Category Archives: Fame

Under the influence: Ten things I’ve learned from David Bowie

It’s now been a year since the tragic death of David Bowie and this is my fourth blog on him in that period (my others being my personal reflections on the psychology of Bowie, Bowie and the Beatles, and Bowie and the occult). Outside of my own friends and family, it’s still Bowie’s death that has affected me the most psychologically but at least I still have his music to listen to. Bowie inspired millions of people in many different ways. This blog looks at the things that I have learned from Bowie and how he influenced my career.

Persevere with your life goals – Most people are aware that it took years for Bowie to have has first hit single (‘Space Oddity’, 1969), five years after his first single (‘Liza Jane’, 1964). Even after the success of ‘Space Oddity’, it took another three years before he had his second hit single (‘Starman’, 1972) and in the early 1970s there were many who thought he would be a ‘one-hit wonder’ and a small footnote in music history. Bowie never gave up his quest for musical stardom and is arguably one of the best examples of the proverb If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I’ve often told others that they key to success is being able to learn from your mistakes and being able to handle rejection (which for academics is having papers rejected, grant bids rejected, and attempts at promotion rejected, etc.). Bowie personified perseverance and for this quality alone I am very grateful as it has been the bedrock of my career to date.

Encourage teamwork and collaboration – Despite being a solo artist for the vast majority of his post-1969 career (Tin Machine being the most high-profile notable exception), Bowie was (like me) a ‘promiscuous collaborator’ and much of his success would not have been possible without a gifted team around him whether it be his inner circle of musicians (Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp, Mike Garson, etc.), his producers (Tony Visconti, Nile Rogers, Ken Scott, etc.), co-writers and inspirators (Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, John Lennon, etc.), or those he jointly released music with (Mott The Hoople, Queen, Arcade Fire, Pet Shop Boys, Placebo, to name just a few). I have carried out and published research with hundreds of people during my 30-year academic career, and like Bowie, some are one-off collaborations and others are lifelong collaborations. Bowie taught me that although I can do some things by myself, it is the working with others that brings out the best in me.

Experiment to the end – Bowie was never afraid to experiment and try new things whether it was musical, pharmacological, spiritual, or sexual. Mistakes were part of the learning process and he pursued this – especially musically – until the very end of his life (for instance, on his ★ [Blackstar] album where he employed a local New York jazz combo led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin). Failure is success if we learn from it and this is one of the maxims that I live my life by. Bowie taught me that you can have lots of other interests that can be rewarding even if you are not as successful as your day job. Bowie liked to act (and obviously had some success in this area) and also liked to paint (but had much less success here than his other artistic endeavours). By any set of criteria, I am a successful academic but I also like to write journalistically and engage in a wide variety of consultancy (areas that I have had some success) and I like writing poetry (something that I have not been successful financially – although I did win a national Poetry Today competition back in 1997 and have published a number of my poems). Bowie taught me that success in one area of your life can lead to doing other more experimental and rewarding activities even if they are not as financially lucrative.

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Push yourself (even in the bad times) – One of the things I love about Bowie was his ability to carry on working and being productive even when he was not at his physical best. Nowhere is this more exemplified than working on the ★ LP while undergoing chemotherapy for his liver cancer. There are also other times in his life such as when he was at the height of his cocaine addiction in 1975 where he produced some of the best music of his career (most notably the Young Americans and Station to Station LPs, the latter of which is one of my all-time favourite records). I have had a few low periods in my life due to various health, relationship and/or personal issues but I have learned through experience that work is a great analgesic and that even when you are at your lowest ebb you can still be highly productive.

Have a Protestant work ethic – Bowie was arguably one of the most hard-working musicians of all time and had what can only be described as a Protestant work ethic from the early 1960s right up until his heart attack in 2004. I am a great believer in the philosophy that “you get out what you put in” and Bowie exemplified this. Andy Warhol told Lou Reed while he was in the Velvet Underground that he should work hard, because work is all that really matters (and was the subject of the song ‘Work’ on the seminal Songs For Drella LP by Reed and John Cale). Bowie also appeared to live by this mantra and is something that I adhere to myself (and is why I am often described as being a workaholic). While Bowie isn’t my only role model in this regard, he’s certainly the most high-profile.

Lead by example but acknowledge your influences – Bowie had a unique gift in being able to borrow from his own heroes but turn it into something of his own (without ever forgetting his own heroes and influences – his Pin Ups LP probably being the best example of this). One of my favourite phrases is Don’t jump on the bandwagon, create it”, and this has as underpinned a lot of the research areas that I have initiated and is something that I learned from Bowie. Maybe Bowie is a case of the quote often attributed to Oscar Wilde that “talent borrows, genius steals”.

