Totally hooked: Angling, gambling, and ‘fishing addiction’
A few days ago, I published a short paper with Dr. Michael Auer examining the concept of ‘fishing addiction’ and the similarities with gambling addiction in the Archives of Behavioral Addiction. Fishing and gambling are two activities that on the surface do not appear to have much in common with each other. For many people, they are both simply leisure activities and this is where the similarities stop.
So in what ways are fishing and gambling similar? In the broadest of senses, gambling and fishing are not too dissimilar. As Dr. Gary Smith and his colleagues noted in a 2003 report, the word ‘gambling’ in day-to-day language has broad currency and can describe a number of activities such as “farming, fishing, searching for oil, marriage or even crossing a busy street”. More specifically, in a 2011 chapter on stress among fisherman, Dr. Richard Pollnac and colleagues noted that “a fisher is basically gambling every time he/she goes out fishing” and that like gambling “production per fishing trip is highly variable and relatively unpredictable”. An earlier 2008 paper by Pollnac and John Poggie highlighted that marine fishing as an occupation is of a relative risky nature and state that it attracts and holds individuals manifesting an active, adventurous, aggressive and courageous personality – attributes that arguably apply to some types of competitive gamblers, such as poker players.
According to a 2013 online article by Dr. Per Binde (2013), who describes himself as a gambling researcher that enjoys fishing in his spare time, gambling and fishing have many similarities “especially if you consider bait casting (spinning) in relation to repetitive forms of gambling, such as slot machines”. A 2013 online article by Whitney James (2013) has also made a similar observation that “pulling a penny slot is like casting your line. It doesn’t take a lot of effort but the payout is sometimes sweet”. In fact, both Binde and James have noted a number of distinct similarities and the list below combines these along with some of our own observations:
- In both activities, the participant repeats the same behaviour over and over again in the hope that they will attain something of material value.
- Both activities lead to mood modifying experiences and can be both relaxing and exciting.
- Both activities can result in the person forgetting about time and engaging in the activity for much longer than the person originally intended (because of the escape-like qualities of engaging in the activity).
- Both activities involve ‘near misses’ that reinforce the behaviour (or as Dr. Binde says “one reel symbol slightly out of place for a jackpot; bites and nibbles of fish that does not get hooked”).
- Success in either activity may be a combination of skill and chance, and winning or catching a fish give the individuals concerned a sense of achievement and mastery. Furthermore, the person engaging in these activities may not be able to differentiate between what was skill and what was chance (or as Dr. Binde says: “was my choice of bait successful or was it just luck that I caught a big fish?”).
- In both activities, the ‘availability bias’ comes into play. More specifically, the few big successes (i.e., catching a really big fish or winning a large amount of money) are highly memorable while all the many other occasions when the person lost all their money or caught nothing are easily forgotten.
- In both activities, superstitious rituals are commonplace (wearing a ‘lucky’ cap, spitting on the lure, etc.). As I noted in a 2005 paper I co-wrote with Carolyn Bingham in the Journal of Gambling Issues, there are certain groups within society who tend to hold more superstitious beliefs than what may be considered the norm including sportsmen, actors, miners, fishermen, and gamblers.
- In both activities, when things are not going right (i.e., not winning, not catching any fish), the person then tries the same thing somewhere else (a gambler changes table or slot machines, or goes to a new gaming venue; a fisherman changes his bait or tries another place in the river or a new river entirely).
- In both activities, one win or one fish caught is never enough.
- Both activities are potentially addictive (“ask either addict’s wife and they will confirm” said Whitney James).
- In both activities, families forgive the person if they bring something home with them (i.e., winnings or fresh fish).
- Finally, (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) both activities (according to Whitney James) “are better with a drink in hand”.
Another similarity is that both activities can prove an expensive pastime. While this could be said comparing any two leisure activities, in a 2004 qualitative interview study of seven male high frequency betting shop gamblers published in the journal Addiction Research and Theory, Dr. Tom Ricketts and Ann Macaskill, the gamblers justified the amount spent on gambling by contrasting the amount they spent on other leisure pursuits like fishing. As one gambler said: “Like some people go fishing…and that costs a lot more than what it does with gambling. So that’s the way I see it, really, you pay for your hobbies”.
Another qualitative interview study of seven male online poker players by myself and Dr. Adrian Parke in a 2012 issue of Addiction Research and Theory highlighted that some of the players use fishing analogies to describe their card play. It emerged clearly from one interview that a player could profit in both offline and online forms of gambling by manipulating various forms of information technology. As the authors noted:
“The significance of this belief was moderated in the sense that although participants professed that such profitable control was indeed possible, they indicated that there were also negative consequences of gambling in a controlled and profitable manner. This profitable, yet restricted form of gambling was described by one participant as ‘trawling’, highlighting the demanding and onerous nature of the activity… The use of the term ‘trawling’ for such forms of controlled gambling conveys an impression that is similar to commercial sea fishing (i.e. not only is it an arduous task but also several external factors influence profitability such as luck)”.
