Is there a “gambling personality”?

One of the more interesting research avenues in the psychology of gambling is whether there might be a unique “gambling personality”, that is, a trait-cluster that marks out the gambler as a risk taker. One of the problems with this whole area of research is that personality is a hypothetical construct that isn’t easy to define. However, most psychologists would probably agree that a person’s personality centres on the distinctive and characteristic patterns of thought, emotion and behaviour that define their personal style, and influence their interactions with the environment. The use of psychometric tests in research on gamblers has not been particularly promising. Most research has been carried out on three personality dimensions – ‘sensation-seeking’, ‘extroversion’ and ‘locus of control’.

The American psychologist Marvin Zuckerman defined sensation-seeking as the “need for varied, novel and complex sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical and social risks for the sake of such experience.” This should mean that gamblers are higher than non-gamblers on sensation-seeking measures. However, studies in this area have provided contrasting results with some studies supporting the theory, some studies showing no difference between gamblers and non-gamblers, and others showing gamblers to be lower on sensation-seeking than non-gamblers!

In studies on extraversion, the findings have again proved contradictory. Since extraverts are highly sociable, crave excitement, and enjoy noisy and active environments the theory is that gamblers are more likely to be extraverted. Although some studies have indeed found gamblers to be more extraverted than control groups, other studies have found gamblers to have lower extraversion scores or have found no difference.

One personality trait that has received more consistent findings is that of locus of control. This personality trait refers to a person’s perception of how their own efforts effect events. For instance, ‘internal’ individuals attribute their experiences to their own actions whereas ‘external’ individuals attribute their experiences to chance. Research has shown that ‘internal’ individuals gamble more persistently when chasing losses because they believe all that is required is an increase in concentration and an overall improved effort in order to win. However, one of the problems with research into locus of control is that we do not know the direction of causality, that is, whether their particular locus of control preceded the gambling, or whether the gambling preceded their locus of control.

So why are there so few consistent results surrounding personality and gambling? One of the most obvious answers is that gambling is multi-faceted and not a unitary phenomenon. Treating all forms of gambling as equivalent in terms of underlying psychology, personality or motivation may cloud the issue rather than clarify it. For instance, can we really say that a regular lottery player has similar underlying psychology to a regular slot machine player? Is an online poker player similar to a roulette gambler? Of course not – and that is one of the reasons for inconsistent findings. Psychologists have tended to clump gamblers together as if they were a unified and homogenous group of people.

In addition, demographic differences – such as age, gender, and culture – may produce very different findings in motivation to gamble. For instance, an adult horserace gambler cannot be easily compared to an adolescent slot machine player; a male sports gambler cannot be easily compared to a female bingo player; and slot machine players in the UK cannot necessarily be compared to slot machine players in the US. What’s more, each individual gambling activity has its own unique structural differences. For instance, gambling can be differentiated in terms of stake size, time gap between each gamble, skill level, prize structures, size of jackpot etc. Each of these differences may have implications for the gambler’s motivations and the interplay between personality and the individual gambling activity.

It would appear from this brief overview that the usefulness and the value of psychometric-based personality studies remain doubtful. The notion that gamblers possess a unique set of variables or traits is a naive over-simplification and appears to be a fruitless direction for research. Gambling is complex and multidimensional, and personality factors are too ‘global’ to serve as the single cause. Research into gambling is still at a relatively early stage, and it is clear that a person’s gambling behaviour results from an interaction between many different variables including environmental, social, psychological and biological.

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

Further reading

Benson, L., Norman, C. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The role of impulsivity, sensation seeking, coping, and year of study in student gambling: A pilot study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, DOI 10.1007/s11469-011-9326-5.

McDaniel, S., & Zuckerman, M. (2003). The relationship of impulsive sensation seeking and gender to interest and participation in gambling activities. Personality and Individual Differences, 35, 1385-1400.

Myrseth, H., Pallesen, S., Molde, H., Johnsen, B. & Lorvik, I. (2009) Personality factors as predictors of pathological gambling. Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 933-937.

Parke, A., Griffiths, M.D. & Irwing, P. (2004). Personality traits in pathological gambling: Sensation seeking, deferment of gratification and competitiveness as risk factors, Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 201-212.

Wagenaar, W.A. (1988). Paradoxes of Gambling Behaviour. Erlbaum, London.

Zuckerman, M. (2005) Faites vos jeux anouveau: Still another look at sensation seeking and pathological gambling. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 361-365.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on February 14, 2012, in Gambling, Gambling addiction, Gender differences, Popular Culture, Psychology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. hi, you do had a great site, thank for sharing these valuable information.

  2. Hi, This is one good post, thank you.

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