Promote yourself – If there is one thing that Bowie was gifted in as much as his songwriting, it was his own art of self-promotion. Bowie always had the knack to generate news stories about himself and his work without seemingly trying. By the end of his career, it was the act of not saying anything or doing any personal publicity that was just as newsworthy. Bowie intuitively knew how to garner media publicity on his own terms in a way that very few others can. (I also argued that another one of my heroes – Salvador Dali – did the same thing in one of my articles on him in The Psychologist back in 1994). I’d like to think I am good at promoting my work and Bowie is one of my role models in this regard.

Be opportunistic and flexible – If there is one thing besides working hard that sums up my career to date, it is being opportunistic and flexible. As a voracious reader of all things Bowie since my early teens, I always loved Bowie’s sense of adventure and just following paths because they might lead you to something unexpected. Whether it was his use of the ‘cut up’ technique for writing lyrics (developed by Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs), his use of Brian Eno’s ‘oblique strategy’ cards, or his love of studio improvisation (such as on the Berlin trilogy albums and the Outside LP), Bowie showed that inspiration for his musical and lyrical ideas could come from anywhere – from a person, from a fleeting observation, from something he read, from something he heard or saw in film or TV programme, and from his own life experiences. I too have taken this approach to my work and believe I am a much better person for it.

Be a mentor to others – Whatever career path you follow, mentors are key in developing talent and Bowie was a mentor to many people that he personally worked with (including many of the artists I named in the section on encouraging teamwork and collaboration above) as well as being an inspirational influence to those he never met (including myself).

Learn from those younger and less experienced than yourself – Paradoxically, despite being an influence on millions of people across many walks of life, Bowie was never afraid to learn from those much younger than himself and exemplified the maxim that you’re never too old to learn new things. He loved innovation and ideas and would soak it up from whoever was around him. As I have got older, this is something that I value more and am never afraid to learn from those much younger or seemingly less experienced than myself – particularly my PhD students.

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

Further reading

Buckley, D. (2005). Strange Fascination: David Bowie – The Definitive Story. London: Virgin Books.

Cann, K. (2010). Any Day Now: David Bowie The London Years (1947-1974). Adelita.

Goddard, S. (2015). Ziggyology. London: Ebury Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). Heroes: Salvador Dali. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 7, 240.

Hewitt, P. (2013). David Bowie Album By Album. London: Carlton Books Ltd.

Leigh, W. (2014). Bowie: The Biography. London: Gallery.

Pegg, N. (2011). The Complete David Bowie. London: Titan Books.

Seabrook, T.J. (2008). Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town. London: Jawbone.

Spitz, M. (2009). Bowie: A Biography. Crown Archetype.

Trynka, P. (2011). Starman: David Bowie – The Definitive Biography. London: Little Brown & Company.

Sense and sense-ability: A brief look at ‘virtual reality addiction’

Ever since I started researching into technological addictions, I have always speculated that ‘virtual reality addiction’ was something that psychologists would need to keep an eye on. In 1995, I coined the term ‘technological addictions’ in a paper of the same name in the journal Clinical Psychology Forum. In the conclusions of that paper I asserted:

“There is little doubt that activities involving person-machine interactivity are here to stay and that with the introduction of such things [as] virtual reality consoles, the number of potential technological addictions (and addicts) will increase. Although there is little empirical evidence for technological addictions as clinical entities at present, extrapolations from research into fruit machine addiction and the exploratory research into video game addiction suggest that they do (and will) exist”.

Although I wrote the paper over 20 years ago, there is little scientific evidence (as yet) that individuals have become addicted to virtual reality (VR). However, that is probably more to do with the fact that – until very recently – there had been little in the way of affordable VR headsets. (I ought to just add that when I use the term ‘VR addiction’ what I am really talking about is addiction to the applications that can be utilized via VR hardware rather than the VR hardware itself).

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VR’s potential in mass commercial markets appears to be finally taking off because of mass-produced affordable hardware such as Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR and the (ultra-cheap) Google Cardboard (in which a smartphone can be inserted into cardboard VR headset frame). Last year, a report by the marketing and consulting company Tractica claimed that spending on virtual reality hardware could be as much as $21.8 billion (US) by 2020. A more recent report by online and digital market research company Juniper estimated that global sales of VR headsets would rise from 3 million in 2016 to 30 million by 2020. Three markets are likely drive sales, and they all happen to be areas that I research into from an addiction perspective – video gaming, gambling, and sex. I’ve noted in many of my academic papers over the years (particularly my early papers on online gambling addiction and online sex addiction) that when new technological advances occur, the sex and gambling industries always appear to be the first to invest and produce commercial products and services using such technologies, and VR is no different. As an online article in Wareable by Dan Sung on VR sex noted:

“What [VR] headsets offer is immersion; 180-degree (or more), stereoscopic action with you as the star of the show and the adult actors and actresses looking deep and lustfully into your eyes as they tend to your genitalia. It’s small wonder that users have been donning their headsets and earphones in numbers and praying to their god that nobody walks in. Yet gambling and porn are synonymous with addiction, and increasingly, questions are being asked about whether the VR revolution could finally ensnare us humans into virtual worlds”.

