Category Archives: Case Studies

Imitate modern: Why do people commit copycat killings?

The nine people murdered in Munich a couple of days ago by 18-year-old German-Iranian gunman David Ali Sonboly made headlines around the world. It has been claimed that Sonboly (who subsequently killed himself) was obsessed with mass shootings” and that the police found lots of material in his room about mass killings including the massacre by Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik. Whether the murders by Sonboly are ‘copycat’ killings remains to be determined but there are dozens of other cases where copycat killings have been proven.

Back in 2014, the gruesome killing of two prostitutes in Hong King by British banking trader Rurik Jutting drew comparisons with the fictional character Patrick Bateman, the Wall Street investment banker and serial killer in the film American Psycho (based on the Bret Easton Ellis book of the same name).

As you might expect, a copycat murder is defined as a murder that has been modelled, motivated and/or inspired either by a real life murderer that has been reported by the print or broadcast media, or is based on a murderer portrayed in books, television or film. The term ‘copycat killer’ has been in use for almost 100 years and was first used in relation to murders that mimicked those of Jack the Ripper. Early research by criminologists began to speculate that the sensationalist publicity in the print media about the Ripper murders was the inspiration for Ripper-like copycat killings.

In addition to murder, copycat crimes have been shown to occur in many other equally destructive acts including suicides, murder-suicides, familicides, and rampage killings. Arguably the most well known writing on the topic was Loren Coleman’s 2004 book The Copycat Effect. Coleman believes that because shocking crimes receive widespread media publicity it makes the perpetrators infamous. He argues that the notoriety and ‘fame’ that serial killers receive is one of the main reasons why copycats commit similar crimes. Put more simply, copycats may believe that by committing heinous crimes, they may end up being the subject of a book or film themselves. The Copycat Effect is so well known that it was even the subject of a Hollywood film – the 1995 psychological thriller Copycat starring Sigourney Weaver as a criminal psychologist involved in a case where each murder in the film is made by a serial killer meticulously copying previous high profile murderers such as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer (the ‘Milwaukie Cannibal’), David Berkowitz (the ‘Son of Sam’), and the Hillside Strangler (actually two men, Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono).

But is the media to blame for copycat murders? Well, partly – but not totally. Research has shown that although most people convicted of copycat murders admit to being motivated by something they had seen on the news or in a film, they already had a criminal record (often violent crime) and/or were mentally ill before they began killing. What this suggests is that media coverage and fictionalized accounts of serial killers tend to affect those that already have a criminal predisposition and/or mental health issues rather than have a more widespread effect on people more generally. In such extreme and minority cases, it does appear that watching or reading about high profile murderers (e.g., Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein) or infamous fictionalised killers (e.g., Dexter Morgan in Dexter or Patrick Batemen in American Psycho) does at the very least give emotionally undeveloped people ideas on how they could kill someone.

Copycat murderers do appear to realise that the more shocking and heinous the killing, the more newsworthy it will be. This also appears to have had an impact on films too. It appears some cinema-going audience want to see more depraved, deranged and twisted ways in which people can be killed (as evidenced by the so-called ‘torture porn’ franchises of Saw and Hostel). The more blood and pain, the better. Methods to kill in such films may be the inspiration of copycat killers to come.

Although there is a relationship between copycat killers and what they have seen or read about in the media, there are many other risk factors that have been associated with (and have an interplay with) copycat killings. Men are more likely to be copycat killers than females, and many copycat killers are young adults (below the age of 30 years). Copycat killers are more likely to suffer from personality (and other mental health) disorders, come from socially dysfunctional and alienating family backgrounds, be emotionally vulnerable, be trusting of the media, and – as noted above – a previous criminal history (as well as self-identifying with criminals they have watched or seen in fact and/or fiction).

Psychologists have also noted there appears to be a natural human inhibition against killing (even in acts of lawful killing such as fighting in a war). However, if individuals adopt some kind of a persona, such inhibitions can be reduced (often referred to by psychologists as ‘depersonalization’). If copycat killers temporarily take on the persona of the person they are copying in addition to the act of killing, this may also play a contributory role in some of their actions. American evolutionary psychologist Dr.Nigel Barber has also noted in relation to rampage killing that: “Most copycats have their private agenda in a rampage killing but seek to tie it in to other events that received a lot of publicity. In this way, they bask in the reflected publicity, so to speak. In many cases, the rampage killer wants to commit suicide but opts to take others with him”.

Although there are many reasons as to how and why an individual becomes a copycat killer, the evidence does seem to suggest that the media perhaps need to take a more cautionary approach when reporting the details of murders, and also suggests that the police and other criminal agencies should not go into every detail about how the murders were committed. Such actions alone will not stop copycat killings, but it may help reduce the overall number occurring in the first place.

(Material in this blog first appeared in an article I wrote for The Independent in November 2014 – see ‘Further reading’ below)

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

Further reading

Barber, N. (2012). Copycat killings: Making sense of the senseless. Psychology Today, July 27. Located at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201207/copycat-killings

Boyle, K. (2001). What’s natural about killing? Gender, copycat violence and Natural Born Killers. Journal of Gender Studies, 10(3), 311-321.

Coleman, L. (2004). The copycat effect: How the media and popular culture trigger the mayhem in tomorrow’s headlines. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Fox, J.A., & Levin, J. (2014). Extreme killing: Understanding serial and mass murder. London: Sage.

Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Hong Kong murder: Why do people commit copycat killings? The Independent, November 4. Located at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/hong-kong-murder-why-do-people-commit-copycat-killings-9838892.html

Kunich, J.C. (2000). Natural born copycat killers and the law of shock torts. Washington University Law Quarterly, 78(4), 1157-1270.

Surette, R. (2002). Self-reported copycat crime among a population of serious and violent juvenile offenders. Crime and Delinquency, 48(1), 46-69.

Wikipedia (2016). Copycat crime. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copycat_crime

Test augmentation: 10 reasons why ‘Pokémon Go’ is so appealing

“Pokémon Go is a free-to-play location-based augmented reality mobile game developed…Making use of GPS and the camera of compatible devices, the game allows players to capture, battle, and train virtual creatures, called Pokémon [pocket monsters] who appear on device screens as though in the real world. The game is free-to-play, although it supports in-app purchases of additional gameplay items” (Wikipedia, 2016)

Unless you’re news-shy, off-grid, and/or a hermit, you can’t fail to have noticed all the media hype surrounding Pokémon Go. My youngest son and seemingly all of is friends have been out and about enjoying playing the latest gaming phenomenon. A lot of the press stories that I have read concentrate on the allegedly ‘addictive’ properties of the game (see ‘Further reading’ below). But what makes Pokémon Go such an appealing game? Here are my top ten reasons:

(1) It’s a popular franchise with a novel twist

Pokémon is a huge franchise with lots of associated spin-offs (animates films, carton television show, card games, figures to collect, etc.). And unlike some franchises, it’s a game that appears to be popular across age and gender but various aspects of the game (such as the use of augmented reality) give the game a novel twist on most other games (by utilizing real-world locations in which players explore their neighbourhood locality or wherever they happen to be).

(2) It’s fun, free to play, easy to play, and easy to access

Unlike many popular games, you don’t need a dedicated console to play the game. There is little in the way of barriers to entry. Anyone who has a smartphone can download Pokémon Go and it can be played anywhere at any time because it is played on a mobile device in which players try to catch Pokémon at specific locations (‘PokéStops’). This means that the number of potential users is huge, even in comparison to console games. In addition, there are no complicated buttons to press or controls to use. Most importantly it’s fun and free to play (but players can buy in-game items, an area that I’ve done a bit of research on which I outlined in a previous blog).

(3) It’s nostalgic and a ‘blast from the past’

Pokémon Go features many of the early ‘classic’ Pokémon characters (the ones that you could name in a pub quiz) hailing back to the 1990s. As well as attracting new and younger players, adults who loved Pokémon as a child or teenager can now re-live some of their childhood and adolescence. In short, some players can experience something new yet familiar. A research review carried out by Dr. Constantine Sedikides and Dr. Tim Wildschut demonstrated that “nostalgia has remarkable implications for one’s future. It strengthens approach orientation, raises optimism, evokes inspiration, boosts creativity, and kindles prosociality. Far from reflecting escapism from the present, nostalgia potentiates an attainable future”. A number of online articles coomenting on the popularity of Pokémon have included quotes about the game’s nostalgic element from Dr. Jamie Madigan (author of the 2015 book Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on People Who Play Them). He asserted that if nostalgia is in play, and it evokes this positive emotion…our brain can substitute the question, ‘Does this make me happy’ for ‘Is this a good game?’”

(4) It’s a social game (if you want it to be)

Back in the early and mid-2000s I published a number of studies showing that the most important reason for playing online multiplayer games was for social reasons and to connect and interact with other players. The great think about Pokémon Go is that meeting other players face-to-face is almost inevitable as the game is played outside and on the move, and it’s easy to spot other like-minded players. People can make new friendships or consolidate existing ones. Players talk to each other and can share their experiences. Some may even have shared memories that plugs into feelings of nostalgia. However, Pokémon Go players (if they so wish) can play on their own too. The game is flexible enough to adapt to the player.

