bus tours to neighbourhoods that were severely damaged and/or totally destroyed by the flooding”.

The same article also highlights the March and April 2010 eruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. The article noted that disaster tourism quickly sprang up following the first eruption, with tour companies offering trips to see the volcano. Academically, disaster tourism is closely associated with ‘Dark Tourism’ and also has its own Wikipedia page:

“Dark tourism (also black tourism or grief tourism) has been defined as tourism involving travel to sites historically associated with death and tragedy. More recently it was suggested that the concept should also include reasons tourists visit that site, since the site’s attributes alone may not make a visitor a ‘dark tourist’. Thanatourism, derived from the ancient Greek word thanatos for the personification of death, refers more specifically to violent death; it is used in fewer contexts than the terms ‘dark tourism’ and ‘grief tourism’. The main draw to dark locations is their historical value rather than their associations with death and suffering”.

When I started researching this blog I was quite surprised by the amount of academic writing on the topic (although the vast majority of it is theorizing rather than the collection of empirical data). The academic field appears to have been kick-started by the publication of Malcolm Foley and John Lennon’s 2000 book Dark tourism: The attraction of death and disasters. Most of the papers I read speculated on the many motivations that people have for visiting places associated with death along with typologies of different kinds of dark tourism and what dark tourism means in a wider social and cultural context. In 2012, Dr. Maximiliano Korstanje speculated that “dark tourism could be a mechanism of resiliency helping society to recover after a disaster or catastrophe, a form of domesticating death in a secularized world”. However, many academics have different views and/or explanations. Before looking at some of the academic theorizing, I wanted to share some of the pros and cons of disaster tourism from an article on the WiseGeek site (‘What is disaster tourism?’) as non-academic articles seem to get straight to the point without the caveats and psychosocial babble:

“Disaster tourism is the practice of traveling to areas that have recently experienced natural or man-made disasters. Individuals who participate in this type of travel are typically curious to see the results of the disaster and often travel as part of an organized group. Many people have criticized disaster tourism as exploitation of human misery and a practice that demeans and humiliates local residents. Others argue that tourism to devastated areas can offer a boost to the local economy and raise awareness of the incident, both of which are often needed after a tragedy. When a geographical region suffers a major incident, the media may spend a great deal of time reporting on the situation and the plight of local residents…As a result, some people will actually visit the affected areas so they can experience the situation firsthand. These individuals are typically motivated by curiosity and do not necessarily plan to participate in relief efforts…In some cases, those who participate in disaster tourism will simply travel to an area on their own, while others will purchase a package tour from a travel business”.

Many of the more populist articles on disaster tourism and dark tourism would have readers believe that the phenomenon is new, but it isn’t. Throughout human history there are dozens of examples of people visiting places associated with death and destruction. As I argued in my interview with the Daily Mail, people are intrigued by death and the macabre (and was the subject of a previous blog I wrote on people’s fascination with death).

As a child I remember going on school trips to battlefields, visiting graveyards and cemeteries, and making brass rubbings from burial places in churches and cathedrals. As an adult I have visited Ground Zero in New York and Alcatraz prison island off San Francisco. Is this really that far removed from dark tourism? Many academic writers such as Dr. Philip Stone (who has written paper after paper on dark tourism and has his own ‘Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire, UK) note that war-tourism is a small subset “of the totality of tourist sites associated with death and suffering”. He makes reference to people visiting assassination sites (e.g., the building where President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas), Holocaust sites (such as the Auschwitz concentration camp), celebrity death sites (of Elvis Presley, James Dean, Buddy Holly, etc.), terrorism sites, major disaster sites (e.g., plane crash sites, tsunami sites), slavery heritage attractions, and ‘entertainment’ locations (such as Vienna’s Funeral Museum, Whitby’s ‘Dracula Experience’, the Tower of London). In short, he argues that a full categorisation of dark tourism is extremely complex. He also goes on to say that:

“Despite the diverse range of sites and tourist experiences, Tarlow (2005) identifies dark tourism as ‘visitations to places where tragedies or historically noteworthy death has occurred and that continue to impact our lives’ – a characterisation that aligns dark tourism somewhat narrowly to certain sites and that, perhaps, hints at particular motives. However, it excludes many shades of dark sites and attractions related to, but not necessarily the site of, death and disaster…Consequently, Cohen (2011) addresses location aspects of dark tourism through a paradigm of geographical authenticity and sense of victimhood. Meanwhile, Biran, Poria, and Oren (2011) examine sought benefits of dark tourism within a framework of dialogic meaning making…Jamal and Lelo (2011) also explore the conceptual and analytical framing of dark tourism, and suggest notions of darkness in dark tourism are socially constructed, rather than objective fact….dark tourism may be referred to more generally as the ‘act of travel to tourist sites associated with death, suffering or the seemingly macabre’ (Stone, 2006)”

