Category Archives: Case Studies

‘Fanorexia’ and ‘ballimia’: Football fanaticism, brand loyalty, and addiction

As the 2018 World Cup kicks in, it’s an opportune time to ask why are we so loyal to our national and club football teams? Whatever the results, we tend to support them week in week out, all year round. They can cause us misery and heartache and yet still we support them. As a Sunderland fan, I know this only too well. In the season just ended I went from agony to even more agony as I saw Sunderland get relegated for the second season in a row.

Could it be that following our clubs is an addiction? It has been argued by academics working in the marketing field that commercial organisations would love to have the kind of brand loyalty shown by football fans – something that Ken Parker and Trish Stuart argued in their award winning paper The ‘West Ham Syndromepublished in the Journal of the Market Research Society (I’m not making this up, honest!).

Parker and Stuart, working at the time of the study for the company Discovery Research, surveyed 2000 adults and also carried out some focus group interviews with football fans (including some ardent West Ham United supporters). They found that 58% of males had made a commitment to club their team by the age of 11 years. (I just happen to be one of those men having supported Sunderland from the age of 7 years of age after watching them beat Leeds in the 1973 FA Cup Final). More than half of children whose parents supported a team went on to support the same one, while a third of all fans still followed their local team.

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Marketeers would love to be able to take the seemingly unstinted loyalty of football fans and somehow transfer that loyalty to the products they are trying to sell. For instance, the brand of coffee we buy tends to be governed by many factors such as television advertising, the taste, the price, the packaging, etc. If we come across coffee that (for whatever reason) is better (cheaper, tastes better, etc.), we automatically switch our ‘allegiance’ to another brand of coffee. Parker and Stuart argued that wherever West Ham finish in the league, Hammers fans would not desert their club and/or switch to another club. So what’s the difference between football clubs as a brand and other commercial products as a brand? Maybe it’s passion and the fact that football can be such an emotional experience for the diehard fan.

Some working in the advertising industry claim many people working in marketing lack passion in their product. Apparently there are other products (such as cars) that consumers get very passionate about and this means that they repeatedly buy a particular make of car despite any acknowledged faults. However, one huge fault can damage a brand’s reputation almost overnight, as Toyota is only too aware. The good news for Toyota is that one of the most interesting things about research on the ‘West Ham Syndrome’ is that it can help to explain why leading brands are able to bounce back from PR disasters in similar ways to football clubs come back from being relegated to a lower division.

However, are football fans really as loyal as most of us assume? A paper by Alan Tapp examined the loyalty of football fans (in the Journal of Database Marketing and Customer Strategy Management) and wondered what it is about football clubs as a brand that makes them so successful – especially as the ‘product’ is so inconsistent and unpredictable? (‘Inconsistent’ and ‘unpredictable are certainly words I would associate with the England team and the England players!). Parker and Stuart claimed that levels of loyalty were “only marginally affected” by West Ham’s fortunes. However, Tapp says this is completely untrue. He cites analysis of football attendance figures since 1945 to show that crowd sizes are related to a team’s position in the league, and that teams lose support when they are doing poorly. Despite the fact that crowd attendance is linked to how well a football club is doing, it’s still probably true to say that football fans are still more loyal to their club than they are to most other products. All this goes to show is that most of us will continue to love England, warts and all.

Just before the 1998 World Cup, I began to carry out some research into football fanaticism and whether football fanatics could be considered ‘addicted’ to following their football team. This is easier said than done as it all depends upon how addiction is defined, and if ‘football fan addiction’ exists, what are people actually addicted to? I define addiction as any behaviour that features what I believe to be the six core components of addiction (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict and relapse). Throughout my career, I have consistently argued that any behaviour that fulfils these six criteria should be considered as a genuine addiction. If you were addicted to following your football team, this is what I would expect:

Salience – This occurs when following your football team (and doing things related to your football team) becomes the most important activity in your life and dominates your thinking (total preoccupation), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialized behaviour). For instance, even if you are not actually engaged in something football-related, you will be thinking about the next time that you are.

 Mood modification – This is the subjective experience that you would feel as a consequence of following your football team (i.e. you experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ – or the exact opposite – a tranquilizing feeling of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’ when following your team).

Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of activity related to your football team are needed to get mood modifying effects. This basically means that if you were engaged in activities related to following your football team, you would gradually build up the amount of the time you spend engaged in those activities.

Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability etc.) that occur when you are prevented from following your football team or stopped from engaging in football-related activities.

Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between following your football team and those around you (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (your job, schoolwork, social life, hobbies and interests) or from within yourself (knowing you are doing too much of the activity and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) which are concerned with spending too much time following your football team.

 Relapse – This is the tendency to revert back to earlier patterns of behaviour (following your football team and engaging in football-related activity) after a period of abstinence.

Using these criteria, I have come across very few genuine examples of someone addicted to a football team. The most extreme case I have come across was one woman who left her husband because of his ‘addiction’ to Chelsea football club. She told me that their bedroom was a shrine to Chelsea, he watched almost every Chelsea game home and away (including European away matches), spent all their joint savings and ran up huge debts following Chelsea, and eventually got sacked from his job because he kept ringing in sick whenever Chelsea were playing hundreds of miles from home during midweek games. Out of season he would be constantly depressed and would try to alleviate his mood by endlessly watching videos of Chelsea’s greatest games. Once the football season started, his depression would lift. I never met this individual but he appears to have fulfilled my criteria for addiction.

For most people, enthusiastically following your team – even to excess – is unlikely to be an addiction. The main difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life and addictions take away from it.

(Please note that a version of this article was originally published in The Conversation)

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

Further reading

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

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Behavioural addiction and substance addiction should be defined by their similarities not their dissimilarities. Addiction, 112, 1718-1720.

Parker, K., Stuart, T. 1997. The West Ham syndrome. Journal of the Market Research Society, 39(3), 509-517.

Tapp, A. (2004). The loyalty of football fans – We’ll support you evermore? Journal of Database Marketing and Customer Strategy Management, 11, 203-215.

Me, myself-itis: A brief overview of obsessive selfie-taking

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a selfie is a “photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media”. From a psychological perspective, the taking of selfies is a self-oriented action that allows users to establish their individuality and self-importance; it is also associated with personality traits such as narcissism.

However, selfie-taking is more than just the taking of a photograph. It can include the editing of the color and contrast, the changing of backgrounds, and the addition of other effects before uploading. These added options and the use of integrative editing have further popularized selfie-taking behavior, particularly amongst teenagers and young adults.

On March 31, 2014, a story appeared on a website called the Adobo Chronicles that claimed that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had classed “selfitis” as a new mental disorder. According to the author, the organization had defined selfitis as “the obsessive compulsive desire to take photos of one’s self and post them on social media as a way to make up for the lack of self-esteem and to fill a gap in intimacy”. The same article also claimed there three levels of the disorder: borderline (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day but not posting them on social media”), acute (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day and posting each of the photos on social media”), and chronic (“uncontrollable urge to take photos of one’s self round the clock and posting the photos on social media more than six times a day”).

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The story was republished on numerous news sites around the world, but it soon became clear the story was a hoax. However, one of the reasons that so many news outlets republished the story – other than that it seemingly fit certain preexisting stereotypes in people’s minds – was that the criteria used to delineate the three levels of selfitis (i.e., borderline, acute, and chronic) seemed believable.

Therefore, we thought it would be interesting to examine whether there was any substance to the claims that taking selfies can be a time-consuming and potentially obsessive behavior – the stereotype underlying many people’s credulity about the fake story. We empirically explored the concept of selfitis across two studies and collected data on the existence of selfitis with respect to the three alleged levels (borderline, acute, and chronic), ultimately developed our own psychometric scale to assess the sub-components of selfitis (the Selfitis Behaviour Scale).

We used Indian students as participants in our research because India has the largest total number of users on Facebook by country. We also knew India accounts for more selfie-related deaths in the world compared to any other country. with a reported 76 deaths reported out of a total of 127 worldwide since 2014. (Those deaths usually occur when people attempt to take selfies in dangerous contexts, such as in water, from heights, in the proximity of moving vehicles, like trains, or while posing with weapons).

Our study began by using focus group interviews with 225 young adults with an average age of 21 years old to gather an initial set of criteria that underlie selfitis. Example questions used during the focus group interviews included ‘What compels you to take selfies?’, ‘Do you feel addicted to taking selfies?’ and ‘Do you think that someone can become addicted to taking selfies?’ It was during these interviews that participants confirmed there appeared to be individuals who obsessively take selfies — or, in other words, that selfitis does at least exist. But, since we did not collect any data on the negative psychosocial impacts, we cannot yet claim that the behavior is a mental disorder; negative consequences of the behavior is a key part of that determination.

The six components of selfitis, tested on the further participants, were: environmental enhancement (e.g., taking selfies in specific locations to feel good and show off to others); social competition (e.g., taking selfies to get more ‘likes’ on social media); attention-seeking (e.g., taking selfies to gain attention from others); mood modification (e.g., taking selfies to feel better); self-confidence (e.g., taking selfies to feel more positive about oneself); and subjective conformity (e.g., taking selfies to fit in with one’s social group and peers).

Our findings showed that those with chronic selfitis were more likely to be motivated to take selfies due to attention-seeking, environmental enhancement and social competition. The results suggest that people with chronic levels of selfitis are seeking to fit in with those around them, and may display symptoms similar to other potentially addictive behaviours. Other studies have also suggested that a minority of individuals might have a ‘selfie addiction’ (see ‘References and further reading’ below).