(5) It features augmented reality

One of the defining features of Pokémon Go is that augmented reality is a fundamental (and arguably the main) part of the game. Augmented reality (AR) is defined as “a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS [global positioning system] data”. Pokémon Go has successfully managed to embed AR into the game which some players claim makes characters feel “more alive”. An article on the phenomenon in Time magazine said that Pokémon Go provides “the illusion that wild Pokémon are out there in the real world, waiting to be caught”. There are also some claims (such as a paper by Dr. Keith Bujak and his colleagues in a paper published in a 2013 issue of the journal Computers and Education) that augmented reality can be potentially addictive. The authors claim that children are most at risk from AR addiction and assert that:

“Augmented reality does not separate the user from his reality but instead uses it and realistically transforms it…This effect can cause a high degree of surprise and curiosity in users”.

(6) It’s motivating

Any one who plays videogames or researches in the area knows that successful games have to be motivating to play. Rewards within Pokémon Go help players to foster achievement, and achieving goals within the game drives motivation. As an article on the Keep It Suitable website noted: “The self-confidence that arises from the achievement of a goal – catching a Pikachu – motivates people to play more and more…and ‘Pokémon Go’ players are indeed very motivated…The ease with which the reward comes every time your phone buzzes, alerting you that a Pokémon is nearby, is very basic psychological conditioning”.

(7) It involves collecting

In a number of my previous blogs I have written about the psychology of collecting and this also appears to be one of the attractions concerning all things Pokémon (in fact the Pokémon mantra has always been “Gotta catch ‘em all”). In my articles I have always referenced the work of Professor Russell Belk who has written a lot of books and papers on the topic. He was interviewed by Forbes magazine on the topic of Pokémon Go. The Forbes article noted:

“In a 1991 article published in the ‘Journal of Social Behavior and Personality’, Belk described two main types of collecting: aesthetic and taxonomic. Aesthetic collecting occurs when objects aren’t in limited supply and so adding things to your collection depends on personal preferences. This includes artwork, but not pocket monsters. ‘I expect no matter how beautiful or ugly the Pokémon is, there’s relatively little aesthetic judgment,” says Belk…’You want them all — or as many as possible’. Collecting Pokémon is a lot like building a coin or stamp collection. It involves taxonomy – the process of naming and classifying things into groups. Taxonomic collecting can end temporarily but continue later: the original Game Boy games (Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue) featured 151 monster ‘species,’ but sequels have pushed that number over 700. If ‘Pokémon Go’ remains popular and profitable in the long term, the app’s developer will no doubt add new species. Belk adds that the desire to collect isn’t driven by a need to complete a collection. ‘You’re not striving for that closure as much as striving for bigger and better collections…That implies some social comparisons – that your collection is in some sense better than theirs.”

In the same article, reference was also made to a just published literature review (‘Extended self and the digital world’) by Professor Belk in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology. In the paper Belk claims collecting has now gone beyond physical items and can now include the collecting of digital artefacts. As Belk notes:

“Collecting digital objects can have advantages over physical possessions. While coins and stamps are kept in cabinets at home, you can store an entire collection of ‘Pokémon’ on your phone to show friends…One reason why ‘Pokémon Go’ is so popular is that it puts digital monsters in the real world. Like finding a rare book in an antique shop, this turns the discovery of Pokémon — the challenge or thrill of the chase — into a story. With augmented reality, they’ve made the ‘thrill of the hunt’ in a version where you can tweet about it, you can post about it on your website, you can carry around images of the Pokémon that you’ve collected…That’s a conversation piece, and something you can carry with you or brag about online.”

(8) It gets people active without them really knowing it

A number of articles on Pokémon Go have noted that playing the game has meant players having to go outdoors and walk miles to catch the Pokémon. In short, if you want to do well in the game, you have to get out the house and do some exercise. As one article summed up on this aspect: ‘The running meme is that Pokémon Go managed to do in 24 hours what Michelle Obama could not manage over the course of 8 years: get people outside and active…It turns out gamification of healthy activities can be done and that’s potentially a huge win for the gaming subset of our society that doesn’t exactly have the healthiest track record”. Personally, I’m not convinced that Pokémon Go is as good as more traditional ‘exergaming’ (such as playing Wii Sports) but I can’t deny that it gets people out of a sedentary routine.

(9) It’s a never-ending game

Pokémon Go is a non-linear game in which every user’s playing experience is different given that it uses the person’s individual geo-location. Like many massively multiplayer online games, there is no end to the game and some players continue playing because of FOMO (fear of missing out). Ultimately there is theoretically no limit to how many Pokémon a player can catch or how the game might evolve over time.

(10) The rewards are unpredictable

Over the years I have written countless papers talking about the role of random ratio reinforcement schedules (operant condition processes) that underlie repetitive behaviour (that in extreme cases can result in gambling and gaming addictions). In simple terms, playing a videogame or a slot machine results in intermittent and unpredictable rewards. Knowing when a reward is coming gets boring in the long run but games where the player doesn’t know when the next reward is coming (like when in the Pokémon Go game, the player will next see a Pokémon to catch). Anticipated rewards (similarly to actual rewards) also facilitate dopamine (one of the most important ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters in the human body) release in the body. In fact, a paper by Dr. Patrick Anselm and Dr. Mike Robinson published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience argued that dopamine release “seems to reflect the unpredictability of reward delivery rather than reward per se” and suggests that the motivation to gamble or play videogames “is strongly (though not entirely) determined by the inability to predict reward occurrence”. In short, playing Pokémon Go can keep you playing longer than you might have originally intended.

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

Further reading

Anselme, P. & Robinson, M.J.F. (2013) What motivates gambling behavior? Insight into dopamine’s role. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 182. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh. 2013.00182

Belk, R. W. (1991). The ineluctable mysteries of possessions. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 17-55.

Belk, R. (2016). Extended self and the digital world. Current Opinion in Psychology, 10, 50-54.

Bujak, K.R., Radu, I., Catrambone, R., Macintyre, B., Zheng, R., & Golubski, G. (2013). A psychological perspective on augmented reality in the mathematics classroom. Computers & Education, 68, 536-544.

Chamary, J.V. (2016). Science explains why you’re addicted to Pokémon GO. Forbes, July, 12. Located at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jvchamary/2016/07/12/science-collecting-pokemon/#276f49ac6d2e

Cleghorn, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Why do gamers buy ‘virtual assets’? An insight in to the psychology behind purchase behaviour. Digital Education Review, 27, 98-117.

Cole, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Social interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing gamers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 575-583.

Griffiths, M.D., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2003). Breaking the stereotype: The case of online gaming. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 81-91.

Griffiths, M.D., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2004). Demographic factors and playing variables in online computer gaming. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 479-487.

Griffiths, M.D., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2004). Online computer gaming: A comparison of adolescent and adult gamers. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 87-96.

Duhi, A. (2016). Caught ’em all?: Why Pokémon Go is so addicting. FSU News, July 19. Located at: http://www.fsunews.com/story/news/2016/07/19/caught-em-all-why-pokemon-go-so-addicting/87309612/

Eadiccio, L. (2016). Psychology experts explain why ‘Pokemon Go’ is so addictive. Time, July 12. Located at: http://time.com/4402123/pokemon-go-nostalgia/

Goodwin, R. (2016). Why the hell is everyone so addicted to Pokemon Go? Know Your Mobile, July 14. Located at: http://www.knowyourmobile.com/games/pokemon-go/23690/why-hell-everyone-so-addicted-pokemon-go

Keep It Suitable (2016). 10 Reasons from real users: Why is Pokemon Go so addictive? July 16. Located at: http://www.keepitusable.com/blog/?p=3579

Kubas-Meyer, A. (2016). Pokémon GO Is the most addictive gaming app ever. Daily Beast, July 11. Located at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/11/pokemon-go-is-the-most-addictive-gaming-app-ever.html

Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2016). Past forward: Nostalgia as a motivational force. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 20(5), 319-321.

Smith, C. (2016). Science explains why you’re so addicted to Pokemon Go. BGR.com, July 13. Located at: http://bgr.com/2016/07/13/pokemon-go-game-addiction/

Wikipedia (2016). Pokémon Go. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pokémon_Go

Williams, C. (2016). Why everyone is addicted to Pokemon Go. Looper, July 14. Located at: http://www.looper.com/18330/everyone-addicted-pokemon-go/

More term warfare: Is the concept of ‘internet addiction’ a misnomer?

A recent study by Professor Phil Reed and his colleagues published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry provided some experimental evidence that internet addicts may be conditioned by what they view on the screen. Given that I was the first person in the world to publish an academic paper on internet addiction back in November 1996 it’s good to see that the number of studies into internet addiction has grown substantially over the last 20 years and that there are now hundreds of studies that have investigated the disorder worldwide in many different ways.

This newly published study is one of the few in the field that has investigated internet addiction from an experimental perspective (as opposed the majority that use self-report survey methods and the increasing number of neuroimaging studies examining what happens inside the brains of those who spend excessive amounts of time online).

Professor Reed’s study involved 100 adult volunteers who were deprived of internet access for four hours. The research team then asked the participants to name a colour (the first one that they could think of) and then gave them 15 minutes to access any websites that they wanted to on the internet. The research team monitored all the sites that the participants visited and after the 15-minute period they were again asked to think of the first colour that came to mind. The participants were also asked to complete various psychometric questionnaires including the Internet Addiction Test (IAT). The IAT is a 20-item test where each item is scored from 0 [not applicable] or 1 [rarely] up to 5 [always]. An example item is How often do you check your e-mail before something else that you need to do?” Those scoring 80 or above (out of 100) are typically defined as having a probable addiction to the internet by those who have used the IAT in previous studies.

