Altered states: The psychology of distraction in gambling

I’m sure that most of you are aware that nearly all casinos around the world do not have clocks or windows. Casino operators don’t want their customers to think about time or give them external cues such as whether it’s night or day. By doing this, a gambler’s temporal perception is altered and gamblers may lose track of time and reality (and hopefully spend more money!). Although this may not be good from a financial perspective, from a psychological perspective, losing track of time and reality may not necessarily be such a bad thing.

Psychologists believe that gambling is an excellent  ‘distractor task’. What we mean is that playing slot machines, roulette or poker, has the capacity to engage much of a gambler’s individual active attention because of the cognitive and motor activity that is needed. Continuous gambling also allows the possibility to sustain achievement because of the level of difficulty and skills involved in most games. In short, they provide a challenge that uses a lot of mental energy.

One positive benefit of gambling may be a temporarily higher pain threshold. Research studies have shown that cognitive and attentional distraction has the capacity to block the perception of pain. The reasoning behind this is that distractor tasks (such as gambling and videogame playing) consume some degree of the attentional capacity that would otherwise be devoted to pain perception. Although gambling has never been tested in this way experimentally, research into videogame playing and pain perception has shown that those who play videogames after treatment for things like chemotherapy need significantly less painkillers than those who don’t play videogames. However, one of the problems with this type of “snapshot” research is that there has been no long-term follow-up and it is unclear whether players eventually tire of such games. Therefore other factors need to be explored such as novelty of the activity, game preference, and relative level of challenge.

There has also been an increasing amount of research showing that gamblers who play for long periods of time can enter “dissociative states” of mind. Dissociation is a form of altered state of consciousness. These behaviours lie on a continuum and range from losing track of time, feeling like your someone else, blacking out, not recalling how you got somewhere or what you did, and being in a trance like state. In its most extreme form it can include multi-personality disorders.

Dissociation also needs to be differentiated from distraction although it could be the case that they are at opposite ends of the same continuum. For example, a person may use gambling as a distracting activity but over time may progress into a dissociative one. Distraction usually involves a person’s attention being pulled somewhere other than where he or she wants it to go although some people may deliberately engage in some activities (like drinking alcohol, gambling, smoking etc.) as a way of shifting their thoughts away from something they do not want to think about. Distraction can be born out of boredom, lack of interest, melancholy and creativity. More generally it can be viewed as a low-level state of avoidance. It may also be a symptom of depressive or mood disorders and high levels of stress. On the whole, losing track of time because of distraction is normal when you are having fun. Blacking or going into a dissociative trance like state is not!

There is also the possibility that the medium of gambling influences distraction capacity. For instance, some of my own research has suggested that the Internet may provide immersive and dissociative feelings for its users and may facilitate feelings of escape. I also believe that the anonymity of the Internet allows users to privately engage in activities like gambling without the fear of stigma. The anonymity may also provide the gambler with a greater sense of perceived control over the content, tone, and nature of the online experience.

Anonymity can also increase feelings of psychological comfort since there is a decreased ability to look for, and thus detect, signs of insincerity, disapproval, or judgement in facial expression, as would be typical in face-to-face interactions. For activities such as gambling, this may be a positive benefit particularly when losing as no-one can actually see your face. However, one of the consequences of technology and the Internet has been to reduce the fundamentally social nature of gambling to an activity that in many cases is asocial. Most problem gamblers report that at the height of their problem gambling, it is a solitary activity. Gambling in a social setting has the potential to provide a kind of “safety net” for over-spenders as friends will often notice excessive and  ‘out of character’ behaviour. This is lost when gambling alone on the Internet.

The interactivity of the Internet may also be psychologically rewarding and different from other more passive forms of entertainment (such as television). Psychological research has consistently shown the increased personal involvement on a gambling activity can increase the illusion of control that in turn may facilitate increased gambling. The interactive nature of the Internet may therefore provide a convenient way of increasing such personal involvement.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Internet gambling: Issues, concerns and recommendations. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 557-568.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005).  The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies. pp. 161-171. Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Gambling psychology: Motivation, emotion and control, Casino and Gaming International, (3)4 (November), 71-76.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Casino design: Understanding gaming floor influences on player behaviour. Casino and Gaming International, 5(1), 21-26.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction on the Internet. In K. Young & C. Nabuco de Abreu (Eds.), Internet Addiction: A Handbook for Evaluation and Treatment. pp. 91-111. New York: Wiley.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed.), Gambling: Who wins? Who Loses? pp. 277-292. New York: Prometheus Books.

Griffiths, M.D., Wood, R.T.A., Parke, J. & Parke, A. (2006). Dissociative states in problem gambling. In C. Allcock (Ed.). Current Issues Related To Dissociation. pp.27-37. Melbourne: Australian Gaming Council.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Beyond illusion of control: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of gambling in the context of information technology. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 250-260.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, A. (2007). Experiences of time loss among videogame players: An empirical study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 45-56.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and 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”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 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 2000 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 May 30, 2012, in Addiction, Advertising, Computer games, Cyberpsychology, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Marketing, Online addictions, Online gambling, Online gaming, Problem gamblng, Psychology, Technological addiction, Video game addiction, Video games and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. We once had a mobile casino customer who admitted to taking copious amounts of morphine to cope with a painful chronic illness, and he pleaded us to keep his account open because playing slot machines was the only way of taking his mind off the pain. He even produced a note from his doctor stating that the painkillers had no effect on his judgement but in the end we had no choice but to close his account because he was getting more and more incoherent.

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