I was interviewed by Sung for the same article and I made a number of different observations about VR sex. I commented that in terms of people feeling reinforced, aroused, rewarded, sex is the ultimate in things that are potentially addictive. Sex is one of those activities that is highly reinforcing, it’s highly rewarding and how people feel is probably better than the highs and buzzes from other behaviours. Theoretically, I can see that VR sex addiction would be possible but I don’t think it’s going to be on the same scale as other more traditional addictions. The thing about VR (and VR sex) – and similarly to the internet – is that it’s non-face-to-face, it’s non-threatening, it’s destigmatising, and it’s non-alienating. VR sex could be like that whether it’s with fictitious partners, someone that you’re actually into, or someone that you’ve never met before. Where VR sex is concerned, if you can create a celebrity in a totally fictitious way, that will happen. There may be celebrities out there that will actually endorse this and can make money and commercialise themselves to do that. It can work both ways. Some people might find it creepy while others might see something they can make money from.

In one of my previous blogs I looked at the area of ‘teledildonics’, a VR technology that has been around for over two decades (in fact I was first interviewed on this topic on a 1993 Channel 4 television programme called Checkout ’93). Dan Sung also interviewed Kyle Machulis who runs the Metafetish teledildonics website for his article. He said that in relation to VR sex there is a problem with haptics (i.e., the science of applying tactile sensation and control to interaction with computer applications):

 “We’re good on video and audio but haptics is a really, really hard problem…A lot of toys out there right now are horrible and it’s very hard to come up with something quality. So, instead, what the porn industry is aiming for right now is immersion. It may not feel better but they’re so much closer to the action that it may be better, and I think we’re on the cusp of that right now.” First, we need consumer hardware. We need things to be released and available to customers to see if it’s really going to take off or not. But when this happens – late this year, the beginning of next – as soon as the headsets are available, the media is ready and waiting…Of course, there’s straight women, gay men and gay women to develop for too but, for a lot of people, the perfect porn experience is doing something that’s not even physically possible – either through the laws of physics or the laws of land, and that’s something that only VR can solve…Even so, what we saw in teledildonics in gaming is that people used them to begin with but there’s always a lot of fall off with new technologies like this. So, there’s going to be a hardcore set of people who stay with VR porn but it’s hard to say how popular it will be beyond that. We’re all still guessing at the moment. This time next year it will be a completely different story”.

Another area that we will need to monitor is how the gambling industry will harness VR technology. The most obvious application of VR in the gambling world is in the online gambling sector. I can imagine some online gamblers wanting their gambling experiences to be more immersive and for their online gambling sessions to be more akin to gambling offline surrounded by the sights and sounds of an offline gambling venue. There is no technical reason that I know of why people that gamble via their computers, laptops, smartphones or tablets could not wear VR headsets and be playing poker opposite a virtual opponent while still sat on the sofa at home. As Paul Swaddle (CEO of Pocket App) noted in a recent issue of Gambling Insider:

We already know that participation in online gambling is snowballing, so if the entertainment industry can use VR to simulate the experience of being inside a video game, or social media sites can give you the opportunity to not just see your friends’ pictures, but to walk through them, why shouldn’t online casinos be able to do the same? VR may actually be the hook that mobile and online casinos need to draw in more millennials, with the average age of players in mobile casinos currently being 40 [years old], and the average age of mobile gamblers in general being 35 [years old]. Millennials simply aren’t engaging with mobile and online casinos to the same extent as older generations, and I suspect that this is down to younger players being much more used to immersive and sociable gaming, as a result of the cutting-edge developments that are being constantly rolled out in the video gaming industry”.

I agree with Swaddle’s observations as the gambling industry are constantly thinking about the ways to bring in newer players. Today’s modern screenagers love technology and do not appear to have any hang-ups about using wearable technology including Fitbit and the Apple Watch. As Swaddle goes on to say:

“By using 
VR technology to transport players and their friends to exciting locations for their online gambling experience, such as a famous casino in Las Vegas, or a smoky basement room in 1920s New York, or even to the poker table in the James Bond film Casino Royale, mobile and online casinos may stand a better chance of drawing in younger audiences if they use VR to gamify the casino experience”.

Again, this makes a lot of sense to me and I wouldn’t bet against this happening. Swaddle thinks that such VR gambling experiences will become commonplace in the years to come and that the gambling industry needs to get on the VR bandwagon now. 

Perhaps of most psychological concern is the use of VR in video gaming. There is a small minority of players out there who are already experiencing genuine addictions to online gaming. VR takes immersive gaming to the next level, and for those that use games as a method of coping and escape from the problems they have in the real world it’s not hard to see how a minority of individuals will prefer to spend a significant amount of their waking time in VR environments rather than their real life.