Those classed as “high problem [internet] users” on the basis of IAT scores (and who were deprived internet access) were more likely to choose a colour that was prominent on the websites they visited during the 15-minute period after internet deprivation. This wasn’t found in those not classed as internet addicts. Professor Reed said:

“The internet addicts chose a colour associated with the websites they had just visited [and] suggests that aspects of the websites viewed after a period without the net became positively valued. Similar findings have been seen with people who misuse substances, with previous studies showing that a cue associated with any drug that relieves withdrawal becomes positively valued itself. This is the first time though that such an effect has been seen for a behavioural addiction like problematic internet usage”.

While this is an interesting finding there are some major shortcomings both from a methodological standpoint and from a more conceptual angle. Firstly, the number of high problem internet users that were deprived internet access for four hours comprised just 12 individuals so the sample size was incredibly low. Secondly, the individuals classed as high problem internet users had IAT scores ranging from 40 to 72. In short, it is highly unlikely that any of the participants were actually addicted to the internet. Thirdly, although the IAT is arguably the most used screen in the field, it has questionable reliability and validity and is now very out-dated (having been devised in 1998) and does not use the criteria suggested for Internet Disorder in the latest (fifth) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Using more recently developed instruments such as our own Internet Disorder Scale would have perhaps overcome some of these problems.

There are also much wider problems with the use of the term ‘internet addiction’ as most studies in the field have really investigated addictions on the internet rather than to the internet. For instance, individuals addicted to online gaming, online gambling or online shopping are not internet addicts. They are gambling addicts, gaming addicts or shopping addicts that are using the medium of the internet to engage in their addictive behaviour. There are of course some activities – such as social networking – that could be argued to be a genuine type of internet addiction as such activities only take place online. However, the addiction is to an application rather than the internet itself and this should be termed social networking addiction rather than internet addiction. In short, the overwhelming majority of so-called internet addicts are no more addicted to the internet than alcoholics are addicted to the bottle.

A shorter version of this article was first published in The Conversation

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. & Kuss, D.J. (2015). Online addictions: The case of gambling, video gaming, and social networking. In Sundar, S.S. (Ed.), Handbook of the Psychology of Communication Technology (pp.384-403). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

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

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J., Billieux J. & Pontes, H.M. (2016). The evolution of internet addiction: A global perspective. Addictive Behaviors, 53, 193–195.

Griffiths, M.D. & Pontes, H.M. (2014). Internet addiction disorder and internet gaming disorder are not the same. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5: e124. doi:10.4172/2155-6105.1000e124.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Internet Addiction in Psychotherapy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

Osborne, L. A., Romano, M., Re, F., Roaro, A., Truzoli, R., & Reed, P. (2016). Evidence for an internet addiction disorder: internet exposure reinforces color preference in withdrawn problem users. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 77(2), 269-274.

Pontes, H.M., Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The clinical psychology of Internet addiction: A review of its conceptualization, prevalence, neuronal processes, and implications for treatment. Neuroscience and Neuroeconomics, 4, 11-23.

Pontes, H.M., Szabo, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The impact of Internet-based specific activities on the perceptions of Internet Addiction, Quality of Life, and excessive usage: A cross-sectional study. Addictive Behaviors Reports, 1, 19-25.

A poor sense of rumour: A brief look at ‘addiction to gossip’

On Tuesday morning this week I was on my way into work and I picked up a copy of the Metro newspaper and on page five the headline was [Tory MP Michael] “Gove is addicted to gossip”. Obviously the article piqued my interest because of the word “addicted” in the title of the article and I decided there and then that I would write a blog on the topic. I ought to add that even before researching the topic, I did not expect to find any empirical evidence of anyone being genuinely addicted to gossip.

According to the Wikipedia entry, “gossip is idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others…The term is sometimes used to specifically refer to the spreading of ‘dirt’ and misinformation as (for example) through excited discussion of scandals”. I suppose all of us have engaged in gossiping, and now in the age of social media there’s probably a lot of you reading this who do it on a daily basis. Because of the social media, sharing gossip has become faster and more widespread. Rumours about celebrities can be spread online extremely fast. There is a fair amount of research into the psychology of gossip both in everyday life and of its effect in the workplace. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, Dr. Robin Dunbar has noted in his book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language that it is a form of social grooming that helps social bonding among large groups of people and that language evolved for gossip to occur.

Unsurprisingly I couldn’t find any academic research that’s been carried out into gossip as an addiction although I did locate a number of online articles on the topic written by both journalists and psychologists. And there’s no shortage of diagnostic quizzes and tips on how to stop gossiping (for instance, you can visit the ‘Are you addicted to gossip?’ webpage and answer the questions, read advice on ‘How to End a Celebrity Gossip Addiction or look at the ‘6 Steps to Stop Gossiping + Why It Matters webpage).

Although I didn’t locate any empirical research on addiction to gossip, the concept did make a fleeting appearance in a few academic book chapters I read. For instance, in a 2008 book chapter entitled ‘Consuming gossip’, Dr. Vissia Ita Yulianto looked at the discourses that women use to justify gossiping. Yulianto noted:

One important finding from my discussions with female viewers is that, when asked if celebrity gossip shows contain messages, they remark that it gives them information about celebrities. They consider ‘gossip’ to be ‘information’. This may be because they felt the need to rationalize their addiction to gossip, and to legitimatize it by referring to it as a source of ‘information’.”

Here, Yulianto uncritically assumes her participants have an “addiction to gossip” although she would no doubt argue she is using the word ‘addiction’ in a metaphorical sense rather than from a psychological and/or clinical perspective. In another book chapter, Dr. Andrea Timár, a literary studies scholar examining the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and mentions (in passing) that the “craving for gossip is ever-demanding”. These few simple words include both a well-known symptom of addiction (i.e., ‘craving’) as well as describing a feature of addiction (i.e., ‘ever-demanding’).

One of the more interesting articles I read was by Kiran Relangi on the Purple Room Healing website. He claims that gossip is the “ugly addiction” and that it is a “repeated and ritualistic abuse of knowledge and of our own personalities. Gossip turns us from polite conversation makers into rumour-thirsty vampires scandalizing private lives for personal satisfaction”. Relango does appear to see gossip as something addictive and that “like any addiction, we only gossip because we do not want to be reminded of our insecurities, failures and voids within. By engaging in gossip we not only divert our minds from introspection, we also create such falsehoods that will make us feel better and safe”. He then lists what he sees as the four different functions for gossip in our lives (including ‘gossip as an addiction’). These four reasons are taken verbatim from his article:

  • Gossip as a defence mechanism: It feels good to ‘prove’ another human is much inferior to us. That feeling creates a temporary and partial amnesia for our own shortcomings and insecurities. Instead of dealing with our own ugliness we create even uglier pictures of others around so we can feel better.
  • Gossip as an emotional vent: The persons we gossip about quickly become our vents. Whenever we are upset about anything, we find ourselves engaging vehement and slanderous gossip smearing somebody’s image with shit in our lives.
  • Gossip for conversation: Talk ill of a commonly disliked person so we can bond closer to fellow gossipers. Any bond built on gossip is likely to sever because of gossip.
  • Gossip as an addiction: Count how many times a week you engage yourself in ‘discussing’ affairs of a third person. You may feel you have control over what you speak and how much you speak. But strangely you never feel motivated to stop speaking. That’s an addiction. Gossip as an addiction is a ‘sweet’ cover for our failures and the ugliness we carry within”.

An online article (‘Are you addicted to gossip?’) on the Inner Self website by Dr. Richard Michael goes as far to say that gossip is the world’s favorite pastime. He asserts:

“How and why has the world become so addicted to gossip? The reason is that those that gossip and who listen to gossip do not view themselves as being important, but they do view others as being important…The problem with listening to gossip is that you do not just listen to it with your ears or see it with your eyes, you hear and see it with your heart, and that eventually wounds the heart. The heart becomes wounded because you have temporarily filled an empty space within it with someone other than yourself and your own individual importance. Therefore, you have filled that space with words and sights that you heard, read, and saw about others. This leads to a longing to learn more about this person, much like an addiction”.

In an article entitled ‘Addiction to gossip’ by Dr. Margaret Paul, she responds an ‘agony aunt’ type way to a man writing about his “unhappy” mother who uses talking about other people’s problems as a way of socially bonding with her. In this situation, Dr. Paul responds by saying the mother is likely using her addiction to gossip as a way of connecting with her son and avoiding her own emptiness and aloneness that is the result of her self-abandonment”. In response to another woman who cannot work out why she and her friends constantly (and “harshly”) judge other people that they know, Dr. Paul responds by saying “it feels good to our ego wounded self to feel like we are one up to these people, and it gives us something to connect about”. She then goes on to claim that:

“Gossip is like any other addiction – it is a way of avoiding responsibility for your feelings, and can be used by the wounded self as a way to connects with others. The wounded self has numerous ways of trying to connect with others other than being truly authentic and caring, such as drinking together, smoking pot together, ridiculing others together, or even using things like food to get a sense of closeness without having to be authentic. Gossip is another one of the ways the wounded self tries to connect and get filled up externally when you are abandoning yourself”.