With the existence of the condition apparently confirmed, we hope that further research will be carried out to understand more about how and why people develop this potentially obsessive behaviour, and what can be done to help people who are the most affected. However, the findings of our research do not indicate that selfitis is a mental disorder based on the findings of this study – a claim made in many of the news reports about our study, possibly demonstrating how deep the stereotypes about selfie-takes run – only that selfitis appears to be a condition that requires further research to fully assess the psychosocial impacts that the behaviour might have on the individual.

If you are interested in assessing your own behavior, click here to download where you can complete the self-assessment test in the Appendix of our paper.

Please note: This article was co-written with Dr. Janarthanan Balakrishnan (Thiagarajar School of Management, India)

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Balakrishnan, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). An exploratory study of ‘selfitis’ and the development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-017-9844-x.

Gaddala, A., Hari Kumar, K. J., & Pusphalatha, C. (2017). A study on various effects of internet and selfie dependence among undergraduate medical students. Journal of Contemporary Medicine and Dentistry, 5(2), 29-32.

Griffiths, M.D. & Balakrishnan, J. (2018). The psychosocial impact of excessive selfie-taking in youth: A brief overview. Education and Health, 36(1), 3-5.

Kaur, S., & Vig, D. (2016). Selfie and mental health issues: An overview. Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing, 7(12), 1149

Khan, N., Saraswat, R., & Amin, B. (2017). Selfie: Enjoyment or addiction? Journal of Medical Science and Clinical Research, 5, 15836-15840.

Lee, R. L. (2016). Diagnosing the selfie: Pathology or parody? Networking the spectacle in late capitalism. Third Text, 30(3-4), 264-27

Senft, T. M., & Baym, N. K. (2015). Selfies introduction – What does the selfie say? Investigating a global phenomenon. International Journal of Communication, 9, 19

Singh, D., & Lippmann, S. (2017). Selfie addiction. Internet and Psychiatry, April 2. Located at: https://www.internetandpsychiatry.com/wp/editorials/selfie-addiction/

Singh, S. & Tripathi, K.M. (2017). Selfie: A new obsession. SSRN, Located at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2920945

Hearing aid: A brief look at ‘the world’s most addictive sounds’

Throughout my career I’ve carried out quite a lot of research into the marketing and advertising of gambling and the way in which some gambling operators use psychology to exploit our senses to maximize profit. Connected to this, I’ve also published a number of papers that have examined the role of sound (and particularly music) can influence the way in which individuals gamble (see my previous blog on this and ‘Further reading’ below).

The reason I mention this was that I recently came across an online article by Fast Company entitled ‘The 10 most addictive sounds in the world’ based on some market research carried out by Martin Lindstrom, the Danish ‘neuromarketeer’, author of the book Buyology – Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (I do love a good pun). Lindstrom is known for using neuroscientific techniques to help commercial operators better understand their clientele. One of his collaborations was with Elias Arts (a sound and music design company) who joined forces to examine the world’s most ‘addictive sounds’ in what an article in The Village Voice dubbed a “neuromarketing experiment”.

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Obviously, my interest was piqued when I saw the use of the word ‘addictive’ but their working definition of ‘addictive’ had nothing to do with individuals being addicted to sounds but simply referred to an individual’s response to specific sounds. (Even with this explanation, I still can’t see why the word ‘addictive’ was used but its’ use probably guarantees more people – like myself – will want to read about the study). Lindstrom told the media that:

“We have all those top 10s of everything, but most top 10s are based on the visual sense. What we realized in another study is the most prominent sense we have [when we see a commercial] is not the sense of sight or smell, but the sense of sound”.

As far as I can tell, the study Lindstrom carried out has not been formally published in a peer reviewed journal (although he has published academic papers). The study was described in the international media as involving 50 participants and the research team monitored their brainwave, pupil, and facial muscle activity while listening to 50 different everyday sounds (both man-made ‘branded’ sounds and those ‘non-branded’ sounds that occur naturally). Lindstrom concluded that the most ‘addictive sounds’ weren’t necessarily the non-branded sounds of nature because some of the commercial man-made branded sounds (described as “beeps, jingles and ditties”) were more ‘addictive’ than a number of familiar sounds found in everyday life.

Overall, sound of a baby giggling was ranked as the most ‘addictive sound’ (although I’ve not seen the specific methodology employed to ascertain how being the top ‘addictive sound’ was actually assessed. Apparently Lindstrom examined the “dimension of the responses” and the “contrast and balance of all three [brainwave, pupil and muscle] factors” – although he did admit that such factors can lead to both positive and negative reactions). The second and third spots were Intel’s computer startup chime and the sound of a vibrating mobile phone. Other top non-branded sounds were the sound of a sizzling steak and the lighting of a cigarette being inhaled. Lindstrom claimed that the participants “weren’t responding to the structures of the sounds, but what they mean in a greater social context”. In relation to what makes a sound ‘addictive’, Lindstrom did at least make one reference to a classic sign of addiction (i.e., craving):

“It’s not the sound itself, but the consequence of the sound. A laughing (or crying) baby elicits a maternal protection mechanism, a buzzing cell phone prompts a pick-up, a sizzling steak means a solid meal is on the way. For advertisers and consumers, the research indicates a whole new battleground of multi-sensory advertising. Sometimes the sound from one category generates a craving in another category. For example, given the links between tobacco and beverages, the sound of a cigarette being lit could be used in an ad for alcohol. Although sound is more intuitive for people, the field is still quite young. It will be a long time before it will be so prominent”.

In a story for ABC News, other academics were asked for their thoughts on Lindstrom’s study. One American ‘auditory neuroscientist, Professor Barbara Shinn-Cunningham (actually Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University) said that:

“Although the sounds identified by the study are extremely meaningful, with the exception of the giggling baby, most are not inherently addictive. They’re identifiable. They brain responds to repetition. Our brains are good at picking out patterns that repeat. We’ve evolved to do that. If I chose an arbitrary sound, as long as it was clear and distinctive, and then played it 50 times a day for the next five years (as many of the branded sounds have been), it would become attention-grabbing. I don’t think [the sounds on the list are] so much addictive because of their acoustic properties, but because of their ubiquity. There is neurophysiological evidence showing that brain is hardwired to notice certain kinds of sounds. For example, the abrupt, jarring sound of a slamming door could prompt cells in a person’s brain stem to fire even before that person was conscious of it. For early humans, that kind of sound could have meant it’s time to run for the hills. [Also] studies have demonstrated the existence of a so-called ‘cocktail party effect’. At a party, if you hear your name in the background, even if you’re not paying attention, that’s something that will draw your attention involuntarily. Your brain is so exposed to your name and it’s tremendously important to you, so it encodes that so you respond to it”

According to Lindstrom’s research, the most ‘addictive sounds’ in the world (although they are arguably US-centric to say the least) are: (1) baby giggle, (2) Intel chime, (3) vibrating phone, (4) ATM/cash register, (5) National Geographic theme tune, (6) MTV theme tune, (7) T-Mobile ringtone, (8) McDonald’s jingle, (9) ‘Star Spangled Banner’ (tune), and (10) State Farm jingle.

The Fast Company article also noted that:

“Sound is immensely powerful. And yet 83% of all the advertising communication we’re exposed to daily (bearing in mind that we will see two million TV commercials in a single lifetime) focuses, almost exclusively, on the sense of sight. That leaves just 17% for the remaining four senses. Think about how much we rely on sound. It confirms a connection when dialing or texting on cell phones and alerts us to emergencies. When the sound was removed from slot machines in Las Vegas, revenue fell by 24%. Experiments undertaken in restaurants show that when slow music (slower than the rhythm of a heartbeat) is played, we eat slower–and we eat more!”.

These types of findings suggest that ‘audio branding’ is likely to be an increasing topic of academic research given that every company wants an edge in selling their product. While I am totally unconvinced that the word ‘addictive’ should be used in this type of research, that’s not to say that sound doesn’t have an influence in the development of addictive behaviour more generally. It looks like a case of watch (or should that be listen?) to this space.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Bark Soho (2016). 3 of the most addictive sounds in the world. October 16. Located at: http://www.barksoho.co.uk/blog/3-of-the-most-addictive-sounds-in-the-world/

Dixon, L., Trigg, R. & Griffiths, M. (2007). An empirical investigation of music and gambling behaviour. International Gambling Studies, 7, (3), 315-326.

Edroso, R. (2010). “Most addictive” sounds mostly jingles, machine noises. The Village Voice, February 22. located at: https://www.villagevoice.com/2010/02/22/most-addictive-sounds-mostly-jingles-machine-noises/

Fast Company (2010). The 10 most addictive sounds in the world. February 22. Located at: https://www.fastcompany.com/1555211/10-most-addictive-sounds-world

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. & Parke, J. (2005). The psychology of music in gambling environments: an observational research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 13.

Heussner, K.M. (2010). The world’s 10 most addictive sounds. ABC News, February 24. Located at: https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/worlds-10-addictive-sounds/story?id=9923506

Lindstrom, M. (2008). Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. New York: Doubleday

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics re-visited.  International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 151-179.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). The role of structural characteristics in gambling.  In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies. pp.211-243. New York: Elsevier.

Spenwyn, J., Barrett, D.K.R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of lights and music in gambling behavior: An empirical pilot study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 107-118.