I was also surprised to learn from Dr. Stone and other papers that dark tourism has been given lots of other names in the academic literature including ‘morbid tourism’, ‘fright tourism’, ‘horror tourism’, ‘black spot tourism’, ‘hardship tourism’, ‘grief tourism’, ‘tragedy tourism’, ‘[extreme] thanatourism’, ‘warfare tourism’ and ‘genocide tourism’ all of which concern “milking the macabre” and “dicing with death”.

Dr. Jeffrey Podoshen (2013) has noted that an interest in death is general, and not person-specific and leads to the conclusion that there are a wide variety of potential manifestations related to dark tourism consumption motivations. Various academics have speculated that the motivations for dark tourism include sensation seeking and voyeurism. Citing the work of Dr. Richard Sharpley, he notes that “schadenfreude sparks dark tourism interest and likens these tourists to rubber-neckers who gaze at the tragedy of others”. However, as Philip Stone and Richard Sharpley note in a 2008 issue of the Annals of Tourism:

“The question of why tourists seek out such dark sites has attracted limited attention. Generally, visitors are seen to be driven by differing intensities of interest or fascination in death, in the extreme hinting at tasteless, ghoulish motivations. More specific reasons vary from morbid fascination or ‘rubber-necking’, through empathy with the victims, to the need for a sense of survival/continuation, untested factors which, arguably, demand verification within a psychology context”.

A recent study by Dr Takalani Mudzanani published in a 2014 issue of the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences examined why people visited the Hector Peterson Memorial and Museum in South Africa (named after one of the pupils who died during the Soweto riots). Via 15 in-depth interviews his study highlighted factors such as novelty, escapism, enhancement of kinship relations, nostalgia, education and the media played an important role in motivating visitors to visit the site. Finally, it’s worth noting that there are also those in the field that believe there are levels of dark tourism (such as Dr. William Miles in a 2002 issue of the Annals of Tourism Research) who talk of dark, darker, darkest tourism. Furthermore, most academics in the area would agree that dark tourism is not a single concept (something that with just a brief dip into this fascinating literature I totally agree with).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dann, G. M., & Seaton, A. V. (2001). Slavery, contested heritage and thanatourism. International Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Administration, 2(3-4), 1-29.

Foley, M., & Lennon, J. (2000). Dark tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 19(1), 68-78.

Lennon, J. & Foley, M. (2000). Dark tourism: The attraction of death and disasters. London: Thomson Learning.

Miles, W. F. (2002). Auschwitz: Museum interpretation and darker tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 29(4), 1175-1178.

Mudzanani, T. (2014). Why is Death so Attractive? An Analysis of Tourists’ Motives for Visiting the Hector Peterson Memorial and Museum in South Africa. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 5(15), 570-574.

Podoshen, J. S. (2013). Dark tourism motivations: Simulation, emotional contagion and topographic comparison. Tourism Management, 35, 263-271.

Sharpley, R., & Stone, P.R. (Eds.). (2009). The darker side of travel. Channel View Publications.

Stone, P. (2005). Dark tourism consumption: a call for research. E-Review of Tourism Research (eRTR), 3(5), 109-117.

Stone, P. (2006). A dark tourism spectrum: Towards a typology of death and macabre related tourist sites, attractions and exhibitions. Tourism: An Interdisciplinary International Journal, 54(2), 145-160.

Stone, P. R. (2011). Dark tourism and the cadaveric carnival: mediating life and death narratives at Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds. Current Issues in Tourism, 14(7), 685-701.

Stone, P. & Sharpley, R (2008). Consuming dark-tourism a thanatological perspective. Annals of Tourism Research, 35, 574–595.

Korstanje, M. & Ivanov, S. (2012). Tourism as a form of new psychological resilience: The inception of dark tourism. Cultur: Revista de Cultura e Turismo, 6(4), 56-71.

Miles, W. F. (2002). Auschwitz: Museum interpretation and darker tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 29(4), 1175-1178

Strange, C., & Kempa, M. (2003). Shades of dark tourism: Alcatraz and Robben Island. Annals of Tourism Research, 30(2), 386-405.

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