Another online article I came across was a hypnosis site claiming that ‘gossip addiction’ can be treated. I don’t doubt that constantly gossiping can sometimes result in negative detrimental effects for the individual but that does not mean it is an addiction. The site spells out how gossip addicts can be helped: 

“If your mouth sometimes runs away with you and you hurt others (or yourself) by your gossiping, spilling the beans and divulging other people’s secrets – then this ‘Stop Gossiping’ session is for you…Gossip can seem harmless. A certain amount of sharing of information can be a way of bonding people together in groups…The trouble is that gossip spreads. Sometimes faster than wildfire. And because the story doing the rounds can get distorted…when it finally gets back to the one who was being talked about it can seem malicious. Even if the originator had no such intention. So even so-called ‘harmless gossip’ can ruin reputations – not just the reputation of the subject of the gossip, but your reputation too, if you were the one who started the gossip, or helped to spread it…It’s as if gossiping has become an addiction – as if you just can’t get enough of it…Using potent imagery to speak to your deepest self, ‘Stop Gossiping’ will help you enter a transformative state where you can untangle yourself from the short term buzz of gossiping”

Although I have argued that it is theoretically possible to become addicted to anything if there are constant rewards and reinforcements, I have yet to come across anything (even anecdotal) to suggest that anyone has ever been addicted to gossip.

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

Further reading

Drexler, P. (2014). Why we love to gossip. Psychology Today, August 12. Located at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-gender-ourselves/201408/why-we-love-gossip

Dunbar, R. (1998). Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Engle, G. (2015). The psychology of gossip: Why talking sh*t makes you happy. Elite Daily, March 20. Located at: http://elitedaily.com/life/culture/gossip-born-to-talk-sht/972434/

Ludden, D. (2015). Why you were born to gossip. Psychology Today, February 27. Located at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-apes/201502/why-you-were-born-gossip

Michael, R.C. (1998). Are you addicted to gossip? Inner Self. Located at: http://innerself.com/content/creating-realities/4116-addicted-to-gossip.html

Paul, M. (2010). Addiction to gossip. Mental Health Matters, November 9. Located at: http://mental-health-matters.com/addiction-to-gossip/

Relangi, K. (2012). Gossip, the ugly addiction. Purple Room Healing, June 12. Located at: https://deadmanswill.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/gossip-the-ugly-addiction/

Tiger, R. (2015). Celebrity gossip blogs and the interactive construction of addiction. New Media & Society, 17(3), 340-355.

Wikipedia (2016). Gossip. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gossip

Yulianto, V.I. (2008). Consuming gossip: A re-domestication of Indonesian women. In Heryanto, A. (Ed.). Popular Culture in Indonesia: Fluid Identities in Post-Authoritarian Politics (pp.130-142). New York: Routledge.

The beast inside: The psychology of animal torture

A few days ago, I was interviewed by the Irish newspaper The Journal about someone deliberately trying to poison a dog by throwing three rat poison-stuffed chorizo sausages into Linda O’Byrne’s garden. But what typically possesses anyone to inflict such acts of intentional animal torture and cruelty (IATC)? In this particular case it may have been done as an act of revenge or as a way to shock O’Byrne to the amusement of the person who did it.

In addition to these reasons, rhere are many types of IATC including individuals that do it (i) as a religious ritual sacrifice, (ii) as an ‘artistic’ sacrifice (e.g., killing animals in films such as the controversial Cannibal Holocaust), (iii) because they have psychological disorders (such as anti-social/psychopathic personality disorders and engage in deliberate acts of zoosadism), and/or (iv) because they have sexually paraphilic disorders (such as crush fetishism in which small animals are crushed for sexual pleasure). Additionally, there is some research showing that in some circumstances, IATC is sometimes used to coerce, control and intimidate women and/or children to be silent about domestic abuse within the home. Although any animal torture is shocking, arguably the most disturbing type of IATC is that which occurs amongst those with anti-social personality disorders.

When the science of behavioural profiling began to emerge in the 1970s, one of the most consistent findings reported by the FBI profiling unit was that childhood IATC appeared to be a common behaviour among serial murderers and rapists (i.e., those with psychopathic traits characterized by impulsivity, selfishness, and lack of remorse). Many notorious serial killers – such as Jeffrey Dahmer – began by torturing and killing animals in their childhood. Dahmer also collected animal roadkill, dissected the remains, and masturbated over the animals he had cut up. Other killers known to have engaged in childhood IATC include child murderer Mary Bell (who throttled pigeons), Jamie Bulger’s murderer Robert Thompson who (who was cruel to household pets), and Moors murderer Ian Brady (who abused animals).

IATC is one of the three adolescent behaviours in what is often referred to the ‘Homicidal Triad’ (the other two being persistent bedwetting and obsessive fire-setting). Some criminologists and psychologists believe that the combination of two or more of these three behaviours increases the risk of homicidal behaviour in adult life. However, scientific evidence for this has been mixed. There has also been research into some of the contributory factors as to why a minority of children engage in IATC. Research has shown that the behaviours in the ‘Homicidal Triad’ (including IATC) are often associated with parental abuse, parental brutality (and witnessing domestic violence), and/or parental neglect.

A number of criminological studies have shown that around a third to a half of all sexual murderers have abused animals during childhood and/or adolescence (although I ought to add that sample sizes in most of these published studies are usually relatively small). However, most research has reported that one of the most important ‘warning signs’ and risk factors (specifically relating to the propensity for sex offending), is animal cruelty if accompanied by a sexual interest in animals. Other researchers have speculated that the zoosadistic acts among male adolescents may be connected to problems of puberty and proving virility.

Another ‘triad’ of psychological factors that have been associated with IATC are three specific characteristics of personality – Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy (the so-called ‘Dark Triad’). Studies carried out by Dr. Phillip Kavanagh and his colleagues have examined the relationship between the three Dark Triad personality traits and attitudes towards animal abuse and self-reported acts of animal cruelty. They found that the psychopathy trait is related to intentionally hurting or torturing animals, and was also a composite measure of all three Dark Triad traits.

In Germany, there have been an increasing number of violent crimes against horses. This offence of ‘horse ripping’ (i.e., violently cutting, slashing and/or stabbing of horses) has been accepted as a criminal phenomenon in Germany and has led to a number of studies on the topic. Horse ripping has been defined as a destructive act “with the aim to harm a horse or the acceptance of a possible injury of a horse, especially killing, maltreatment, mutilation and sexual abuse in sadomasochistic context”. In 2002, German researchers Dr, Claus Bartmann and Dr. Peter Wohlsein reported a study examining 193 traumatic horse injuries over a four-year period. They reported that at least ten of the injuries (including wounds from knives, spears, and guns) were acts of zoosadism.

There is no easy solution to childhood IATC. Given that most children learn anti-social behaviour from those around them, the best way to prevent it is teaching by example. Here, parents are the key. Pro-social behaviour by parents and other role models towards animals (such as rescuing spiders in the bath, feeding birds, treating pets as a member of the family) has the potential to make a positive lasting impression on children.

Note: A version of this article was first published in The Independent.

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

Further reading

Arluke, A., Levin, J., Luke, C., & Ascione, F. (1999). The relationship of animal abuse to violence and other forms of antisocial behavior. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(9), 963-975.

Bartmann, C.P. & Wohlsein, P. (2002). Injuries caused by outside violence with forensic importance in horses. Dtsch Tierarztl Wochenschr, 109, 112-115.

Beetz, Andrea (2002). Love, Violence, and Sexuality in Relationships between Humans and Animals. Germany: Shaker Verlag.

Beirne, P. (1999). For a nonspeciesist criminology: Animal abuse as an object of study. Criminology, 37(1), 117-148.

Felthous, A.R. (1980). Aggression against cats, dogs, and people. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 10, 169-177.

Furnham, A., Richards, S. C., & Paulhus, D. L. (2013). The Dark Triad of personality: A 10 year review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(3), 199-216.

Hickey, E. W. (2013). Serial murderers and their victims. Cengage Learning.

James, S., Kavanagh, P. S., Jonason, P. K., Chonody, J. M., & Scrutton, H. E. (2014). The Dark Triad, schadenfreude, and sensational interests: Dark personalities, dark emotions, and dark behaviors. Personality and Individual Differences, 68, 211-216.

Jonason, P. K., & Kavanagh, P. (2010). The dark side of love: Love styles and the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(6), 606-610.

Kavanagh, P. S., Signal, T. D., & Taylor, N. (2013). The Dark Triad and animal cruelty: Dark personalities, dark attitudes, and dark behaviors. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(6), 666-670.

Macdonald, J.M. (1963). The threat to kill. American Journal of Psychiatry, 120, 125-130.

Patterson‐Kane, E. G., & Piper, H. (2009). Animal abuse as a sentinel for human violence: A critique. Journal of Social Issues, 65(3), 589-614.

Ressler, R., Burgess, A., & Douglas, J. (1988). Sexual homicide: Patterns and motives. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Schedel-Stupperich, A. (2002). [Criminal acts against horses – phenomenology and psychosocial construct]. Dtsch Tierarztl Wochenschr, 109, 116-119.

Wochner, M. & Klosinski, G. (1988). Child and adolescent psychiatry aspects of animal abuse (a comparison with aggressive patients in child and adolescent psychiatry). Schweiz Arch Neurol Psychiatry, 139(3), 59-67.

Cite seeing: A brief guide for academics to increase their citation count

Apologies to any non-academics reading my blog today but this article will be of more interest to academic researchers than anyone else as it examines the strategies that I have used to get (what some people have claimed as) an “excessive” number of citations to my published work. All academics are aware that the use of bibliometric data is becoming ever more important in academia. Along with impact factors of academic journals, one of the most important bibliometric indicators is citation counts. These are increasingly being used in a number of contexts including internal assessment (e.g., going for a job promotion) and external assessments (e.g., use in the Research Excellence Framework [REF] as a proxy measure of quality and impact).