Cattle-star gallactica: A brief look at ‘hucow’ fetishism

According to the online Urban Dictionary, a ‘hucow’ (a portmanteau of ‘human cow’) is “a woman who chooses to be objectified for her large mammaries and ability to lactate constantly”. It also features ‘human cow’ separately and defines it as “a lactating female who allows herself to have her jugs [breasts] hooked up to a cow milking machine, usually wearing a cow mask and cow print leather chaps”. In the writing of my previous blogs on lactation fetishes and furries, I had come across ‘hucow’ fetishism but at the time there was little on which to write about. A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by Mark Hay of Vice magazine who wanted my views about the behaviour so this provided a spur for me to write this article. There is obviously nothing in the academic literature concerning the phenomenon (and to be honest, little anywhere else). A small article on the Kinkly website makes the following observations:

“A hucow is a submissive person, usually a woman, who enjoys participating in forced lactation. A hucow’s breasts are milked by a dominant partner, usually a man, as a real cow is milked by a farmer. Milking techniques can vary…A dominant partner may use a variety of techniques to milk a hucow. They may milk her by hand, by suckling her breasts with their mouth, or by using a breast pump. Some hucows and their partners stick to one preferred technique while others like to mix things up. Some people become hucows following childbirth, when they are lactating naturally. Others bring on lactation using a variety of techniques including using a breast pump, manual stimulation, suckling, and taking supplements including fenugreek powder”.

It’s hard to know where the person writing this article got their information although my own viewing of online hucow videos confirm much of what is claimed above although it’s questionable whether the women in such videos “enjoy” what they are doing because they may just be doing it for money. The article goes on to say:

“Hucows enjoy being cared for like a pet because it takes them away from their regular lives with adult responsibilities. The breast stimulation that comes with lactating is also very sensual. Men with hucows enjoy the dominance and power that comes from their role in the forced lactation. When women lactate, their breasts increase in size, which is also a real perk for many men. Some men also have breastfeeding fetishes and lactation fetishes that their hucows can satisfy. As with many alternative lifestyles, there are communities for hucows and erotic fiction and videos focused on their activities. Several erotic writers and bloggers focus their works on hucows. Their writing might include fictional accounts and scenarios or non-fiction posts about their own experiences as a hucow. Hucows are also represented on niche dating websites, including Fetlife, and social media platforms like Reddit and Tumblr”.

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Again, some of this I’ve confirmed for myself as I found many examples of hucow fan fiction online as well as many porn sites catering for hucow fetishism. Another short article on the Manic Love website was written after its anonymous author was reading through the personal ads on Craig’s List and came across a personal ad that “depicted a cow milking machine on a woman and turned into someone’s personal hucow”. They wrote that:

“As you can imagine, a hucow is a woman pantomiming the experiences of a dairy cow. These particular women’s vaginas gush at the thought of having a slave collar put on their neck and having a milking machine hooked up to their nipples for hours at a time. Another facet of this fetish is the concept of breeding the hucows by the hucow milker. This is when the hucows partner (the Bull) mounts her and begins to [have sex with her]. All the while this lovely faux bovine is attached to an industrial device that is collecting her milk from the opened faucets of her [breasts]. The hucow fetish is a marvellous fusion of BDSM and lactation kinks”.

Again, how the writer knows the women involved like such activity is unknown. The author found a personal testimony from a hucow (a “baby-faced blonde with a curvy figure” called ‘Kate’) who described her hucow experiences:

“Once lactation had been induced on Katie the milking began. At first she used a simple breast pump to wring her mammary glands dry, but once Katie was used to the sensation of the pump she graduated to a milking machine that would be at home on a dairy farm. Katie related the sensation she felt while being milked…At first it was uncomfortable but the feeling grew on our dear Katie and before long she loved being a hucow. With the machine being attached to Katie’s nipples for hours she described how her nipples were becoming elongated – all the better for suckling… not only was her milking erotic but it also gave her a sensation of relief. Whenever a milking session was occurring Katie was always restrained; whether handcuffed to a rack or wearing a slave collar…Once the Bull [has sex with] Katie they begin to treat each other like true animals. They begin to rut like they belong on a farm”.

I was contacted by Mark Hay (with whom I’ve done various interviews in the past including ones on sea monster pornography, giantess pornography) who knew I’d written about lactation fetishes in my blog in the past. He asked me if I had ever come across hucow fetishes where “individuals fantasize about or play out scenes in which (usually) men treat (usually) women as livestock, forcibly milking them. Sometimes the women dress up like cows”. I told him that I had but that I’d never written about it. I told him that from a definitional perspective, ‘hucow’ fetishes were originally was the same thing as lactation fetishes. However, I told him that hucow fetishes now appeared to have expanded to include women dressing and/or acting like cows in which the milking was at the core of the fetish. I went on to say that this was not a type of furryism (where individuals dress up as animals and often have sex with other as animals) but was more akin to ‘pony play‘ because both ‘ponyplay’ and ‘hucow’ tend to have women in submissive modes and both have the animals’ most well-known type of behaviour at the heart of the fetish (i.e., milking in cows and riding/equestrianism in horses).

I was aware that there is a big niche market for this type of porn (even on mainstream porn sites like Pornhub). He was interested to hear that I thought the fetish had evolved and asked me (i) when, how, or why that might have happened, and (ii) whether I thought the fetish was especially visible, accessible, or common, and what that might say about the audience for it and the scale of its appeal. I have to admit I hadn’t many answers for these questions. I also had to clarify that I didn’t say the fetish had evolved but the definition of hucow had evolved (in my view, a subtle but important distinction). I believe the internet itself has played a major role in the dispersal of material that individuals can fetishise and hucow appears to be one of them. Most fetishes appear to have sub-divisions and at the edges they sometimes cross over into completely different fetishes. Hucow fetishism clearly has crossovers with lactation fetishism, pregnancy fetishism, infantilism/diaper fetishism (adults dressing up as a baby), transformation fetishism, and sadomasochism/BDSM, as well as having similarities with furries and ponyplay. Personally, I don’t believe it’s a common fetish because individuals have to go looking for it (as I did in researching this article).

Within five minutes of searching on the internet I located dedicated hucow porn (including material at sites including Pornhub, Heavy-R, Xvideos) as well as bespoke hucow fiction (Kobo, Literotica, and Amazon) and fantasy art (on Deviant Art). Hay’s article in Vice reported that the hucow Tumblr site has over 10,000 followers and that the hucow Reddit site has over 23,000 subscribers. Hay interviewed ‘Ed’, the person that runs the hucows.com website. According to Hay:

“[Ed] says his fans seem most excited by women being milked than anything else in his clips. Ditto Sally Anon, an amateur lactation fetish producer, who first encountered HuCow fetishists on lactophilia Reddit communities, who asked her to cross-post to their groups even though she didn’t dress up or act like a cow in the content she produced”.

In addition to interviewing me for the article. Hay also interviewed the ethicist Rebecca Kukla who has written about cultural perceptions of breastfeeding and made some interesting observations. She was quoted as saying:

“Lactation, of course, leads to increased breast size, which explains its appeal to some. Some women enjoy the breast stimulation of milking, so such fetishes are likely to be more about reciprocal pleasure than many others. Consuming breast milk plays into a common kinky urge to be infantilized. Perhaps most importantly, sexualizing something culturally asexual is an appealing form of transgression and re-appropriation. Many kinksters get erotic pleasure from playing at what they fear most, or find most violating of the proper order…[However] cows aren’t only good for milk production. They are the ultimate animals produced specifically for consumption, bred into highly artificial-looking consumer products. In HuCow, the cow-woman is simulating an object produced specifically to be consumed by her partner”.

This concurs with what I have written myself about why dominant and submissive types may enjoy hucow fetishism. As noted in my previous blogs, animal play in general often toys with transforming a complex human into a wholly service-oriented beast. Hay then goes on to say:

“As with many hard submissive fetishes, this may sound terrifying to those looking in from the outside. But even on their own fetishist-facing blogs, HuCow practitioners often acknowledge this is a well-negotiated fantasy, ideally built on mutual respect and desire in participants’ wider lives”.

Hay also quotes Sunny Megatron, an “adult sexuality educator and pleasure advocate” who asserts:

“Remember this is just fantasy role play where turning humans into fantasy cattle is fetishized. And just like any other kind of BDSM or fetish play, this is carefully negotiated by all participants and done consensually. Treating a woman – or anybody – as just a mere object is very wrong if it’s done without their consent. But if objectification is mutually desired by both partners, they’ve thoroughly and clearly talked about it ahead of time and then they play it out in a healthy fun fantasy sense, then that’s different…When BDSM scenes are negotiated they are done so according to the desires and limits of the submissive. The submissive calls the shots”.

As I know from my own empirical studies on eproctophilia (sexual arousal from flatulence) and dacryphilia (sexual arousal from crying), even within very niche fetishes, many sub-types start to develop and cross-fertilise with other more established fetishes and paraphilias, and hucow fetishism appears to be another niche sexual behaviour that (with the help of the internet) is continuing to evolve.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Good Reads (2014). Definition of a Hucow. Goodreads.com, October 3. Located at: https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/7114274-definition-of-a-hucow

Greenhill, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Compassion, dominance/submission, and curled lips: A thematic analysis of dacryphilic experience. International Journal of Sexual Health, 27, 337-350.

Greenhill, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Sexual interest as performance, intellect and pathological dilemma: A critical discursive case study of dacryphilia. Psychology and Sexuality, 7, 265-278.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The use of online methodologies in studying paraphilias: A review. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 143-150.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Eproctophilia in a young adult male: A case study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 1383-1386.