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

Further reading

Ashcroft, S. (2015). VR revenue to hit $21.8 billion by 2020. Wareable, July 29. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/vr-revenues-could-reach-dollar-218-billion-by-2020-1451

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Gambling on the internet: A brief note. Journal of Gambling Studies, 12, 471-474.

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

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

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

Griffiths, M.D., Király, O., M. Pontes, H.M. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). An overview of problematic gaming. In Starcevic, V. & Aboujaoude, E. (Eds.), Mental Health in the Digital Age: Grave Dangers, Great Promise (pp.27-55). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Juniper Research (2016). White paper: The rise of virtual reality. Available from: http://www.juniperresearch.com/document-library/white-papers/the-rise-of-virtual-reality

Király, O., Nagygyörgy, K., Koronczai, B., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Assessment of problematic internet use and online video gaming. An overview of problematic gaming. In Starcevic, V. & Aboujaoude, E. (Eds.), Mental Health in the Digital Age: Grave Dangers, Great Promise (pp.46-68). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stables, J. (2016).  Gambling, gaming and porn: Research says VR is set to blast off. Wareable, September 15. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/gaming-gambling-and-porn-research-says-vr-is-set-to-blast-off-1682

Swaddle, P. (2016). Is virtual reality the future of mobile and online gambling? Gambling Insider, 23, June 3, p.9

Sung, D. (2015). VR and vice: Are we heading for mass addiction to virtual reality fantasies? Wareable, October 15. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/vr-and-vice-9232

Tractica (2015). Virtual reality for consumer markets. Available at: https://www.tractica.com/research/virtual-reality-for-consumer-markets/

Stars in their eyes: Another look at Celebrity Worship Syndrome

Last week I did a number of media interviews about Celebrity Worship Syndrome (CWS) including the Metro newspaper (‘From Beyonce to Elvis, here’s the ugly truth about why we worship celebrities’) and the International Business Times (‘Crazy about Kylie Jenner? Professor of Behavioural Addiction explains celebrity obsession’). I also wrote an article for the Huffington Post. The ‘hook’ for all these stories was the DVD release of the film Kill The King (also known by the title Shangri La Suite) which tells the story of two 20-year old damaged lovers – Jack and Karen (played by Luke Grimes and Emily Browning) – who head to Los Angeles to kill rock ‘n’ roll legend Elvis Presley in the summer of 1974. While Jack’s obsession with Elvis is somewhat extreme, over the last two decades there has been an increasing amount of research into CWS.

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CWS has been described as an obsessiveaddictive disorder where an individual becomes overly involved and interested (in short, completely obsessed) with the details of the personal life of a celebrity. Any person who is ‘in the public eye’ can be the object of a person’s obsession (e.g., authors, politicians, journalists), but research and criminal prosecutions suggest they are more likely to be someone from the world of television, film and/or pop music. Research suggests that CWS exists and that according to Dr. John Maltby and his colleagues (see ‘Further reading’ below) there are three independent dimensions of celebrity worship. These are on a continuum and named (i) entertainment-social, (ii) intense-personal, and (iii) borderline pathological.

  • The entertainment-social dimension relates to attitudes where individuals are attracted to a celebrity because of their perceived ability to entertain and to become a social focus of conversation with likeminded others.
  • The intense-personal dimension relates to individuals that have intensive and compulsive feelings about a celebrity.
  • The borderline-pathological dimension relates to individuals who display uncontrollable behaviours and fantasies relating to a celebrity.

Among adults, their research has shown that there is a correlation between the pathological aspects of CWS and poor mental health such as high anxiety, more depression, high stress levels, increased illness, and poorer body image. Among teenage females there is a relationship between intense-personal celebrity worship and body image (basically, teenage girls who identify with celebrities have much poorer body image compared to other groups). In addition, most celebrity-obsessed individuals often suffer high levels of dissociation and fantasy-proneness. Maltby’s research suggests about 1% of his participants have obsessional tendencies towards celebrities.

Research has also shown that worshipping celebrities can have both positive and negative consequences. People who worship celebrities for entertainment and social reasons have been found to be more optimistic, outgoing, and happy. Those who worship celebrities for personal reasons have been found to be more obsessive, more depressed, more anxious, more solitary, more impulsive, more anti-social and more troublesome. My own thoughts on CWS and celebrity culture are provided below and are from the interviews I did with the Metro and the International Business Times (IBT).

IBT: In a world filled with Kardashians, social media and vast consumerism, why do you think people are more obsessed with celebrities than ever?

MG: The first thing I would say is that most people are not obsessed with celebrities but there are probably a lot more people who are obsessed compared to a couple of decades ago (although this is speculation on my part as no research has ever examined the prevalence of celebrity obsession among a nationally representative sample). One study did estimate about 1% of their sample being obsessed with celebrities but there is no comparative study prior to that. However, I do think that the numbers of people who have celebrity obsessions has increased over the last 20 years and much of this is most likely due to the rise of celebrities using social media (and the fact that celebrities can now interact – if they want – hour by hour with their fan base) and the increase in general media coverage surrounding celebrity and celebrity lives (including a large increase in reality TV starring celebrities and an increase in the number of celebrity gossip magazines). These types of media and social media can give rise to what we psychologists call parasocial relationships. With respect to celebrities, parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, where fans express interest, time, money, and/or emotion in and/or on the celebrity (while the celebrity is totally unaware of the fan in any singular or specific sense).