In June 2016 I reached close to 30,000 citations on Google Scholar and this is good evidence that what I do day-to-day works. I have an h-index of 91 (i.e., at least 91 of my papers have been cited 91 times) and an i10-index of 377 (i.e., a least 377 of my papers have been cited 10 times).

Citation counts take years to accumulate but you can help boost your citations in a number of different ways. Here are my tips and strategies that I personally use and that I know work. It probably goes without saying that the more you write and publish, the greater the number of citations. However, here are my top ten tips and based on a number of review papers on the topic (see ‘Further reading’ below):

  • Choose your paper’s keywords carefully: In an age of search engines and academic database searching, keywords in your publications are critical. Key words and phrases in the paper’s title and abstract are also useful for search purposes.
  • Use the same name on all your papers and use ORCID: I wish someone had told me at the start of my career that name initials were important. I had no idea that there were so many academics called ‘Mark Griffiths’. Adding my middle initial (‘D’) has helped a lot. You can also use an ORCID or ResearcherID and link it to your publications.
  • Make your papers as easily accessible as possible: Personally, I make good use of many different websites to upload papers and articles to (ResearchGate and academia.edu being the two most useful to me personally). Your own university institutional repositories can also be useful in this respect. All self-archiving is useful. It is also especially important to keep research pages up-to-date if you want your most recent papers to be read and cited.
  • Disseminate and promote your research wherever you can: I find that many British academics do not like to publicise their work but ever since I was a PhD student I have promoted my work in as many different places as possible including conferences, seminars, workshops and the mass media. More recently I have used social media excessively (such as tweeting links to papers I’ve just published). I also write media releases for work that I think will have mass appeal and work with my university Press Office to ensure dissemination is as wide as possible. I also actively promote my work in other ways including personal dissemination (e.g., my blogs) as well as sending copies of papers to key people in my field in addition to interested stakeholder groups (policymakers, gaming industry, treatment providers, etc.). I have a high profile web presence via my many websites.
  • Cite your previously published papers: Self-citation is often viewed quite negatively by some academics but it is absolutely fine to cite your own work where relevant on a new manuscript. Citing my own work has never hurt my academic career.
  • Publish in journals that you know others in your field read: Although many academics aim to get in the highest impact factor journal that they can, this doesn’t always lead to the highest number of citations. For instance, when I submit a gambling paper I often submit to the Journal of Gambling Studies (Impact factor=2.75). This is because gambling is a very interdisciplinary field and many of my colleagues (who work in disparate disciplines – law, criminology, social policy, economics, sociology, etc.) don’t read psychology journals. Some of my highest cited papers have been in specialist journals.
  • Try to publish in Open Access journals: Research has consistently shown that Open Access papers get higher citation rates than non-Open Access papers.
  • Write review papers: Although I publish lots of empirical papers I learned very early on in my academic career that review papers are more likely to be cited. I often try to write the first review papers in particular areas as everyone then has to cite them! Some types of outputs (especially those that don’t have an abstract) are usually poorly cited (e.g., editorials, letters to editors).
  • Submit to special issues of journals: Submitting a paper to a special issue of a journal increases the likelihood that others in your field will read it (as it will have more visibility). Papers won’t be cited if they are not read in the first place!
  • Publish collaboratively and where possible with international teams. Again, research has consistently shown that working with others collaboratively (i.e., team-authored papers) and in an international context has been shown to significantly increase citation counts.

Finally, here are a few more nuggets of information that you should know when thinking about how to improve your citation counts.

  • There is a correlation between number of citations and the impact factor of the journal but if you work in an interdisciplinary field like me, more specialist journals may lead to higher citation counts.
  • The size of the paper and reference list correlates with citation counts (although this may be connected with review papers as they are generally longer and get more cited than non-review papers.
  • Publish with ‘big names’ in the field. Publishing with the pioneers in your field will lead to more citations.
  • Get you work on Wikipedia References cited by Wikipedia pages get cited more. In fact, write Wikipedia pages for topics in your areas.
  • Somewhat bizarrely (but true) papers that ask a question in the title have lower citation rates. Titles that have colons in the title have higher citation rates.

Note: A version of this article was first published in the PsyPAG Quarterly (see below)

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

Further reading

Ball, P. (2011). Are scientific reputations boosted artificially? Nature, May 6. Located at: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110506/full/news.2011.270.html (last accessed April 27, 2015).

Bornmann, L., & Daniel, H. D. (2008). What do citation counts measure? A review of studies on citing behavior. Journal of Documentation, 64(1), 45-80.

Corbyn, Z. (2010). An easy way to boost a paper’s citations. Nature, August 13. Located at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/news.2010.406 (last accessed April 27, 2015).

Ebrahim. N. A. (2012). Publication marketing tools – Enhancing research visibility and improving citations. University of Malaya. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Available at: http://works.bepress.com/aleebrahim/64

Ebrahim, N., Salehi, H., Embi, M. A., Habibi, F., Gholizadeh, H., Motahar, S. M., & Ordi, A. (2013). Effective strategies for increasing citation frequency. International Education Studies, 6(11), 93-99.

Ebrahim, N.A., Salehi, H., Embi, M. A., Habibi, F., Gholizadeh, H., & Motahar, S. M. (2014). Visibility and citation impact. International Education Studies, 7(4), 120-125.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Self-citation: A practical guide. Null Hypothesis: The Journal of Unlikely Science (‘Best of’ issue), 15-16.

Griffiths, M.D. (2015). How to improve your citation count. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 96, 23-24.

Jamali, H. R., & Nikzad, M. (2011). Article title type and its relation with the number of downloads and citations. Scientometrics, 88(2), 653-661.

Marashi, S.-A., Amin, H.-N., Alishah, K., Hadi, M., Karimi, A., & Hosseinian, S. (2013). Impact of Wikipedia on citation trends. EXCLI Journal, 12, 15-19.

MacCallum, C. J., & Parthasarathy, H. (2006). Open Access increases citation rate. PLoS Biology, 4(5), e176, http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0040176

Swan, A. (2010) The Open Access citation advantage: Studies and results to date. Located at: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/268516/ (last accessed April 27, 2015).

Vanclay, J. K. (2013). Factors affecting citation rates in environmental science. Journal of Informetrics, 7(2), 265-271.

van Wesel, M., Wyatt, S., & ten Haaf, J. (2014). What a difference a colon makes: How superficial factors influence subsequent citation. Scientometrics, 98(3): 1601–1615.

Giving someone the hot shoulder: Omosophilia and the naming of a new paraphilia

While researching previous blogs on sexual piggybacking and ‘lift and carry’ fetishism, I noticed that when the words ‘shoulder’ and ‘fetish’ were in the same Google search, I came across a number of discussion sites where people were discussing their fetishes for shoulders. Here are a few of the cases that I came across:

  • Extract 1 (male): “I’ve never been into women wearing make-up, loads of perfume, and all that jazz, but for some reason, seeing the bare shoulders of a woman really makes me excited. Not that I want to have sex with the shoulders, but that they simply look hot, sort of like the way most men view breasts. Is this normal, psychologically?”
  • Extract 2 (male): “I love a woman’s exposed shoulders. I’m very attracted to them, my major turn on. I love how they look [and] how they feel. Talking about their shoulders really turns me on”
  • Extract 3 (male): “I also get turned on by the sight of a woman’s bare shoulders. That is why I love to see women in tank tops, halter tops, sleeveless tops, and off-the-shoulder tops (my favorite)”
  • Extract 4 (male): “Broad shoulders are a pretty common turn on for women anyway”.
  • Extract 5 (male): I’m not into panties, lingerie, or wearing make up, but I’ve always had an attraction to sexy female tops. I have always had a fetish about seeing a woman’s bare shoulders and got off many times fantasizing about them. Not taking it a step further, I’ve always loved wearing female sleeveless blouses and tops. I know they make tank tops for guys, but it’s not the same thrill as wearing a woman’s black, sleeveless, turtleneck jersey. I also enjoy wearing halter tops, tube tops, camies, one-shoulder tanks, and leotards, which I wear openly at the gym. I never feel as liberated as when I’m out in public with my shoulders bare. I’ve never met anyone else who’s into this with whom I could share my fantasy. But I would like to hear from anybody who is, be it man or woman, who may also have this fetish”
  • Extract 6 (male): “I have a fetish of girls sitting on my shoulders…I’ve loved this ever since I can remember…even before I knew what sex was. I have a female friend, and one time me, her, and one of her friends were walking through a field at night, and her friend said she was afraid of getting ticks and asked to sit on my shoulders. I lifted her up, and after awhile she started like bossing me around, telling me where to stand, etc…I enjoyed this. Is this fetish healthy? Sometimes I wonder if I let people push me around in life because of this fetish”
  • Extract 7 (male): I find a sexual partner’s shoulders really arousing, on both men and women. Am I in the minority or is it pretty normal?”
  • Extract 8 (male): This will probably sound strange, but I have a shoulder fetish. A beautiful girl, in a cute pose, with her shoulder exposed, absolutely makes my heart race”

Admittedly, there is little detail in these extracts and I have no way of knowing to what extent any of the extracts I have selected are truthful (although I have no reason to suspect anyone was lying). As there is little detail here, there was almost nothing on how the interest developed apart from Extract 6 where the interest in shoulders was more to do with the act of a female sitting on his shoulders rather than fetishizing the shoulders themselves. Here, the fetish (if it really is a fetish) is more akin to ‘lift and carry’ fetishes with overtones of sexual masochism (i.e., being bossed around by a female and getting a sexual thrill from it).