Hay, M. (2018). Inside HuCow, the fetish that imagines women as cows. Vice, April 24. Located at: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/d3599y/inside-hucow-the-fetish-that-imagines-women-as-cows

Kinkly (2018). Kinkly explains Hucow. Kinkly.com. Located at: https://www.kinkly.com/definition/15836/hucow

Manic Love (2017). Learn about hucows. October 12. Located at: https://maniclove.com/free-blog/hucows

Painless steal? Another look at shoplifting as an addiction

In a previous 2014 blog, I looked at the psychology of shoplifting (which I called ‘Men of Steal’) based on the work of American psychologist John C. Brady (who’s upcoming book is also entitled ‘Men of Steal’). Brady is a really engaging writer and he recently published an article in Counsellor magazine on celebrity theft and why for some people it should be classed as an addiction.

Brady briefly recounted the cases of three celebrities who had been caught shoplifting (Lindsay Lohan, Kim Richards, and Winona Ryder – click on the links to get the stories of each of these celebrity shoplifting stories). Other famous celebrity shoplifters include Britney Spears, Megan Fox, Kristin Cavallari, Farrah Fawcett, and WWE Diva Emma (if you’re really interested in these and other celebrity shoplifters, then check out this story in Rebel Circus). According to Dr. Brady “psychological analysis reveals they are not greedy, rather they are addicted to the ‘rush’ associated with theft” and that there is an ‘addictive criminal syndrome’.

Brady’s article used the ‘celebrity’ angle as the ‘hook’ to write more generally about ‘shoplifting addictions’ and briefly outlined the cases of three high profile ‘theft addicts’:

“The first man is Bruce McNall, former LA Kings owner, Hollywood film producer, and a convicted felon. He received five years in Lompoc Federal Prison for stealing $238 million. The second man, John Spano, former owner of the New York Islanders, went off to two terms in federal prisons for stealing $80 million. He is currently an inmate in an Ohio prison doing ten more years for a crime he did not originate. Finally, William “Boots” Del Biaggio III, former Silicon Valley venture capitalist operator and founder of Heritage Bank in San Jose, graduated in 2016 from eight years at Lompoc for fraud. He stole $110 million to buy the Nashville Predators hockey team. He later expressed regret—maybe too little too late”.

Brady believes that these individuals had a behavioural addiction to stealing. The cases he outlined were all true and were examples of what Brady described as “elite offenders who became addicted to the rush connected to stealing”. Some commonalities between the three individuals was noted: they were charming, deceptive, had personalities that were outgoing, never used violence or aggression in the carrying out of their thefts, and (in Brady’s view) were addicted to crime. Like many addicts, they harmed themselves, their families, and their communities as a consequence of their behaviour.

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The idea of being addicted to crime is not new, and the addiction components model that I have developed over the last couple of decades was based on that of one of my mentors – Iain Brown – who used such a model to explain addictive criminal offending in a really good book chapter published back in 1997 (in the book Addicted to Crime? edited by the psychologists John Hodge, Mary McMurran and Clive Hollin – see ‘Further reading’ below). Like me, Brady also read Addicted to Crime? in which it was posited that some criminals appear to become addicted to stealing (and that the act of theft made them feel good psychologically by providing a ‘high’ or a ‘rush’ similar to the feelings individuals experience when they ingest psychoactive substances). Brady argues that an addiction to stealing is a behavioural addiction and that it is “functionally equivalent” to substance-based addictions for two main reasons: that theft addicts (i) “generally derive the same initial uplifting, euphoric, and subjective sensations similar to substance abusers”, and (ii) “are almost blindly driven toward their goal and they cannot stop their self-defeating behaviors”.   

Brady contends that there are five addictive criminal stages of what he terms “the zone”: (i) criminal triggers, (ii) moral neutralisation, (iii) commission of the criminal act, (iv) post-criminal-act exhilaration, and (v) post-criminal-act confusion. Brady asserts:

“The five addictive stages comprising the criminal addictive zone helps explain why certain offenders arrived at such low points in their lives and progressively became drawn deeper into the addictive zone. Because these three men became frozen into one or more of these stages, they simply could not easily find an exit sign. I have applied this criminal zonal theory to a variety of deviant groups, including white-collar deviants and now to these three elite, nonviolent bank robbers. An analysis of the criminal addictive personality forms the foundation of the addictive zone. This zone is marked with multiple, negative psychological forces evidenced during each of the five stages…The movement through these overlapping stages results in a negative, criminological, transformative process during which theft addicts surrender their prior noncriminal status (positive), thereby adopting a new deviant one (negative)…After entering into this enigmatic zone, offenders often become locked into one or more of these overlapping stages. The one factor that remains constant is that the progression through these five stages dramatically and unalterably changed these men’s lives, their victims’ lives, and the lives of people around them”.

Brady’s five addictive criminal stages are:

  • Criminal triggers – In the first stage. these internal triggers revolve around salience and low self-esteem and comprise “confusing and mostly illogical thoughts” that criminals acquire. These negative thoughts are “reflective of peoples’ compromised self-concepts coupled with the desire to overcompensate for perceived personal shortcomings” and primarily originate from feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and inadequacy.
  • Moral neutralisation – In the second stage, Brady claims that this stage is the most complex and essential of all the stages and is rooted in conflict. The destructive and self-defeating behaviour that criminals experience is not driven by material (economic) motives but is simply individuals “trying to enrich their empty shell identities” and fuelled by irrational thoughts of wanting to prove to significant others that they are really important. These motives may be completely unconscious
  • Commission of the criminal act – In the third stage, the actual carrying out of the criminal acts demands that criminals “neutralize the unsavory aspects of their offenses…and lend meaning to inexplicable behaviors”. The more a criminal engages in the activity the more criminals become “skilled practitioners in the art of self-deception”. Here, the criminal behaviour is paired with “exciting sensations” associated with the risk of engaging in criminal activity (“an anticipated visceral feeling or mental excitement and stimulation, if not an elation, a thrill, a rush, and even a sense of euphoria”). In short, the euphoric sensations experienced reinforce the criminal behaviour.
  • Post-criminal-act exhilaration – In the fourth stage, Brady claims there is typically a “flooding of mood-elevating feelings similar to an adrenaline rush, accompanied with thoughts that synthetically increase their sense of well-being” and what my mentor Iain Brown refers to as “hedonic mood management”. In short, the criminal act can help individuals feel like “bigshots” and criminals may justify doing something bad because it makes them feel so good. Brady also claims that many of these exhilarating feelings “manifest themselves on an unconscious level that is easily experienced, yet not easily comprehended by a theft addict”
  • Post-criminal-act confusion – In the fifth stage, Brady claims that the mood modifying experiences in the third and fourth stages are “replaced with new, dramatic, and unexpected changes in the offenders’ emotional awareness”. Here, criminals become confused, depressed and socially withdrawn, as well as experiencing withdrawal-like reactions (e.g., sweating, headaches, anxiety, nausea, heart arrhythmia, etc.). Brady says that on a psychological level, the fifth stage five is characterized by “confusion, guilt, afterthoughts, misgivings, anxiety, depression, and dramatic mood shifts ranging from feelings of sadness to hopelessness”. It is also during this stage that criminals might start to show signs of remorse.

Brady concludes that for the criminals he has known and treated “used the stolen money to boost their status and enhance their enormous egos so they could attain ‘big shot’ fame”. I find this last observation interesting given a previous blog that I wrote on fame being addictive. I’ve also written other blogs on addictive criminal behaviour (such as joy-riding).

I am of the opinion that specific types of crime can be classed as an addictive behaviour because addictions rely on constant rewards (i.e., reinforcement) and crime can provide many rewarding experiences (both financially and psychologically), at least in the short-term. I’m not for one-minute condoning such behaviour, just simply stating my opinion that I believe it’s theoretically possible to become addicted to activities such as stealing.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Brady, J.C. (2013). Why Rich Women Shoplift – When They Have It All. San Jose, CA: Western Psych Press.

Brady, J.C. (2017) Celebrity theft: Unmasking addictive criminal intent. Counselor, July/August. Located at: http://www.counselormagazine.com/detailpageoverride.aspx?pageid=1729&id=15032386763

Brown, I. (1997). A theoretical model of the behavioral addictions: Applied to offending. In J.E. Hodge, M. McMurran, & C.R. Hollin (Eds.), Addicted to crime? (pp. 15–63). Chichester: Wiley.

Hodge, J.E., McMurran, M., & Hollin, C.R. (1997). Addicted to crime? Chichester: Wiley.

Shulman, T.D. (2011). Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls – Compulsive Stealing, Spending and Hoarding. West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing.