IBT: Do you know what happens in the mind when we form an obsession or infatuation with some things? 

MG: Celebrity infatuations are nothing to particularly worry about because they tend to be intense but relatively short-lived admiration for the person. Celebrity obsessions can be of a lot more concern. At their simplest level, a celebrity obsession is when someone constantly thinks about a particular celebrity in a way that most people would describe as abnormal. This can be to the point where the obsession conflicts with most other things in the individual’s life including job or education, other relationships, and other hobbies. A person’s whole life can revolve around the celebrity and such individuals can end up spending way beyond their disposable income by buying their merchandise (CDs, DVDs, books, perfumes, clothing lines, etc.) and/or seeing them live on stage (singing, acting, etc.). There is no single explanation as to why someone might develop a celebrity obsession but many appear to start with a sexual attraction to the celebrity in question and have fantasies of what they would do if they met the object of their desire. Research has shown that there is a correlation between the pathological aspects of celebrity worship and poor mental health such as high anxiety, more depression, high stress levels, increased illness, and poorer body image. Among teenage females there is a relationship between intense-personal celebrity worship and body image (basically, teenage girls who identify with celebrities have much poorer body image compared to other groups). In addition, most celebrity-obsessed individuals often suffer high levels of dissociation and fantasy-proneness.

IBT: What does it have to take about a ‘celebrity’ for people to become obsessed?

MG: At a micro-level, any person who is ‘in the public eye’ can be the object of a person’s obsession (e.g., authors, politicians, journalists), but research and criminal prosecutions suggest they are more likely to be someone from the world of television, film and/or pop music. This is most likely because such celebrities tend to be more popular and have bigger followings in the public eye in media and on social media. At a micro-level, we are all individuals it could be something very idiosyncratic but given that the little research carried out tends to report that celebrity worshippers are sexually attracted to their celebrity of choice, then being good looking (at least in the eyes of the beholder) appears to be a common denominator.

IBT: How do you think today’s modern obsession with celebrity influenced and resounded throughout Kill the King?

MG: One of Jack’s reasons for being sent to a rehab centre – in addition to a drug addiction problem – is because of his “increasingly abnormal obsession” with Elvis Presley. While Jack’s obsession with Elvis is somewhat extreme and arguably a type of ‘Celebrity Worship Syndrome’, his character doesn’t seem to overlap too much with modern day celebrity worshippers. Jack’s character is more akin to celebrity stalkers or celebrity assassins (like John Lennon’s killer Mark Chapman) than the archetypal young female totally obsessed and besotted with their favourite pop star or actor. Given that Kill The King was set in 1974 and celebrity obsession (and Celebrity Worship Syndrome) is a more modern day phenomenon, I wouldn’t have expected that much overlap anyway.

Metro: Should we be worried about this kind of social media ‘bond’, seeing as icons like John Lennon were assassinated by fans who became obsessed with them?

MG: The chances of those things happening are few and far between. If someone is absolutely hooked on the idea of killing a celebrity, they’ll go and do it. I don’t think it’s to do with the rise of the mass media or anything like that. Most research says fandom is actually good for people. It gives them a hobby. Fans talk to other fans. It brings us together, and it can be life-affirming. I’m a massive, massive David Bowie fan. I’m a record collector, too and I’m probably more on the obsessive side than most people. But I don’t think I’m a worse person for that.

Metro: So what’s the difference between you and someone who spends thousands and thousands of pounds on plastic surgery to look more like their idol?

MG: Those are the real extreme cases. The good news is that recent research has shown that less than one per cent of people are really unhealthily obsessed with stars. And of those people, most are not going to do things that have negative effects on their life. In my opinion, the difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an unhealthy obsession is that enthusiasm adds to life, and addictions or obsessions take away from it. For most people, even those who have a compulsive element to their fandom like myself, it doesn’t have a negative effect on their quality of life. It’s probably better to buy records and memorabilia than designer handbags. Sometimes it’s not just about money, it’s about the time you spend as well. For one person, an obsession can be fine, and for another it can be very problematic. If a fan works in Tesco and they’re following their hero around the country, watching them night after night on tour and buying merchandise, they just don’t have the disposable income to do it. I could do that, thanks to my salary, but I can’t afford the time.

Metro: Is there a link between someone’s social background and their preference for celebrity culture?

MG: I don’t know the scientific link there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the lower the socio-economic class you’re in the more likely you are to be involved and like celebrity culture. ‘Gogglebox’ stars, for instance. The middle class, well-to-do people like current affairs, news and politics and those who are less well-off are probably more interested in EastEnders and things like that.