All of the extracts were from males (presumably heterosexual apart from Extract 5 who may be bisexual and/or a transvestite based on the small amount of information provided). Although I could reasonably conclude that shoulder fetishes are primarily male-based, I did deliberately include the comment made by a male in Extract 4 who pointed out that women often remark on the sexiness and attractiveness of men that have broad shoulders. This observation made the implied point that it is almost the norm for some women to find men’s shoulders a sexual turn-on but may be rare for men to comment on the attractiveness of women’s shoulders. Basically, when women talk about the attractiveness of men’s shoulders it is normalized whereas when men talk about the attractiveness of women’s shoulders it is fetishized.

As far as I am aware, not only is there no academic or clinical research on the topic of shoulder fetishes, but there aren’t even any articles (this I believe is the first ever article on the topic). There was nothing between ‘shaving’ and ‘showers’ in Dr. Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices and nothing in Dr. Anil Aggrawal’s Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Shoulders weren’t even mentioned in the list of fetishized body parts in Dr. C. Scorolli and colleagues’ excellent paper on the prevalence of fetishes in their 2007 paper in the International Journal of Impotence Research (a study I have cited countless times in relation to my blogs on other sexualized body parts). Given the complete lack of scientific study relating to shoulder fetishes I have decided to name a new paraphilia based on traditional nosology using the Greek words for ‘shoulder’ (omos) and ‘love’ (philia) – thus this ‘new’ paraphilia is called omosophilia (not to be confused with ‘osmophilia’ – where individuals derive sexual pleasure from certain smells and odours).

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

Further reading

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

Gates, K. (2000). Deviant desires: Incredibly strange sex. New York: Juno Books.

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

Scorolli, C., Ghirlanda, S., Enquist, M., Zattoni, S. & Jannini, E.A. (2007). Relative prevalence of different fetishes. International Journal of Impotence Research, 19, 432-437.

Mack, the life: The psychology of Billy Mackenzie and The Associates

For the past month, the only music I have listened to on my iPod is all the albums by The Associates (along with the solo albums by their lead singer Billy Mackenzie), and have just finished reading Tom Doyle’s excellent biography of Mackenzie The Glamour Chasealso the title of their 1988 LP but remained unreleased until 2002). Mackenzie committed suicide in 1997, a few months before his 40th birthday. Following the death of his mother in the summer of 1996 (who he was very close to), Mackenzie became clinically depressed and took his on January 22nd, 1997 (following a previous suicide attempt on New Year’s Eve 1996).

I have loved The Associates since the early 1980s and became hooked on their music following the 1981 singles ‘White Car in Germany’ and ‘Message Oblique Speech’ (two of the great six singles they released that year and all available on their second LP, Fourth Drawer Down). Even if people don’t like Mackenzie’s recorded outputs, I doubt many people who have heard him sing would dispute how good his multi-octave voice was.

the-associates-billy-mackenzie-by-gilbert-blecken-1994-1images

Most people will know The Associates for their classic 1982 top ten album Sulk and the three British hit singles that year – ‘Party Fears Two’ (No.9), ‘Club Country’ (No.13), and ’18 Carat Love Affair’ (No. 21) but I’ve followed their whole career through thick and thin and have every one of their six albums (seven if you include the partial re-recording/remixing of their first album The Affectionate Punch) as well as the three BBC Radio 1 session LPs, the three compilation ‘greatest hits’ collections (Popera, Singles, and The Very Best of Associates), the rarities LP Double Hipness, and their only live album (Billy Mackenzie and The Associates In Concert).

Hailing from Dundee (Scotland), The Associates (Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine the two lynch-pin members) formed as punk exploded in 1976. Before changing their name to The Associates in 1979 they used the moniker Mental Torture (a name that biographer Doyle described as “biographically embarrassing”) but as a psychologist a choice of name that I find interesting. The ‘classic’ line-up of The Associates ended at the height of their commercial success in 1982 when Rankine left the band. Following that, many view the next three Associates’ LPs as Billy Mackenzie solo albums in all but name and that he never reached such critical acclaim ever again. That’s a viewpoint I share (despite there being many other great songs in his post-1982 catalogue). The creative and artistic chemistry he shared with Rankine was never bettered in the last 15 years of his life, and even the handful of demos he recorded with Rankine in a short-lived reunion in 1993 (available on the Double Hipness album and on the latest The Very Best of Associates compilation) clearly demonstrated Gestalt psychology’s underlying maxim that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

So what was it in Mackenzie’s psyche that killed the goose that laid the golden egg? Rankine didn’t leave the band because of clichéd “creative differences” but left after Mackenzie refused to go on a lucrative US tour (and Rankine knew that touring to promote their music was the only viable option to maintain a successful national and international profile). There appeared to be a combination of factors that led to Mackenzie’s decision including stage fright (i.e., performance anxiety which surfaced throughout his career) and the fact Mackenzie didn’t want to do the usual cycles of making an album, doing the obligatory media circuit, followed by the big tour. In short he didn’t want to play by the accepted rules and conventions – something the underpinned his whole persona. He wanted to be a ‘studio band’ – something that Rankine thought would never work.

My blog had always focused on life’s extremities and much of what Mackenzie did was about living life at the extreme. The liner notes of The Associates most recent CD compilation by Martin Aston neatly sums it up:

“In some ways, The Associates music mirrored their behavioural excess, pioneered by the naughty boy that was Billy Mackenzie, music both lush and visceral, abrasive and ravishing, pure pop and reckless adventurism, devoured and sprayed over an unsuspecting audience”.

(The “sprayed over an unsuspecting audience” was more in reference to the fact that Mackenzie had an unusual ‘gift’ of being able to projective vomit and something he demonstrated on fans in the front row in an early gig where The Associates supported Siouxsie and the Banshees). When it came to music, most of Mackenzie’s collaborators (musicians, singers, producers) describe him as obsessive and a perfectionist. Michael Dempsey, a founding member of The Cure and bass guitarist with The Associates in the early 1980s said: “He was obsessive, always on top of every detail. It was even down to whether you were wearing the right shoes because that was part of the composition and the production to him”. Tom Doyle’s biography is full of stories about Mackenzie taking hours in the studio to get the sound of one right or taking 40 takes to do one song (almost the opposite of David Bowie – one of Mackenzie’s musical heroes – who often recorded songs in one or two takes). Musical collaborators also talk about Mackenzie’s ability to “see” music in his head (which is perhaps not as strange as it sounds as there are countless reports in the psychological and neurological literature of synaesthesia (a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway” – for example, some people can see specific colours when they hear a particular piece of music). His obsessiveness was not just restricted to music. His flatmates described his “mildly obsessive hygiene and beauty routines: using an entire tube of toothpaste in one single brushing, spending an eternity rubbing lotions into his skin before he would shave”.

Mackenzie arguably had only three passions in his life – his music, his family, and his love of dogs (and more specifically whippets). He never had any significant romantic relationship in his life (although had a very brief marriage in his teens to American Chloe Dummar when he briefly lived in California). Like Morrissey, Mackenzie was fiercely private about his sexuality and rarely talked about his personal life to the press. It was only in a 1994 interview in Time Out magazine that he first spoke publicly of his bisexuality. I mention Morrissey because it was rumoured that Mackenzie had a brief relationship with him and that Mackenzie was the subject of The Smiths‘ British (No.17) hit single ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’. This appeared to have some legitimacy when during the Associates brief 1993 re-union, Mackenzie wrote a song called ‘Stephen, You’re Really Something’ (Stephen, of course, being Morrissey’s first name).

In both Doyle’s biography (and in a profile piece on The Associates in the latest issue of Mojo magazine by Tom Sheehan), it is noted that Mackenzie had a “particular idea of his own sexuality” and that it was “beyond male and female, beyond sexuality”. Martha Ladly (of one-hit wonders Martha and the Muffins, and backing singer in The Associates in the 1980s) describes him as being “omnisexual…he didn’t see sexuality in people, he saw it in situations and in all things”. The online Urban Dictionary says that omnisexual is “generally interchangeable with pansexual, one whose romantic, emotional, or sexual attractions are geared towards others regardless of sex and/or gender expression” – check out my previous blog on pandrogyny in relation to Throbbing Gristle’s lead ‘singer’ Genesis P. Orridge). In the Mojo article, Rankine said Mackenzie was “very compartmentalised. All the way through [The Associates] it never occurred to me that Bill was having affairs. Everyone he came across he was shagging”. He was arguably a little vain (and overly conscious of his receding hairline in the last decade of his life) and always sought reassuring compliments from those around him about his looks. His obsessive grooming habits appear to provide a good indication of how important his look was to him but I’ve read nothing to suggest that he was narcissistic (although perfectionism is known to be a trait associated with narcissism).

The other personal characteristic that Mackenkie was infamous for was spending money and loved life’s luxuries. One of my research areas is shopping addiction and compulsive buying but on reading Doyle’s biography I don’t think Mackenzie would be classed as a shopaholic or compulsive spender by my own criteria (but did end up bankrupt so was a problematic spender at the very least). Like many people, Mackenzie believed that money was for spending and he spent loads of other people’s money (usually the record company’s) on everything from clothes and daily taxis (including many a black cab ride from London to Dundee), to the best hotel rooms. My view is that he was much more of an impulsive (rather than compulsive) spender.