Soriano, M. (2015). 15 celebrities who were caught shoplifting. Rebel Circus, May 13. Located at: http://www.rebelcircus.com/blog/celebrities-caught-shoplifting/

Having your cake (but not eating it): A brief look at ‘cake-sitting’ fetishes

“Imagine, a beautiful girl with long silky hair and a seductive expression. She’s standing over a delicious-looking cake. She runs her finger through the frosting. Then after slowly licking it off, she turns around suddenly and sits on the cake. This might sound like a confusing dream, or possibly a nightmare if you’re a baker, but it’s actually a very specific fetish that the internet has given a voice: cake. Cake sitting is a simple pursuit. In fact, I’ve already described the whole thing. A woman, clothed or not, walks up to a cake, and then sits on it. That’s it. Sitting. As you might expect, cake sitting porn is typically a video, sometimes completely innocuous and perfectly suitable for the stuffy YouTube standards. A few feature unclothed women, and it does seem to always feature women, but the squishing and the mess are the primary focus of cake sitting” (from the article ‘The sexy fetish of cake sitting’, (IX) Daily)

Back in 2015, a homemade videotape was obtained by the New York Post showing Father George Passias, a high-ranking Greek Orthodox priest at Washington Heights (in New York), with a younger woman from Peru (Ethel Bouzalas) who voluntarily was caught on camera sitting on cakes to satisfy the priest’s ‘cake-sitting fetish’. Following the publication of the tape by the New York Post, Passias was suspended for having the affair with Bouzalaz. Father Passias (who was married at the time) was having an affair with Bouzalas, his assistant and a parish-school principal. They had allegedly been having an affair for years and it was Passias who baptized Bouzalaz just before her wedding. According to an article in GQ:

“In one scene, the bearded cleric, wearing only a white T-shirt, watches his long-haired brunette lover plant her thong-clad bottom on a piece of banana bread wrapped in cellophane. Bouzalas, wearing stiletto heels, oddly wiggles on the loaf until it is flattened — apparently a fetish known as “cake crush” or “cake sitting…In another video clip, the pretty Peruvian rubs her feet on the priest’s face as they lie under a mirrored ceiling and she records his ecstasy at the encounter. In another tape, the priest performs oral sex on his lover while she is still clad in sheer pantyhose”.

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According to the online Urban Dictionary, cake-sitting is:

“A fairly new and quite trendy sexual fetish depicting females sitting on their birthday cakes It’s quite the logical combo of ‘wet and messy’ with the food crush fetish. While it shares some similarities with cake fart fetishism, cake sitting does NOT necessarily involve passing of wind or a deliberate discharge of any other bodily fluids into said cake. In recent years it’s become quite the fad in-vogue in Hollywood with Christina Aguilera being the latest and most famous persona to cake-sit, posing for ‘OUT’ magazine”.

The fetish was also featured in a Bustle article ‘8 sexual fetishes you didn’t know existed’ as well as noting the related “cake-farting wherein people literally fart into a cake:

An interesting story about cake-sitting appeared in Refinery 29’s article ‘9 surprisingly delightful photos of a sexual fetish you never knew existed’. The article reported:

“When the founders of Bompass & Parr first opened their London-based jelly confectionary and food-design studio, they were approached with a very specific and unexpected request. One of the first calls [they] got was an inquiry about whether we catered for splosh parties co-founder Sam Bompas. Innocently, [Bompas & Parr] looked online to see what this might involve, and [they found] a steamy scene were folks get turned on by sitting in puddles of baked beans. They didn’t end up catering that event, but Bompas said that he was intrigued by the idea. And nearly a decade after that first inquiry, Bompas & Parr hosted its very first sploshing party – or, more specifically, its first cake-sitting party. After an open call for participants was broadcast through social media, the Bompas & Parr creative team whipped up a variety of elaborate cakes and jellies for the gathering. Photographer Jo Duck was there to interview the participants and capture the moment when they pushed their fully naked bodies into their respective desserts”.

The Refinery 29 article interviewed dominatrix Mistress Shae Flanigan (“BDSM educator and alternative lifestyle coach”) to get her insight into cake-sitting fetishes. She began by talking about ‘sploshing’ and ‘wet and messy fetishism’, both of which I wrote about in a previous blog). She was reported as saying:

“At its most basic, sploshing is sensation play with food. It falls under the more broad type of fetish known as wet and messy play, or W.A.M. Partners may use all types of different foods and drinks (with different textures and temperatures) to engage each other’s senses. Those who enjoy cake-sitting, which is a subcategory of sploshing, specifically use cakes and other types of desserts in their sensation play. So although all sploshers are not cake-sitters, the name of the game remains stimulation through sensation — and what a sensation it is”.

In the same article, Sam Bompas also added: “When a freshly chilled cake first touches your behind, you can’t help but let off a range of squeamish noises. Also, the surprisingly satisfying sound of a bum squashing a meringue is one sound I never thought I would come across, nor will I ever forget.” My own research into the topic confirms there is a niche market for cake-sitting such as bespoke videos at sites like Pornhub (please note that if you click on the link, the material is of a sexually explicit nature).

As far as I am aware (and as I noted in my previous blog on ‘wet and messy’ [WAM] fetishism), there has been no empirical or clinical research published concerning WAM fetishes. Dr. Katharine Gates in her 2000 book Deviant Desires: Incredibly Strange Sex notes that individuals who are into WAM fetishes derive sexual arousal from substances that are deliberately and generously applied onto their (or others’) naked skin, predominantly the face, or onto people’s clothes while they are still wearing them. However, cake-sitting was not specifically mentioned. As with many other fetishes I’ve examined over the years, I can’t ever seeing the topic being an area for scientific research (but always happy to be proved wrong).

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

Further reading

Coughlin, S. (2016). 9 surprisingly delightful photos of a sexual fetish you never knew existed. Refinery 29, November 16. Located at: http://www.refinery29.uk/2016/11/130384/sploshing-body-parts-fetish-butt-pictures#slide

Courtois, C. (2012). The sexy fetish of cake sitting. (IX) Daily, November 12. Located at: http://www.ixdaily.com/grind/12ea3c0352fd6e1956e76f6b5321b753287b84a0

Gates, K. (2000). Deviant Desires: Incredibly Strange Sex. New York: RE/Search Publications.

Moore, J. (2015). Orthodox priest suspended for making kinky “cake sitting” porn tapes with his school principal. GQ, October 5. Located: https://www.gq.com/story/orthodox-priest-suspended-for-making-kinky-cake-sitting-porn-tapes-with-his-school-principal

New York Post (2015). Priest’s ‘cake sitting’ porn fetish. October 6. Located at: https://nypost.com/video/priests-cake-sitting-porn-fetish/

Weiss, S. (2016). 8 sexual fetishes you didn’t know existed. Bustle, December 2. Located at: https://www.bustle.com/articles/197560-8-sexual-fetishes-you-didnt-know-existed

Wikipedia (2013). Splosh! Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Splosh!

Wikipedia (2013). Wet and messy fetishism. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wet_and_messy_fetishism

Gripped by ‘crypt’: A brief look at ‘crypto-trading addiction’

Last week I was approached by Rupert Wolfe-Murray, a PR representative of a well-known addiction treatment clinic (Castle Craig) asking what my views were on Bitcoin and cryptocurrency trading (colloquially known as ‘crypto trading’) and whether the activity could be addictive. More specifically he wrote:

“I write to you about the research we’re doing into addiction to Bitcoin and cryptocurrency trading. We’ve had an enquiry about this at Castle Craig and they would treat it as a gambling addiction. We think it’s a new type of behavioural addiction and we plan to publish a web page (and FAQ) with the intention of alerting people that the online trading of cryptocurrencies may be addictive. It would be very helpful if we could get a quote from you, putting it into perspective. Do you think it’s a growing problem? There’s very little information about this issue online but there is an active forum of ‘crypto addicts’ on Reddit, where I got some friendly feedback…The therapist I often turn to when writing about gambling and the behavioural addictions told me that it sounds like addiction to day trading. Would you agree?”

In short, I couldn’t agree more although my own view is that this is not a ‘new’ addiction but a sub-type of online day-trading addiction (on which I first published an article about back in 2000 for GamCare, the gambling charity I co-founded with Paul Bellringer in 1997) and/or stock market trading addiction (which I’ve written a couple of previous blogs about, here and here, and an article in iGaming Business Affiliate magazine). However, I decided to do a bit of research into the issue.

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A recent January 2018 article in the Jakarta Post by Ario Tamat examined this issue which was a personal account of his own experiences (‘Bitcoin trading: Addictive ‘hobby’ that could break my bank’). He wrote:

“I was always interested in Bitcoin, not that I really understand the technology, but first impressions were appealing: a decentralized currency, mined by solving mathematical equations and potentially accessible to anyone…Fast forward to 2017. Discussions on cryptocurrencies had entered the public consciousness, Bitcoin prices were sky high… A few friends introduced me to a local site on cryptocurrency trading – the most suitable term for the entire affair, actually – bitcoin.co.id. Taking the leap, I took some money out of my measly savings and bought myself some Bitcoin…In three days, I had made 6 percent. I was hooked… I’ve noticed that the whole cryptocurrency trading trend is like placing bets on a never-ending horse race, where new horses are introduced to the race almost daily”.

Another article by Douglas Lampi on the Steemit website noted that “the elements of addiction and gambling are a consistent risk that traders must always be on the guard against” and provided some signs to readers that they may be trading impulsively. These included (i) feeling muscle tension, (ii) feeling background anxiety, (iii) checking the price of Bitcoin and alt coins several times through the day, and (iv) thinking about trading while engaged in other activities. While these ‘symptoms’ and behaviours might be found among those addicted to crypto day trading, on their own they are arguably little more than mildly problematic. These signs applied to gambling or social media use would be unlikely to raise many worries among addiction treatment practitioners.

I also visited the online Bitcoin Forum where one of the topics was ‘Is crypto trading an addiction’ prompted by a Russian who allegedly committed suicide after losing all his money crypto trading. Most of the people on the forum didn’t think it was an addiction and claimed the suicide was reminiscent of the suicides that occurred at the time of the 2009 stock market crash (although a couple of individuals believed that crypto trading was a potentially ‘addicting’ activity). One participant in the discussion noted:

“Yes [crypto trading is] highly addictive, specially formulated if you start to notice that need, urge in side you, to check the price even in the middle of the night. Find yourself skipping your daily routines it is and can be addictive if you don’t know how to control you and your emotions. I have found somewhere that some say that it is like being in casino, betting, playing rules etc. because like every coin was made mostly for pure profit and it’s all speculation rather than to have their own sole purpose which when I think of it can make sense to even why it can be addictive”.