Dr. Binde also claimed that it is unsurprising that individuals that want to cease their excessive gambling often find sport fishing a suitable ‘substitution’ leisure activity. He then goes on to argue that fisherman only risk losing time rather than money but then adds:
“Sport fishing gear may cost a bit and fishermen may get the idea that better gear would make fishing more successful. There are people, however, who have problems controlling the extent of their sport fishing and who perceive it as a kind of addiction”.
A 2009 online article by R. Pendleton draws similarities between fishing tournaments in Hawaii and poker tournaments. He cites Dr. Marc Miller, a cultural anthropologist and professor at the University of Washington, who theorized that there are four phases of tournament fishing that correspond to those found in gambling.
“The first phase is ‘squaring off’, which begins when the anglers board their boat, choose their tackle and the area they intend to fish, and go steaming off to the grounds. It is rather like the gambler with a handful of chips checking out the gaming tables, he noted, but it abruptly ends when the lines hit the water. The second is the determination phase, Miller said. Like the gambler’s blackjack table, this is where the action is. The angler is fishing and fate is in charge. It only ends when the ‘stop fishing’ signal is given. The angler enters the third phase – ‘the disclosure’ – when the fishing is over. Again like the gambler’s hand of cards, it is time for the fisherman to put his catch up for weighing and judging – to finally show what he’s got. Finally comes the ‘settlement phase’ of tournament fishing when the angler’s score is posted and the results are compared with the other fishermen in the contest, rather like when the gambler must settle up with the dealer”.
As far as I am aware, there has never been a study of ‘fishing addiction’ in the psychological literature although there are a few references to it and/or compulsive fishing. Similar to Whitney James’ observation above about wives knowing if their husbands are addicted to fishing or gambling, the 2008 paper by Pollnac and Poggie noted that:
“A commercial crabber from Alaska said, ‘As any fisherman’s wife will tell you, fishing is an addiction. And for commercial fishermen, consider it a gambling addiction’ (Arnold 2006). This is an insightful observation, fishing is like an addiction, and most fishermen would do anything to avoid the potentially painful withdrawal symptoms”.
Bill Glasser, author of the 1976 book Positive Addiction, noted that fishing was one of many ‘positive addictions’ in a later (2012) paper on the topic (in the Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy). More specifically, he claimed that he had heard numerous stories from many different individuals claiming they were ‘positively addicted “to a variety of activities such as swimming, hiking, bike riding, yoga, Zen, knitting, crocheting, hunting, fishing, skiing, rowing, playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, and many more”. Glasser argued that activities such as jogging and transcendental meditation were positive addictions and were the kinds of activity that could be deliberately cultivated to wean addicts away from more harmful and sinister preoccupations. He also asserted that positive addictions must be new rewarding activities that produce increased feelings of self-efficacy.
Glasser’s (1976) own criteria for positive addictions are that the activities must (i) be non-competitive and needing about an hour a day, (ii) be easy, so no mental effort is required, (iii) be easy to be done alone, not dependent on people, (iv) be believed to be having some value (physical, mental, spiritual), (v) be believed that if persisted in, some improvement will result, and (iv) involve no self-criticism. Although ‘fishing addiction’ arguably meets these criteria, I argued in a 1996 paper in the Journal of Workplace Learning that Glasser’s criteria have little to with accepted criteria for addictive behaviour such as salience, mood modification, tolerance, conflict, withdrawal, loss of control, and relapse. Therefore, although Glasser believes that addiction to fishing is a positive addiction, I would argue that ‘fishing addiction’ using Glasser’s criteria is not really an addiction.
In an online article on ‘The psychology of fishing addiction’ (In The Bite, 2014), addiction psychotherapist Alexandria Stark asserted that although fishing addiction was not recognized in the psychiatric community, the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria of Gambling Disorder in the DSM-5 could be adapted to screen for whether someone is a fishing addict. Additionally, a 2007 paper in the journal Parkinsonism and Related Disorders by Dr. Andrew McKeon and colleagues reported seven case studies of “unusual compulsive behaviors” following treatment for Parkinson’s disease with dopamine agonist therapy. One of the seven cases was a 48-year-old man who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 43 years and was taking daily doses of levodopa [300mg], ropinirole [24mg] and selegeline [5mg]. It was reported that the man suddenly “developed an intense interest and fascination with fishing” even though he had little prior interest in the activity. His wife reported that her husband was fishing incessantly for day after day, and that even though he caught nothing his interest in fishing did not diminish.