Many people were surprised (including me) that he was clinically depressed during the last few months of his life because up to the point of his mother’s death, he appeared was always outgoing and extraverted. In his earlier life he was hedonistic and engaged in heavy alcohol drinking and recreational drug use but as he matured the use of psychoactive substances all but disappeared from his life. No-one around him thought he would be the type of person to commit suicide (although it’s worth noting there appears to be an association between perfectionism and depression, and depression is one of the major risk factors for suicide along with stress caused by severe financial difficulties).

One of Mackenzie’s best known songs in The Associates back catalogue is Rezső Seress’ Hungarian suicide song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ (from their 1982 masterpiece Sulk). The Wikipedia entry about the song has a dedicated sub-section on urban legends connected to the song and Doyle’s biography also discussed it:

“While Mackenzie had first encountered ‘Gloomy Sunday’ through the version recorded by Billie Holiday in 1941 that – along with ‘Strange Fruit‘ – remained one of the dark show-stoppers forming a significant element of her repertoire, the song has a morbid history that stretches back to pre-war Hungary. Rezro [sic] Seress composed the mournful song in 1933, the lyric expressing a feeling of futility and helplessness following the death of a loved one, unusual in that it is directed at the person, the narrator detailing numberless shadows and conveying thoughts of suicide”.

Doyle goes on to tell some of the stories that came to be associated with the song being cursed:

“The first reported death associated with ‘Gloomy Sunday’ was that of Joseph Keller, a Budapest shoemaker whose suicide note in 1936 quoted the lyric. In the Hungarian capital alone, seventeen other similar deaths apparently followed, bearing some connection with the song: a couple were said to have shot themselves while a gypsy band performed ‘Gloomy Sunday’; there was talk that a fourteen-year-old girl had thrown herself into a river clutching the sheet music. The song was eventually banned in Hungary, although even these days the occasional piano rendition is performed in the Kis Papa restaurant in Budapest where Seres first aired the song. The legend of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ grew as its apparent effects became further reaching. In New York in the [1940s], there were reports that a typist gassed herself, leaving instructions for the song to be played at her funeral. In London, a policeman was alerted to the fact that a recorded instrumental of the song was being repeatedly played by an unseen female neighbour who, when her flat was entered, was discovered to have overdosed on barbiturates while an automatic phonograph played the song over and over again. Doubtful these tales have been embellished over the years in an effort to emphasize the myth surrounding ‘Gloomy Sunday’, but certain facts remain: the BBC ban imposed on the song in the [1940s] has not been lifted to this day: Holiday suffered a tragic premature death at forty-three form heroin-related liver cirrhosis in 1959; Seress, the song’s composer, himself committed suicide in 1968”.

The Wikipedia entry on ‘Gloomy Sunday’ covers similar ground but is a bit more sceptical. It also references an article on the myth-busting website Snopes.com and notes the BBC ban on the song was lifted in 2002:

“Press reports in the 1930s associated at least nineteen suicides, both in Hungary and the United States, with ‘Gloomy Sunday’, but most of the deaths supposedly linked to it are difficult to verify. The urban legend appears to be, for the most part, simply an embellishment of the high number of Hungarian suicides that occurred in the decade when the song was composed due to other factors such as famine and poverty. No studies have drawn a clear link between the song and suicide. In January 1968, some thirty-five years after writing the song, its composer did commit suicide. The BBC banned Billie Holiday’s version of the song from being broadcast, as being detrimental to wartime morale, but allowed performances of instrumental versions. However, there is little evidence of any other radio bans; the BBC’s ban was lifted by 2002”.

Here is Doyle’s take in relation to Mackenzie in the months after Mackenzie’s mother had died where Mackenzie was having a ‘house leaving’ party:

“The personal grief at the time imbues the song’s lyrics an uneasy resonance that could not have escaped [Mackenzie]. As he lay there singing in the early hours of the Sunday morning following the party, Billy alternated the line ‘Let them not weep, let them know that I’m glad to go’ with his own lamenting alternative: ‘Let them not weep, let them know that I’m sad to go’”.

Arguably his life was a paradox personified. It took him years to get noticed but when he finally made the limelight, he appeared to shun the fame. He lived life his own way on his own terms. Thankfully, while Mackenzie is no longer with us, his music – and his legacy – lives on.

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

Further reading

Dalton, S. (2016). 18-carat love affair. Electronic Sound, 2.0, 70-75.

Doyle, T. (2011). The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy Mackenzie (Revised Edition). Edinburgh: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Mikkelson, D. (2007). Gloomy Sunday: Was the song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ banned because it led to too many suicides? Snopes.com, May 23. Located at: http://www.snopes.com/music/songs/gloomy.asp

Reynolds, S. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978–1984. New York: Penguin.

Sheehan, T. (2016). Beautiful dreamer. Mojo, 272, 50-55.

Vive Le Rock (2016). A rough guide to…The Associates, Vive Le Rock, 35, 84-85.

Wikipedia (2016). Alan Rankine. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Rankine

Wikipedia (2016). Billy Mackenzie. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Mackenzie

Wikipedia (2016). Gloomy Sunday. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gloomy_Sunday

Wikipedia (2016). Martha Ladly. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha_Ladly

Wikipedia (2016). Michael Dempsey. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Dempsey

Wikipedia (2016). The Associates (band). Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Associates_(band)

Lust discussed: A brief overview of our recent papers on sex addiction

Following my recent blogs where I outlined some of the papers that my colleagues and I have published on mindfulness, Internet addiction, gaming addiction, youth gambling, exercise addiction, and shopping addiction, here is a round-up of recent papers that my colleagues and I have published on sex addiction.

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

  • At present, the prevalence of rates of sexual addiction in the UK is unknown. This study investigated what treatment services were available within British Mental Health Trusts (MHTs) that are currently provided for those who experience compulsive and/or addictive sexual behaviours within the National Health Service (NHS) system. In March and April 2013, a total of 58 letters were sent by email to all Mental Health Trusts in the UK requesting information about (i) sexual addiction services and (ii) past 5-year treatment of sexual addiction. The request for information was sent to all MHTs under the Freedom of Information Act (2001). Results showed that 53 of the 58 MHTs (91 %) did not provide any service (specialist or otherwise) for treating those with problematic sexual behaviours. Based on the responses provided, only five MHTs reported having had treated sexual addiction as a disorder that took primacy over the past 5 years. There was also some evidence to suggest that the NHS may potentially treat sexual addiction as a secondary disorder that is intrinsic and/or co-morbid to the initial referral made by the GP. In light of these findings, implications for the treatment of sex addiction in a British context are discussed.

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

  • Background and aims: Hypersexuality and sexual addiction among females is a little understudied phenomenon. Shame is thought to be intrinsic to hypersexual behaviours, especially in women. Therefore, the aim of this study was to understand both hypersexual behaviours and consequences of hypersexual behaviours and their respective contributions to shame in a British sample of females (n = 102). Methods: Data were collected online via Survey Monkey. Results: Results showed the Sexual Behaviour History (SBH) and the Hypersexual Disorder Questionnaire (HDQ) had significant positive correlation with scores on the Shame Inventory. The results indicated that hypersexual behaviours were able to predict a small percentage of the variability in shame once sexual orientation (heterosexual vs. non-heterosexual) and religious beliefs (belief vs. no belief) were controlled for. Results also showed there was no evidence that religious affiliation and/or religious beliefs had an influence on the levels of hypersexuality and consequences of sexual behaviours as predictors of shame. Conclusions: While women in the UK are rapidly shifting to a feminist way of thinking with or without technology, hypersexual disorder may often be misdiagnosed and misunderstood because of the lack of understanding and how it is conceptualised. The implications of these findings are discussed.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). A systematic review of online sex addiction and clinical treatments using CONSORT evaluation. Current Addiction Reports, 2, 163-174.

  • Researchers have suggested that the advances of the Internet over the past two decades have gradually eliminated traditional offline methods of obtaining sexual material. Additionally, research on cybersex and/or online sex addictions has increased alongside the development of online technology. The present study extended the findings from Griffiths’ (2012) systematic empirical review of online sex addiction by additionally investigating empirical studies that implemented and/or documented clinical treatments for online sex addiction in adults. A total of nine studies were identified and then each underwent a CONSORT evaluation. The main findings of the present review provide some evidence to suggest that some treatments (both psychological and/or pharmacological) provide positive outcomes among those experiencing difficulties with online sex addiction. Similar to Griffiths’ original review, this study recommends that further research is warranted to establish the efficacy of empirically driven treatments for online sex addiction.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Understanding conceptualisations of female sex addiction and recovery using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Psychology Research, 5, 585-603.

  • Relatively little research has been carried out into female sex addiction. There is even less regarding understandings of lived experiences of sex addiction among females. Consequently, the purpose of the present study was to examine the experiences of female sex addiction (from onset to recovery). This was done by investigating the experiences and conceptualisations of three women who self-reported as having had a historical problem with sex addiction. An interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) methodology was applied in the current research process in which three female participants shared their journey through the onset, progression, and recovery of sex addiction. The IPA produced five superordinate themes that accounted for the varying degrees of sexual addiction among a British sample of females: (1) “Focus on self as a sex addict”; (2) “Uncontrollable desire”; (3) “Undesirable feelings”; (4) “Derision”; and (5) “Self help, treatment and recovery”. The implications of these findings towards the understanding and the need for the implementation of treatment are discussed.

Dhuffar, M., Pontes, H.M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The role of negative mood states and consequences of hypersexual behaviours in predicting hypersexuality among university students. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 4, 181–188.