Another individual on the Bitcoin Pub website wrote:

“I think I might actually have an unhealthy addiction to [crypto trading]. I’d say 3/4 times when I unlock my phone I’m checking Blockfolio, when I’m at work, at home, with my girlfriend, or even between sets at the gym. I’m starting to think I need to discipline myself to NOT check it or limit it to maybe 1-2 times a day as its noticeably impacting my passions and in turn my mental state. I’m not a day trader, I hold all my coins in cold storage. So there’s really no reason for me to be checking that frequently, or watching crypto analysis YouTube videos, or reading articles about it several times a day”.

The issue was also discussed in a recent February 2018 article in the Irish Times by Fiona Reddan (‘It’s addictive’: Why investors are still flocking to bitcoin and crypto’). Interviewing Nicholas Charalambous (Managing Director of Alpha Wealth) was quoted as saying: “Previously, I would have described cryptos as ‘shares on steroids’; now I would say they’re shares with jetpacks and boosters and then some”. While Bitcoin shares have fallen, there are plenty of new cryptocurrencies that individuals can dabble buying shares in (ethereum, litecoin, ripple, putincoin and dogecoin) and all can be akin to gambling. Reddan also interviewed Jonathan Sheehan (Managing Director, Compass Private Wealth) who said:

“It has the exact same risk and return characteristics as a naive gambler, who has opened their first online betting account. There is absolutely no valuation metric for these currencies and allocating capital to them is an extreme and unnecessary risk”.

One country that has taken crypto trading addiction seriously is South Korea. Their government’s Office for Government Policy Coordination has introduced new rules to inhibit the speculation on cryptocurrencies. According to a Market Watch article:

“The proposed measures…range from levying capital-gain taxes on trading cryptocurrencies, to restricting financial firms from holding, acquiring and investing in them…The new regulations come amid mounting concern within South Korea about the potential for people to become addicted to bitcoin trading”.

The country’s prime minister Lee Nak-yon went as far as to say that the increasing interest in cryptocurrencies could “lead to some serious distorted or pathological phenomenon”.

I did quickly check what had been written about academically. I came across a couple of papers on Google Scholar that mentioned possible addiction to crypto trading. Justine Brecese (in a 2013 ‘research note’ on the socioeconomic implications of cyber‐currencies for ASA Risk Consultants) asserted that risks with virtual currency include the potential for addiction and resultant over-spending” (but providing little in the way of empirical evidence for the claim). In a paper by Haraši Namztohoto on ‘cryptocoin avarice’, he noted:

“Reason often discretely quits the cognitive battlefield whenever hoarding tendencies of human beings are coupled with addictive behaviour which financial derivate trading surely is, thus leaving humans prone to caprices of mass psychology”.

Given that addictions rely on constant rewards and reinforcement, there is no theoretical reason why crypto trading cannot be addictive. However, there is only anecdotal evidence of addicted individuals and if they are addicted a case could be made that this is a type of gambling addiction.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Brecese, J. (2013). Research note – Money from nothing: The socioeconomic implications of “cyber-currencies”. Seattle, WA: ASA Institute for Risk & Innovation

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Day trading: Another possible gambling addiction? GamCare News, 8, 13-14.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Internet gambling in the workplace. Journal of Workplace Learning, 21, 658-670.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Financial trading as a form of gambling. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, April/May, 40.

Namztohoto, H. (2013). Myth, machinery and cryptocoin avarice. Wizzion.com. Located at: http://wizzion.com/papers/2013/cryptocoin-avarice.pdf

Jeong, E-Y. & Russolillo, S. (2017). South Korea mulls taxing cryptocurrency trade as fears mount about bitcoin addiction, speculation. Market Watch, December 13. Located at: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/south-korea-mulls-taxing-cryptocurrency-trade-as-fears-mount-about-bitcoin-addiction-speculation-2017-12-13

Lampi, D. (2018). Two sure signs YOU are a crypto trading addict. Steemit.com. February. Located: https://steemit.com/cryptocurrency/@ipmal/two-sure-signs-you-are-a-crypto-trading-addict

Reddan, F. (2018). ‘It’s addictive’: Why investors are still flocking to bitcoin and crypto. Irish Times, February 13. Located at: https://www.irishtimes.com/business/financial-services/it-s-addictive-why-investors-are-still-flocking-to-bitcoin-and-crypto-1.3388392

Tamat, A. (2018). Bitcoin trading: Addictive ‘hobby’ that could break my bank. The Jakarta Post, January 8. Located at: http://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2018/01/08/bitcoin-trading-addictive-hobby-that-could-break-my-bank.html

We can work it out: A brief look at ‘entrepreneurship addiction’

Last month, a paper appeared online in the journal Academy of Management (AJM). I’d never heard of the journal before but its remit is publish empirical research that tests, extends, or builds management theory and contributes to management practice”. The paper I came across was entitled ‘Entrepreneurship addiction: Shedding light on the manifestation of the ‘dark side’ in work behavior patterns’ – and is an addiction that I’d never heard of before. The authors of the paper – April Spivack and Alexander McKelvie – define ‘entrepreneurship addiction’ as the excessive or compulsive engagement in entrepreneurial activities that results in a variety of social, emotional, and/or physiological problems and that despite the development of these problems, the entrepreneur is unable to resist the compulsion to engage in entrepreneurial activities”. Going by the title of the paper alone, I assumed ‘entrepreneurship addiction’ was another name for ‘work addiction’ or ‘workaholism’ but the authors state:

“We address what is unique about this type of behavioral addiction compared to related work pattern concepts of workaholism, entrepreneurial passion, and work engagement. We identify new and promising areas to expand understanding of what factors lead to entrepreneurship addiction, what entrepreneurship addiction leads to, how to effectively study entrepreneurship addiction, and other applications where entrepreneurship addiction might be relevant to study. These help to set a research agenda that more fully addresses a potential ‘dark side’ psychological factor among some entrepreneurs”.

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The paper is a theoretical paper and doesn’t include any primary data collection. The authors had published a previous 2014 paper in the Journal of Business Venturing, on the same topic (‘Habitual entrepreneurs: Possible cases of entrepreneurship addiction?’) based on case study interviews with two habitual entrepreneurs. In that paper the authors argued that addiction symptoms can manifest in the entrepreneurial context. Much of the two papers uses the ‘workaholism’ literature to ground the term but the authors do view ‘entrepreneurship addiction’ and ‘work addiction’ as two separate entities (although my own view is that entrepreneurship addiction’ is a sub-type of ‘work addiction’ based on what I’ve read – in fact I would argue that all ‘entrepreneurship addicts’ are work addicts but not all work addicts are ‘entrepreneurship addicts’). Spivak and McKelvie are right to assert that entrepreneurship addiction is a relatively new term and represents an emerging area of inquiry” and that “reliable prevalence rates are currently unknown”.

The aim of the AJM paper is to “situate entrepreneurship addiction as a distinct concept” and to examine entrepreneurship addiction in relation to other similar work patterns (i.e., workaholism, work engagement, and entrepreneurial passion). Like my own six component model of addiction, Spivak and McKelvie also have six components (and are similar to my own) which are presented below verbatim from their AJM paper:

  • Obsessive thoughts – constantly thinking about the behavior and continually searching for novelties within the behavior;
  • Withdrawal/engagement cycles – feeling anticipation and undertaking ritualized behavior, experiencing anxiety or tension when away, and giving into a compulsion to engage in the behavior whenever possible;
  • Self-worth – viewing the behavior as the main source of self-worth;
  • Tolerance – making increasing resource (e.g., time and money) investments;
  • Neglect – disregarding or abandoning previously important friends and activities;
  • Negative outcomes – experiencing negative emotional outcomes (e.g., guilt, lying, and withholding information about the behavior from others), increased or high levels of strain, and negative physiological/health outcomes.

As in my own writings on work addiction (see ‘Further reading’ below), Spivak and McKelvie also note that even when addicted, there may still be some positive outcomes and/or benefits from such behaviour (as can be found in other behavioural addictions such as exercise addiction). As noted in the AJM paper:

“Some of these positive outcomes may include benefits to the business venture including quick responsiveness to competitive pressures or customer demands and high levels of innovation, while benefits to the individual may include high levels of autonomy, financial security, and job satisfaction. It is the complexity of these relationships, or the combined positive and negative outcomes, that may obscure the dysfunctional dark side elements of entrepreneurship addiction”.

Spivak and McKelvie also go to great lengths to differentiate entrepreneurship addiction from workaholism (although I ought to point out, I have recently argued in a paper in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions [‘Ten myths about work addiction’] that ‘workaholism’ and ‘work addiction’ are not the same thing, and outlined in a previous blog). Spivak and McKelvie concede that entrepreneurship addiction is a “sister construct” to ‘workaholism’ because of the core elements they have in common. More specifically, in relation to similarities, they assert:

“Workaholism, like entrepreneurship addiction, emphasizes the compulsion to work, working long hours, obsessive thoughts that extend beyond the domain of work, and results in some of the negative outcomes that have been linked to entrepreneurship addiction, including difficulties in social relationships and diminished physical health (Spivack et al., 2014). Some of the conceptualizations of workaholism draw from the literature on psychological disorders. Similarly, we recognize and propose that there may be significant overlap with various psychological conditions among those that develop entrepreneurship addiction, including, but not limited to, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and ADD/ADHD”.