Pollnac and Poggie who have carried out lots of research into professional fisherman have speculated that professional fisherman and gamblers may have similar personality types and similar biological pre-dispositions. They speculated that if professional fisherman had not had gone into the fishing profession, they may have ended up as drug addicts or gambling addicts. More specifically, they noted that:
“The possible existence of a genetic component related to an active, adventurous, aggressive, and courageous personality type should not be surprising. Fishermen manifesting this personality type are more successful as would be the hunters and gatherers who provided sustenance for human populations through most of the time humans have been on earth. This genetic component, which would have been advantageous for early humans, served us well, but when it was no longer needed, its frequency in human populations probably started a slow decline. It still exists, however, and those lucky (or unfortunate) to have it have to find other outlets for their need for novelty and adventure – risky sports and high stakes gambling, recreational hunting, marine sport fishing, and risky jobs like firefighting, policing, futures trading in the stock market, etc. Those who do not find other outlets or who may be misguided turn to self destructive behavior such as addictive gambling, crime (high risk) and substance abuse (LeGrand et al. 2005). Fortunately for fishermen, the occupation of fishing, a risky occupation, can provide a certain level of adventure accompanied by various risks and hence, serve as a socially acceptable outlet for their need for action and adventure while increasing their levels of satisfaction and happiness”.
In our just published paper, we visited various online discussion forums dedicated to fishing (e.g., Big Fish Tackle [www.bigfishtackle.com] and Angling Addicts [http://www.anglingaddicts.co.uk]) and located a number of fishermen that claimed their fishing was an addiction and/or had addiction-like properties (a selection of self-reports that we found are published in the paper). We argued that these self-reports have existential value and provide informal data that could be more formally investigated in future studies. In one of our cases, the individual was totally preoccupied by fishing even though he was not fishing every day (in fact, twice a week maximum). He thought about fishing all the time and it appeared to be the single most important thing in his life. If he couldn’t actually fish he was watching online fishing videos, watching fishing television programmes, playing fishing videogames, or on online fishing forums. Here, the individual appeared to display cross-tolerance (i.e., when unable to fish he engaged in other fish-related activities such as playing a fishing videogame). The only activity that made him want to get out of bed was fishing. The description of his behaviour is arguably one of the best working definitions of salience that you could find. For want of a better word, he was totally obsessed with fishing.
In another case, fishing was actually described by the individual as an addiction and that his wife made him cut back on his fishing. The way he overcame his urge to fish was to get a job that involved fishing which not only met his fishing needs but resolved the conflict in his relationship as his wife no longer cared that he was fishing every day when it became his full-time job. In another case, the individual described withdrawal symptoms if he was unable to fish and that he got “the shakes” if he was unable to fish, similar to an alcoholic who gets the shakes (i.e., delirium tremens) when unable to drink. Another case specifically described fishing in extreme cases as an addiction and something that has been with him (and will be with him) for life.
A further case described fishing as an addiction and how he first got involved with fishing (i.e., being in Florida near water meant that fishing excursions were readily and easily available). He provided an example of relapse in that he had been able to give up fishing for a period in his life (because there was no opportunity for his to fish), only for it to return at a later point. Another case likened fishing to drug use and that once someone had tried fishing they have to go back for more. For want of a better word they become ‘hooked’ (no pun intended but another linguistic example of the association between fishing and addiction).
One individual described how he was given an ultimatum by his wife, and as a consequence, he chose fishing over the relationship. Obviously his fishing was causing relationship problems and when it came to make a decision, he decided he loved fishing more than his wife and can now fish whenever he wants without his ex-wife interfering or passing negative comment on his desire to fish. By removing his wife from his day-to-day activity, the fishing presumably became a non-problematic behaviour. Another individual described fishing as an activity that has become constant in his life and was not just a phase that they are going through.
In a nutshell, our paper attempted to examine whether – in extreme cases – fishing could be characterised as an addiction, and also attempted to argue that there are many commonalities between excessive fishing and another behavioural addiction (i.e., gambling addiction). It does appear to have addiction-like properties and that some fishers describe their fixation on fishing as an addiction akin to problematic drug use and/or gambling. However, our paper didn’t argue that fishing addiction exists, just that some people (including fishers themselves) conceptualise their excessive behaviour as an addiction and that a few scholars have asserted that in extreme cases, fishing may be a behaviour that can be potentially addictive.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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Posted on March 15, 2019, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Problem gamblng, Psychology and tagged Behavioural addiction, Competitiveness, Fishing addiction, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Jackpot, Near Misses, Poker, Positive addiction, Slot machines. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.