  • The issue of whether hypersexual behaviours exist among university students is controversial because many of these individuals engage in sexual exploration during their time at university. To date, little is known about the correlates of hypersexual behaviours among university students in the UK. Therefore, the aims of this exploratory study were two-fold. Firstly, to explore and establish the correlates of hypersexual behaviours, and secondly, to investigate whether hypersexuality among university students can be predicted by variables relating to negative mood states (i.e., emotional dysregulation, loneliness, shame, and life satisfaction) and consequences of hypersexual behaviour.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Meditation Awareness Training for the treatment of sex addiction: A case study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, in press.

  • Sex addiction is a disorder that can have serious adverse functional consequences. Treatment effectiveness research for sex addiction is currently underdeveloped, and interventions are generally based on guidelines for treating other behavioural (as well as chemical) addictions. Consequently, there is a need to clinically evaluate tailored treatments that target the specific symptoms of sex addiction. It has been proposed that second-generation mindfulness-based interventions (SG-MBIs) may be an appropriate treatment for sex addiction because in addition to helping individuals increase perceptual distance from craving for desired objects and experiences, some SG-MBIs specifically contain meditations intended to undermine attachment to sex and/or the human body. To date, no study exploring the utility of mindfulness for treating sex addiction has been conducted. This paper presents an in-depth clinical case study of a male individual suffering from sex addiction that underwent treatment utilising an SG-MBI known as Meditation Awareness Training (MAT). Following completion of MAT, the participant demonstrated clinically significant improvements regarding the addictive sexual behaviour, as well less depression and psychological distress. The MAT intervention also led to improvements in sleep quality, job satisfaction, and non-attachment to self and experiences. Salutary outcomes were maintained at six-month follow-up. The current study extends the literature exploring the applications of mindfulness for treating behavioural addiction, and findings of this case study indicate that further clinical investigation into the role of mindfulness for treating sex addiction is warranted.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Excessive internet use: Implications for sexual behavior. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3, 537-552.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Sex on the internet: Observations and implications for sex addiction. Journal of Sex Research, 38, 333-342.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Sex addiction on the Internet. Janus Head: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology and the Arts, 7(2), 188-217.

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

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

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

Griffiths, M.D. & Dhuffar, M. (2014). Collecting behavioural addiction treatment data using Freedom of Information requests. SAGE Research Methods Cases. Located at: DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/978144627305014533925

The prose and cons: A brief look at ‘poetry addiction’

Back in May 2014, I gave a whole afternoon of talks on behavioural addictions (including gambling and gaming addiction) at Castle Craig, an inpatient addiction treatment centre in Scotland. One of the most interesting people I met there was the psychotherapist Christopher Burn who on the back of his latest book Poetry Changes Lives describes himself as “a history addict, grandfather, recovering alcoholic, and poetry fanatic”. Maybe I’ll write a blog on what it is to be a “history addict” in a future blog, but this article will briefly look at an article just published by Burn on ‘poetry addiction’.

Anyone that knows me will tell you that writing is an important activity in my life. Many of my friends and colleagues describe me as a ‘writaholic’ and that I am addicted to writing because of the number of articles that I have published. Regular readers of my blog will also know that I have written articles on obsessional writing (graphomania), obsessional erotic writing (erotographomania), diary writing, excessive blog writing, and excessive (productive) writing.

Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘poetry fanatic’ I do love writing poetry myself and have had a number of my poems published. In fact, in 1997, I won a national Poetry Today competition for the best (20 lines and under) poem for An Alliteration of Life. Burn’s article on ‘addiction to the act of writing poetry (like his latest book) is an interesting read. Burn has even coined a new term for addiction to poetry – ‘poesegraphilia’. Burn notes that the Irish dramatist George Farquar said that poetry was a “mere drug” and that:

“Many poets, great and not so great, have suffered from addiction to mood altering substances – Coleridge, Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas (‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’) spring to mind. Many great poems have been written about addiction too. It seems however that very little attention has been given to the addictive power generated by the act of writing poetry itself. One thing is for sure – poetry has a power to alter our mood – not normally in the pernicious or directly physical manner of say, a line of cocaine, but in a pervasive and generally enjoyable way that can usually only be helpful. This mood changing effect can come from either reading or writing poetry but of the two, it is poetry writing that is the most dramatic”.

As an amateur poet myself, I know only too well the emotional power of words and that words can have a mood altering effect (both positive and negative). There is even ‘poetry therapy’ and (in the USA) a National Association for Poetry Therapy and an Institute for Poetic Medicine that advocates the intentional use of poetry and other forms of literature for healing and personal growth”. (For a concise overview of ‘poetry therapy’ check out this article on the GoodTherapy website). Burn says that “writing poetry may not affect a person’s life with the degree of powerlessness and unmanageability that say, alcohol does, but it can still have a very marked influence”. He then includes part of an interview transcript from BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme with Les Murray, an Australian poet:

“It’s wonderful, there’s nothing else like it, you write in a trance. And the trance is completely addictive, you love it, you want more of it. Once you’ve written the poem and had the trance, polished it and so on, you can go back to the poem and have a trace of that trance, have the shadow of it, but you can’t have it fully again. It seemed to be a knack I discovered as I went along. It’s an integration of the body-mind and the dreaming-mind and the daylight-conscious-mind. All three are firing at once, they’re all in concert. You can be sitting there but inwardly dancing, and the breath and the weight and everything else are involved, you’re fully alive. It takes a while to get into it. You have to have some key, like say a phrase or a few phrases or a subject matter or maybe even a tune to get you started going towards it, and it starts to accumulate. Sometimes it starts without your knowing that you’re getting there, and it builds in your mind like a pressure. I once described it as being like a painless headache, and you know there’s a poem in there, but you have to wait until the words form”.

I’ve always argued that anything can be addictive if it is something that can constantly reinforce and reward behaviour. Theoretically, there is no reason why writing poetry could not be mood modifying and potentially addictive. As Burn observes:

“Many poets talk about the dream-like trance that envelops them during the act of creating poetry and how this can last sometimes for days. This is not a simple cathartic event, which can happen too, but a state that affects mind, body and spirit. Here is poet and author Robert Graves on the subject: ‘No poem is worth anything unless it starts from a poetic trance, out of which you can be wakened by interruption as from a dream. In fact, it is the same thing’. All this trance-like sensation sounds to me a bit like the effect that certain mood altering substances can have, and we know how addictive they can be”.

Burn then goes on to question whether the act of writing poetry can be clinically classed as an addiction. To do this, he uses criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM] and argues that the act of writing poetry could potentially meet some of the criteria for addiction including: (i) persisting with the habit to the detriment of other activities and relationships, (ii) increased tolerance, (iii) unsuccessful attempts to stop, (iv) increase in time spent on the activity, and (v) persisting with the habit despite knowledge of negative consequences. Based on this he then goes on to argue:

“It seems to me that there is enough anecdotal evidence to indicate that for some people, poetry, in particular the act of writing poetry, is a powerful and addictive behaviour that meets at least a few of these [DSM] criteria…Problem gamblers often talk of the trance-like state they get into when for example, playing slot machines; reality and awareness of the world around them disappears and everything is focused on them to and the moment. As in poetry writing. British poet JLS Carter describes poetic creation as ‘An addiction – you can go for days thinking of nothing else, in a kind of trance where all other thoughts and considerations are sidelined. That way madness lies’. By its very nature, poetry puts a special power into words that affects us in a way that most conversation or written narrative does not. Poetry gets under our skin, alters our moods and stays in our head in a special way”.

Much of Burn’s admittedly anecdotal argument that poetry can be addictive all comes down to how addiction is defined in the first place and also takes the implicit view that some activities can be what Dr. Bill Glasser would call ‘positive addictions’ in that there are some behaviours that can have positive as well as negative consequences. However, for me, there is also the question of whether positive addictions are “addictions” at all. Have a quick look at Glasser’s criteria for positive addictions below. For an activity to be classed as a positive addiction, Glasser says the behaviour must be:

  • Non-competitive and needing about an hour a day
  • Easy, so no mental effort is required
  • Easy to be done alone, not dependent on people
  • Believed to be having some value (physical, mental, spiritual)
  • Believed that if persisted in, some improvement will result
  • Involve no self-criticism.

Most of these could apply to ‘poetry addiction’ but to me, these criteria have little resemblance to the core criteria or components of addictions (such as salience, withdrawal, tolerance, mood modification, conflict, relapse, etc.). My own view is that ‘positive addiction’ is an oxymoron and although I am the first to admit that some potential addictions might have benefits that are more than just short-term (as in the case of addictions to work or exercise), addictions will always be negative for the individual in the long run. Although no-one is ever likely to seek treatment for an addiction to writing poetry, it doesn’t mean that we can’t use activities like writing poetry to help us define and refine how we conceptualize behavioural addictions.

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

Further reading

Burn, C. (2015). Poetry Changes Lives. Biggar: DHH Publishing.

Burn, C. (2016). Poesegraphilia – Addiction to the act of writing poetry. Poetry Changes Lives, May 27. Located at: http://www.poetrychangeslives.com/addiction-to-the-act-of-writing-poetry/

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

GoodTherapy.Org (2016). Poetry therapy. Located at: http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/poetry-therapy

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. (2011). Behavioural addiction: The case for a biopsychosocial approach. Trangressive Culture, 1, 7-28.

Klein. P. (2006). The therapeutic benefit of poetry. The Therapist. Located at: http://phyllisklein.com/writing-for-healing/the-therapeutic-benefit-of-poetry/

Larkin, M., Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Towards addiction as relationship. Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 207-215.

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