However, they then do on to describe what they feel are the practical and conceptual distinctions between entrepreneurship addiction and workaholism. More specifically, they argue that:

“(M)ost workaholics are embedded within existing firms and are delegated tasks and resources in line with the organization’s mission, often in a team-based structure. Most workaholics work on these assigned projects with intensity and some will do so with high levels of engagement, as specified in previous literature. But, in reward for their efforts, many employed workaholics may be limited to receiving recognition and performance bonuses. As a team member employed within the structures of an existing organization, the individual’s contribution to organizational outcomes may be obfuscated just as the reciprocal impact of organizational performance (whether negative or positive) on the individual may be buffered (i.e., there is little chance an employee will lose their home if the business doesn’t perform well). In contrast, entrepreneurs, by definition, are proactive creators of their work context. They are responsible for a myriad of decisions and actions both within and outside of the scope of their initial expertise, and are challenged to situate their work within a dynamic business environment. Entrepreneurs are more clearly linked with their work, as they are responsible for acquiring the resources and implementing them in unique business strategies to create a new entity”.

I would argue that many of the things listed here are not unique to entrepreneurs as I could argue that in my own job as a researcher that I also have many of the benefits outlined above (because within flexible parameters I have a job that I can do what I want, when I want, how I want, and with who I want – there are so many possible rewards in the job I do that it isn’t that far removed from entrepreneurial activity – in fact some of my job now actually includes entrepreneurial activity). As Spivak and McKelvie then go on to say:

“As a result of the intense qualities of the entrepreneurial experience, there are also more intense potential outcomes, whether rewards or punishments in financial, social, and psychological domains. For example, potential rewards for entrepreneurs extend far beyond supervisor recognition and pay bonuses, into the realm of public awareness of accomplishments (or failures), media heralding, and life-changing financial gains or losses. Entrepreneurship addiction thereby moves beyond workaholism into similarities with gambling because of the intensity of the experience and personal risk tied to outcomes”.

I’m not sure I would agree with the gambling analogy, but I agree with the broad thrust of what is being argued (but would still say that entrepreneurship addiction is a sub-type of work addiction). I ought to add that there has also been discussion about the risk of overabundance of unsubstantiated addictive disorders. For instance, in a 2015 paper in the Journal of Behavioral Addiction, Joel Billieux and his colleagues described a hypothetical case of someone they deem fitting into the criteria of the concept of “research addiction” (maybe they had someone like myself in mind?), invented for the purpose of the argument. However, it is worthwhile noting that if their hypothetical example of ‘research addiction’ already fits well into the persisting compulsive over-involvement in job/study to the exclusion of other spheres of life, and if it leads to serious harm (and conflict symptoms suggest that it may) then it could be argued that the person is addicted to work. What we could perhaps agree on, is that for the example of ‘research addiction’ we do not have to invent a new addiction, (just as we do not distinguish between vodka addicts, gin addicts or whisky addicts as there is the overarching construct of alcoholism). Maybe the same argument can be made for entrepreneurship addiction in relation to work addiction.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Hetland, J., Kravina, L., Jensen, F., & Pallesen, S. (2014). The prevalence of workaholism: A survey study in a nationally representative sample of norwegian employees. PLoS ONE, 9, e102446. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102446

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2012). Development of a work addiction scale. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 53, 265–272. doi:10.1111/sjop.2012.53.issue-3

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Sinha, R., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2016) The Relationships between workaholism and symptoms of psychiatric disorders: A large-scale cross-sectional study. PLoS ONE, 11: e0152978. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0152978

Billieux, J., Schimmenti, A., Khazaal, Y., Maurage, P., & Heeren, A. (2015). Are we overpathologizing everyday life? A tenable blueprint for behavioral addiction research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 142–144.

Brown, R. I. F. (1993). Some contributions of the study of gambling to the study of other addictions. In W.R. Eadington & J. Cornelius (Eds.), Gambling Behavior and Problem Gambling (pp. 341-372). Reno, Nevada: University of Nevada Press.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Workaholism is still a useful construct. Addiction Research and Theory, 13, 97-100.

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

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

Griffiths, M.D., Demetrovics, Z. & Atroszko, P.A. (2018). Ten myths about work addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions. Epu ahead of print. doi: 10.1556/2006.7.2018.05

Griffiths, M.D. & Karanika-Murray, M. (2012). Contextualising over-engagement in work: Towards a more global understanding of workaholism as an addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1(3), 87-95.

Paksi, B., Rózsa, S., Kun, B., Arnold, P., Demetrovics, Z. (2009). Addictive behaviors in Hungary: The methodology and sample description of the National Survey on Addiction Problems in Hungary (NSAPH). [in Hungarian] Mentálhigiéné és Pszichoszomatika, 10(4), 273-300.

Quinones, C., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Addiction to work: A critical review of the workaholism construct and recommendations for assessment. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 10, 48–59.

Spivack, A., & McKelvie, A. (2017). Entrepreneurship addiction: Shedding light on the manifestation of the ‘dark side’ in work behavior patterns. The Academy of Management Perspectives. https://doi.org/10.5465/amp.2016.0185

Spivack, A. J., McKelvie, A., & Haynie, J. M. (2014). Habitual entrepreneurs: Possible cases of entrepreneurship addiction? Journal of Business Venturing, 29(5), 651-667.

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.

Higher and higher: A brief look at rock climbing as an addiction

In previous blogs I have looked at the alleged addictiveness of extreme sports including BASE jumping and bungee jumping as well as briefly overviewing so called ‘adrenaline junkies’. Over the last year, a couple of papers by Robert Heirene, David Shearer, and Gareth Roderique-Davies have looked at the addictive properties of rock climbing specifically concentrating on withdrawal symptoms and craving.

In the first paper on withdrawal symptoms published last year in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, the authors highlighted some previous research suggesting that there are similarities in the phenomenology of substance-related addictions and extreme sports. For instance, they noted:

Extreme sports athletes commonly describe a “rush” or “high” when participating in their sport (Buckley, 2012; Price & Bundesen, 2005) and liken these experiences to those of drug users (Willig, 2008). For example, a participant in Willig’ s study described: “It’s like for a drug user, they will take cocaine to get high. For me it’s my addiction, I have to go to the mountains to get high.”  Similarly, skydivers have described their sport as “like an addiction,” stating that they “can’t get enough,” and their “relationships suffer” as a result (Celsi, Rose, & Leigh, 1993).”

They also noted prior research suggesting that athletes may experience withdrawal states during periods of abstinence that are also characteristic of those with an addiction. Heirene and his colleagues claimed that this their study was the first to explore withdrawal experiences of individuals engaged in extreme sports. They carried out a study very similar to one of my own where Michael Smeaton and I published a study where gamblers were specifically interviewed about their experiences of withdrawal (in a 2002 issue of Social Psychological Review).

Climate-Change-and-the-Danger-of-Rock-Climbing

Young woman lead climbing in cave, male climber belaying

Heirene’s team used semi-structured interviews to explore withdrawal experiences of what they defined as ‘high ability’ and ‘average-ability’ male rock climbers during periods of abstinence (four climbers in each of the two groups). They then investigated the behavioural and psychological and aspects of withdrawal (including craving, anhedonia [i.e., the inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities], and negative affect) and examined the differences in the frequency and intensity of these states between the two rock climbing groups. Based on an analysis of the interview transcripts, they found support for the existence of anhedonia, craving, and negative affect among rock climbers. They also reported that the effects were more pronounced and intense among the high ability rock climbers (apart from anhedonic symptoms). The authors also noted:

“All participants reported negative affective experiences during abstinence, including states of “restlessness” and being “miserable,” “agitated,” or “frustrated.” Similar dysphoric states have been identified in drug users, exercise addicts, and extreme sports athletes during abstinence…In the present study, both groups reported using climbing to alleviate negative affective states, particularly stress. This finding supports previous research that has reported skydivers use their sport in a self-medicating manner (Price & Bundesen, 2005). Similarly, psychopharmacology literature has found individuals engage in substance abuse as a means of coping with stress…suggesting similar participation motives in both drug use and extreme sports”.

The study concluded that based on self-report, rock climbers experienced genuine withdrawal symptoms during abstinence from climbing and that these were comparable to individuals with substance and other behavioral addictions. In a second investigation just published in Frontiers in Psychology, the same team (this time led by Gareth Roderique-Davies) reported the development of the Rock Climbing Craving Questionnaire (RCCQ). The development of this new psychometric instrument directly followed on from the previous study which had found evidence of craving amongst the rock climbers that had been interviewed.

In the second paper, the research team attempted to “quantitatively measure the craving experienced by participants of any extreme sports”. They claimed that the RCCQ could allow “a greater understanding of the craving experienced by extreme sports athletes and a comparison of these across sports (e.g., surfing) and activities (e.g., drug-use)”. To develop the RCCQ, they utilized previously validated craving measures as a template for the new instrument to assess craving in the sports of rock-climbing and mountaineering.