Metro: Are there any psychological issues that lead to celebrity worship?

MG: Those with celebrity worship syndrome tend to have worse mental health. They’re more likely to be anxious, depressed, to have high stress levels, increased bouts of illness and a poor body image. But it’s a case of the chicken or the egg, because these people might self-medicate through these parasocial relationships with celebs they’ll never even meet. 

Metro: What are the effects of celebrity culture? Particularly for young people?

MG: We know that young people are not as engaged with politics. They just don’t trust politicians, and it’s linked to the rise of social media. Celebrities have more pull, and followers, than [British Prime Minister] Theresa May or [leader of the Labour Party] Jeremy Corbyn will ever have. I’m not in a position to say whether people should be more interested in X or Y. Certain things in life make people feel good. As humans we seek out things that get us high, aroused, excited –  or we seek out things which tranquilise and numb us. Celebrities tend to give us a thrill. 

Metro: Are celebrities vulnerable themselves?

MG: I certainly wouldn’t like to be in a position where cameras are waiting outside my house. Stardom can bring positive things, but also a lot of unexpected negatives too. We have to remember at the end of the day that celebrities are just human beings, with all the same emotional foibles and weaknesses we have – and sometimes they’re magnified times a hundred because of the pressure and stress of the spotlight. And the internet, too. It’s no wonder some of them fall prey to serious addictions. 

Metro: People like Amy Winehouse? She’s the most recent example I can think of.

MG: Before she died, Amy Winehouse had got to that stage where she was very famous, and she was earning a lot of money. And that meant she was surrounded by sycophants and ‘yes’ people. Those kinds of people say things they think you want to hear, and they’re not necessarily looking out for you. Amy was surrounded by people thinking about their own wages and careers. No, it’s not a surprise when these things happen, and people could see it coming. Like with Kurt Cobain’s death. Amy didn’t get the help she needed. We can say that in hindsight.’

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

Further reading

BBC News (2003). Worshipping celebrities ‘brings success. August 13. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3147343.stm

Chapman, J. (2003). Do you worship the celebs? Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-176598/Do-worship-celebs.html

Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Does ‘Celebrity Worship Syndrome’ really exist? Huffington Post, November 18. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dr-mark-griffiths/does-celebrity-worship-sy_b_13012170.html

McCutcheon, L.E., Lange, R., & Houran, J. (2002). Conceptualization and measurement of celebrity worship. British Journal of Psychology, 93, 67-87.

Maltby, J., Houran, M.A., & McCutcheon, L.E. (2003). A Clinical Interpretation of Attitudes and Behaviors Associated with Celebrity Worship. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 191, 25-29.

Maltby, J., Houran, J., Ashe, D., & McCutcheon, L.E. (2001). The self-reported psychological well-being of celebrity worshippers. North American Journal of Psychology, 3, 441-452.

Maltby, J., Day, L., McCutcheon, L.E., Gillett, R., Houran, J., & Ashe, D. (2004). Celebrity Worship using an adaptational-continuum model of personality and coping. British Journal of Psychology. 95, 411-428.

Maltby, J., Giles, D., Barber, L. & McCutcheon, L.E. (2005). Intense-personal Celebrity Worship and Body Image: Evidence of a link among female adolescents. British Journal of Health Psychology, 10, 17-32.

Maltby, J., Day, L., McCutcheon, L.E,. Gilett, R., Houran, J. & Ashe, D.D. (2004), ‘Personality and Coping: A Context for Examining Celebrity Worship and Mental Health. British Journal of Psychology, 95, 411-428.

Maltby, J., Day, L., McCutcheon, L.E., Houran, J. & Ashe, D. (2006). Extreme celebrity worship, fantasy proneness and dissociation: Developing the measurement and understanding of celebrity worship within a clinical personality context. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 273-283.

Wikipedia (2012). Celebrity Worship Syndrome. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celebrity_Worship_Syndrome

Higher and higher: Can psychoactive substance use enhance creativity?

In a previous blog I examined whether celebrities are more prone to addictions. In that article I argued that many high profile celebrities have the financial means to afford a drug habit like cocaine or heroin. For many in the entertainment business such as being the lead singer in a famous rock band, taking drugs may also be viewed as one of the defining behaviours of the stereotypical ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ lifestyle. In short, it’s almost expected. There is also another way of looking at the relationship between celebrities and drugs and this is in relation to creativity, particularly as to whether the use of drugs can inspire creative writing or music. For instance, did drugs like cannabis and LSD help The Beatles create some of the best music ever such as Revolver? Did the Beach BoysBrian Wilson’s use of drugs play a major role in why the album Pet Sounds is often voted the best album of all time? Did the use of opium by Edgar Allen Poe create great fiction? Did William S. Burroughs’ use of heroin enhance his novel writing?