The second paper comprised two studies. The first study investigated the factor structure of the craving measure among 407 climbers who completed the RCCQ. (One of the limitations of the study was that the participant sample was heterogeneous and included climbers and mountaineers from multiple primary climbing disciplines, including indoor climbing, outdoor traditional climbing, alpine climbing, and ice climbing). Despite the heterogeneity of the sample, the results demonstrated that a three-factor model explained just over half the total variance in item scores. The three factors (‘positive reinforcement’, ‘negative reinforcement’ and ‘urge to climb’) each comprised five items. The second study validated the 15-item RCCQ on 254 climbers using confirmatory factor analysis across two conditions (a ‘climbing-related cue’ condition or a ‘cue-neutral’ condition). The authors concluded that:

“[The first study supported] the multi-dimensional nature of rock climbing craving and shows parallels with substance-related craving in reflecting intention and positive (desire) and negative (withdrawal) reinforcement. [The second study confirmed] this factor structure and gives initial validation to the measure with evidence that these factors are sensitive to cue exposure…if as shown here, craving for climbing (and potentially other extreme sports) is similar to that experienced by drug-users and addicts, there is the potential that climbing and other extreme sports could be used as a replacement therapy for drug users”.

This latter suggestion has been made in the literature dating back to the 1970s and the work of Dr. Bill Glasser on ‘positive addictions’ as well as by psychologists such as Iain Brown who suggested in the early 1990s that gambling addicts should replace their addictions with sensation-seeking activities such as sky-diving and parachuting. Critics will claim that these papers are another example of ‘over-pathologizing’ everyday behaviours, but as I have always argued, if any behaviour fulfils all the core criteria for addiction, they should be operationalised as such.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Brymer, E., & Schweitzer, R. (2013). Extreme sports are good for your health: a phenomenological understanding of fear and anxiety in extreme sport. Journal of health psychology, 18(4), 477-487.

Buckley, R. (2012). Rush as a key motivation in skilled adventure tourism: Resolving the risk recreation paradox. Tourism Management, 33, 961–970.

Castanier, C., Le Scanff, C., & Woodman, T. (2010). Who takes risks in high-risk sports? A typological personality approach. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 81, 478–484.

Celsi, R. L., Rose, R. L., & Leigh, T. W. (1993). An exploration of high risk leisure consumption through skydiving. Journal of Consumer Research, 20(1), 1–23.

Glasser, W. (1976). Positive Addictions. New York: Harper & Row.

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

Griffiths, M.D. & Smeaton, M. (2002). Withdrawal in pathological gamblers: A small qualitative study. Social Psychology Review, 4, 4-13.

Heirene, R. M., Shearer, D., Roderique-Davies, G., & Mellalieu, S. D. (2016). Addiction in extreme sports: An exploration of withdrawal states in rock climbers. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5(2), 332-341.

Larkin, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Dangerous sports and recreational drug-use: Rationalising and contextualising risk. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 14, 215-232.

Monasterio, E., & Mei-Dan, O. (2008). Risk and severity of injury in a population of BASE jumpers. New Zealand Medical Journal, 121, 70–75.

Monasterio, E., Mulder, R., Frampton, C., & Mei-Dan, O. (2012). Personality characteristics of BASE jumpers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 24, 391-400.

Price, I. R., & Bundesen, C. (2005). Emotional changes in skydivers in relation to experience. Personality and Individual Differences, 38, 1203–1211.

Roderique-Davies, G. R. D., Heirene, R. M., Mellalieu, S., & Shearer, D. A. (2018). Development and initial validation of a rock climbing craving questionnaire (RCCQ). Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 204. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00204

Willig, C. (2008). A phenomenological investigation of the experience of taking part in extreme sports. Journal of Health Psychology, 13(5), 690-702.

To see or not to see: A brief look at hallucinations in virtual reality applications

As a teenager I was fascinated with LSD purely as a consequence of my love of The Beatles and its alleged association with songs such as ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds‘ (I say ‘alleged’ because all Beatle fanatics know that this song got its’ title from a drawing by John Lennon’s son Julian and that lyrically the song was inspired by the writings of Lewis Carroll, the creator of Alice in Wonderland [AIW], a book which gave its’ name to AIW Syndrome that I examined in a couple of previous blogs).

When I first started teaching my ‘Addictive Behaviours’ module back in 1990, almost all my lectures concentrated on drug addictions (as opposed to behavioural addictions which now take centre stage in my teaching), and it was my session on hallucinogenic drugs (also known as psychedelic drugs) that was always the most fun to teach and the topic that students appeared to be most engaged in. Like many of my students, I have always been interested in altered states of consciousness both in my own research into addiction and the topic more generally.

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The reason why I mention all these things as that I did a media interview on the hallucinogenic effects of virtual reality products. The interview was based on comments by Microsoft researcher Mar Gonzalez Franco, who said that virtual reality will soon replace the need for hallucinogenic drugs. More specifically, she was quoted as saying:

“By 2027 we will have ubiquitous virtual reality systems that will provide such rich multi-sensorial experiences that will be capable of producing hallucinations which blend or alter perceived reality. Using this technology, humans will retrain, recalibrate and improve their perceptual systems…In contrast to current virtual reality systems that only stimulate visual and auditory senses, in the future the experience will expand to other sensory modalities including tactile with haptic devices“.

Claims that VR products have the potential to induce hallucinogenic experiences have already started appearing in the media. A recent story in the Daily Mail reported that there was already a VR app (SelfSound) that claimed it can reproduce the effects of hallucinogenic drugs and plays on the neurological phenomena known as synaesthesia and that a “program is used to promote mediation through creating abstract reality [and] plays face-melting music with synesthetic DMT-style visualizations uniquely generated in response to [a person’s] voice”. (DMT is an abbreviation for dimethyltryptamine, a powerful hallucinogenic drug).

Over the last seven years, I have published a series of studies with Dr. Angelica Ortiz de Gotari (some of them listed in the ‘Further reading’ section below) showing that hallucinations are common among video gamers in our working examining Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP). Therefore, it’s no surprise that VR games can do the same thing. We have reported that visual and auditory hallucinations are commonly experiences by regular videogame players.

For instance, one of our studies published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction found that some video gamers experience altered visual perceptions after playing (e.g., distorted versions of real world surroundings). Others saw video game images and misinterpreted real life objects after they had stopped playing. Gamers reported seeing video game menus popping up in front their eyes when they were in a conversation, or saw coloured images and ‘heads up’ displays when driving on the motorway. Our study analysed 656 experiences from 483 gamers collected in 54 online video game forums. Visual illusions can easily trick the brain, and staring at visual stimuli can cause ‘after-images’ or ‘ghost images’ among videogame players. We found that GTP were triggered by associations between video game experiences, and objects and activities in real life contexts. Our findings also raised questions about the effects of the exposure to specific visual effects used in video games.

We also reported that in some playing experiences, video game images appeared without awareness and control of the gamers, and in some cases, the images were uncomfortable, especially when gamers could not sleep or concentrate on something else. These experiences also resulted in irrational thoughts such as gamers questioning their own mental health, getting embarrassed or performing impulsive behaviours in social contexts. However, other gamers clearly thought that these experiences were fun and some even tried to induce them.

Visual experiences identified in GTP show us the interplay of physiological, perceptual and cognitive mechanisms and the potential of learning with video games even without awareness. It also invites us to reflect about the effects of prolonged exposure to synthetic stimuli and the challenges that the human mind affront due to the technological advances that are still to come. However, because we collected our data for most of our published studies from online video game forums, the psychological profile of the gamers in our studies are unknown. However, different gamers reported similar experiences in the same games. This highlights the relevance of the video games’ structural characteristics but gamers’ habits also appear to be crucial. Some gamers may be more susceptible than others to experience GTP. The effects of these experiences appear to be short-lived, but some gamers experience them recurrently. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that more research is needed to understand the cognitive and psychological implications of GTP. Most of these GTP experiences are viewed positively but a small minority of players find them detrimental.

Whether such hallucinations – either in typical videogames or VR videogames – can be induced on demand is debatable. Very few players in our own research said they were able to induce hallucinations. At present, we simply don’t know what the long-term effects of VR gaming will be and that goes for VR-induced gaming hallucinations too. It may be the case that VR induced hallucinogenic states will be ‘safer’ than ones induced by psychedelic drugs as there is no ingestion of a psychoactive substance, but that’s just speculation on my part.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cawley, C. (2016). Virtual Reality could make you hallucinate; Don’t freak out. Tech Co, December 15. Located at: http://tech.co/virtual-reality-hallucinate-dont-freak-2016-12

Hamill, J. (2016). Windows of perception: Microsoft says virtual reality will soon have same mind-bending effects as LSD. The Sun, December 7. Located at: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2347705/microsoft-says-virtual-reality-will-soon-have-same-mind-bending-effects-as-lsd/

Liberatore, S. (2016). That’s trippy! Watch the VR app that claims to be able to reproduce the effects of a hallucinogenic drug. Daily Mail, May 4, Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3572184/That-s-trippy-Watch-VR-app-claims-able-reproduce-effects-hallucinogenic-drug.html

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An introduction to Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing. In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness (pp.223-250). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Altered visual perception in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 30, 95-105.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 4(1), 59-75.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Automatic mental processes, automatic actions and behaviours in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study using online forum data. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 432-452.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Game Transfer Phenomena and its associated factors: An exploratory empirical online survey study. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, 195-202.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. In: Gamification: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp.1329-1345). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Prevalence and characteristics of Game Transfer Phenomena: A descriptive survey study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 32, 470-480.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B., Pontes, H.M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The Game Transfer Phenomena Scale: An instrument for investigating the non-volitional effects of video game playing. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 18, 588-594.

Rothman, P. (2014). Virtual Reality and Drugs – Yes, you should get high before using VR. H Plus Magazine, July 31. Located at: http://hplusmagazine.com/2014/07/31/virtual-reality-and-drugs-yes-you-should-get-high-before-using-vr/