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To investigate the question of whether drug use enhances creativity, I and my research colleagues Fruzsina Iszáj and Zsolt Demetrovics have just published a review paper in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction examining this issue. We carried out a systematic review of the psychological literature and reviewed any study that provided empirical data on the relationship between psychoactive substance use and creativity/artistic creative process that had been published in English in peer-reviewed journals or scientific books. Following a rigorous filtering process, we were surprised to find only 19 studies that had empirically examined the relationship between drug use and creativity (14 empirical studies and five case studies).

Six of the 19 studies (four empirical papers and two case reports) were published during the 1960s and 1970s. However, following the peak of psychedelia, only three papers (all of them empirical) were published in the following 20 years. Since 2003, a further 10 studies were published (seven empirical papers and three case studies). The majority of the studies (58%) were published in the USA. This dominance is especially true for the early studies in which six of the seven empirical papers and both case studies that were published before mid-1990s were written by US researchers. However, over the past 14 years, this has changed. The seven empirical papers published post-2000 were shared between six different countries (USA, UK, Italy, Wales, Hungary, Austria), and the three case studies came from three countries (USA, UK, Germany).

Seven empirical papers and two case studies dealt with the relationship between various psychoactive substances and artistic creation/creativity. Among the studies that examined a specific substance, six (three empirical papers and three case studies) focused on the effects of either LSD or psilocybin. One empirical study focused on cannabis, and one concerned ayahuasca.

With the exception of one study where the sample focused on adolescents, all the studies comprised adults. More non-clinical samples (15 studies, including case studies) were found than clinical ones (four studies). Three different methodological approaches were identified. Among the empirical studies, seven used questionnaires comprising psychological assessment measures such as the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT).

According to the types of psychoactive substance effect on creativity, we identified three groups. These were studies that examined the effect of psychedelic substances (n=5), the effect of cannabis (n=1), and those that did not make a distinction between substances used because of the diverse substances used by participants in the samples (n=7). In one study, the substances studied were not explicitly identified.

The most notable observation of our review was that the findings of these studies show only limited convergence. The main reason for this is likely to be found in the extreme heterogeneity concerning the objectives, methodology, samples, applied measures, and psychoactive substances examined among the small number of studies. Consequently, it is hard to draw a clear conclusion about the effect of psychoactive substance use on creativity based on the reviewed material.

Despite the limited agreement, most of the studies confirmed some sort of association between creativity and psychoactive substance use, but the nature of this relationship was not clearly established. The frequently discussed view that the use of psychoactive substances leads to enhanced creativity was by no means confirmed. What the review of relevant studies suggests is that: (i) substance use is more characteristic in those with higher creativity than in other populations, and (ii) it is probable that this association is based on the inter-relationship of these two phenomena. At the same time, it is probable that there is no evidence of a direct contribution of psychoactive substances to enhanced creativity of artists.

It is more likely that substances act indirectly by enhancing experiences and sensitivity, and loosening conscious processes that might have an influence on the creative process. This means the artist will not be more creative but the quality of the artistic product will be altered due to substance use. On the other hand, it appears that psychoactive substances may have another role concerning artists, namely that they stabilize and/or compensate a more unstable functioning.

Beyond the artistic product, we also noted that (iii) specific functions associated with creativity appear to be modified and enhanced in the case of ordinary individuals due to psychoactive substance use. However, it needs to be emphasized that these studies examined specific functions while creativity is a complex process. In light of these studies, it is clear that psychoactive substances might contribute to a change of aesthetic experience, or enhanced creative problem solving. One study (a case study of the cartoonist Robert Crumb) showed that LSD changed his cartoon illustrating style. Similarly, a case study of Brian Wilson argued that the modification of musical style was connected to substance use. However, these changes in themselves will not result in creative production (although they may contribute to the change of production style or to the modification of certain aspects of pieces of arts). What was also shown is that (iv) in certain cases, substances may strengthen already existing personality traits.

In connection with the findings reviewed, one should not overlook that studies focused on two basically different areas of creative processes. Some studies examined the actual effects of a psychoactive substance or substances in a controlled setting, while others examined the association between creativity and chronic substance users. These two facets differ fundamentally. While the former might explain the acute changes in specific functions, the latter may highlight the role of chronic substance use and artistic production.

It should also be noted that the studies we reviewed differed not only regarding their objectives and methodology, but also showed great heterogeneity in quality. Basic methodological problems were identified in many of these studies (small sample sizes, unrepresentative samples, reliance on self-report and/or non-standardized assessment methods, speculative research questions, etc.). Furthermore, the total number of empirical studies was very few. At the same time, the topic is highly relevant both in order to understand the high level of substance use in artists and in order to clarify the validity of the association present in public opinion. However, it is important that future studies put specific emphasis on adequate methodology and clear research questions.

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

Further reading

Belli, S. (2009). A psychobiographical analysis of Brian Douglas Wilson: Creativity, drugs, and models of schizophrenic and affective disorders. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 809-819.

Dobkin de Rios, M. & Janiger, O. (2003). LSD, spirituality, and the creative process. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.

Edwards, J. (1993). Creative abilities of adolescent substance abusers. Journal of Group         Psychotherapy, Psychodrama & Sociometry, 46, 52-60.

Fink, A., Slamar-Halbedl, M., Unterrainer, H.F. & Weiss, E.M. (2012). Creativity: Genius, madness, or a combination of both? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6(1), 11–18.

Forgeard, M.J.C. & Elstein, J.G. (2014). Advancing the clinical science of creativity. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 613.

Frecska, E., Móré Cs. E., Vargha, A. & Luna, L.E. (2012). Enhancement of creative expression and entoptic phenomena as after-effects of repeated ayahuasca ceremonies. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 44, 191-199

Holm-Hadulla, R.M. & Bertolino, A. (2014). Creativity, alcohol and drug abuse: The pop icon Jim Morrison. Psychopathology, 47,167-73

Iszáj, F. & Demetrovics, Z. (2011). Balancing between sensitization and repression: The role of opium in the life and art of Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Substance Use and Misuse, 46, 1613-1618

Iszaj, F., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2016). Creativity and psychoactive substance use: A systematic review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. doi: 10.1007/s11469-016-9709-8

Jones, M.T. (2007). The creativity of crumb: Research on the effects of psychedelic drugs on the comic art of Robert Crumb. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 39, 283-291.

Jones, K.A., Blagrove, M. & Parrott, A.C. (2009). Cannabis and ecstasy/ MDMA: Empirical measures of creativity in recreational users. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 41(4), 323-329

Kerr, B. & Shaffer, J. & Chambers, C., & Hallowell, K. (1991). Substance use of creatively talented adults. Journal of Creative Behavior, 25(2), 145-153.

Knafo, D. (2008). The senses grow skilled in their craving: Thoughts on creativity and addiction. Psychoanalytic Review, 95, 571-595.

Lowe, G. (1995). Judgements of substance use and creativity in ’ordinary’ people’s everyday lifestyles. Psychological Reports. 76, 1147-1154.

Oleynick, V.C., Thrash, T. M., LeFew, M. C., Moldovan, E. G. & Kieffaber, P. D. (2014). The scientific study of inspiration in the creative process: challenges and opportunities. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 436.

Plucker, J.A., McNeely, A. & Morgan, C. (2009). Controlled substance-related beliefs and use: Relationships to undergraduates’ creative personality traits. Journal of Creative Behavior, 43(2), 94-101

Preti, A. & Vellante, M. (2007). Creativity and psychopathology. Higher rates of psychosis proneness and nonright-handedness among creative artists compared to same age and gender peers. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 195(10), 837-845.

Schafer, G. & Feilding, A. & Morgan, C. J. A. & Agathangelou, M. & Freeman, T. P. &      Curran, H.V. (2012). Investigating the interaction between schizotypy, divergent thinking and cannabis use. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 292–298

Thrash, T.M., Maruskin, L.A., Cassidy, S. E., Fryer, J.W. & Ryan, R.M. (2010). Mediating between the muse and the masses: inspiration and the actualization of creative ideas. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 469–487.

No laughing matter: A brief look at scary clowns and coulrophobia

A few days ago, the Nottingham Trent University Press Office asked if I would be interested in speaking to BBC Online News about coulrophobia (i.e., a fear of clowns). Obviously this is not my specialist area and the only article I’ve ever written about clown psychology was a previous blog on coulrophilia (i.e., sexual arousal from clowns) and an article on the psychology of fancy dress. It turned out that the BBC were writing a story about the British police being inundated with clowns scaring people by jumping out and chasing them. More specifically, the story claimed:

“Police across England have been called to dozens of incidents in which pranksters dress as ‘creepy clowns’ to deliberately scare people. The culprits are said to be following a trend that started in the US [and has spread to other countries, including Canada, Australia and France]. A 30-year-old man was arrested in Norwich after someone dressed as a clown jumped out from behind a tree and “terrified” a woman in a public park. On Sunday Thames Valley Police said it had been called to 14 incidents in 24 hours. In County Durham on Friday, four children were followed to school by a man in a clown outfit who was armed with what turned out to be a plastic machete. In a separate clowning caper in County Durham on Friday, police in Peterlee posted a photo on their Facebook page of items including two masks confiscated from two 12-year-olds who officers said had gone to a primary school to scare children. Meanwhile, in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, a man dressed as a clown and carrying a baseball bat was reported to have chased a 10-year-old child through a park. Gloucestershire Police said it had received six reports of ‘clowns’ behaving suspiciously or carrying knives. In one instance a child was followed. A cyclist in Eastbourne, Sussex, was left ‘shaken’ after someone dressed as a clown jumped out from a bush brandishing what he believed was an offensive weapon. And in Sudbury, Suffolk, a boy was chased by “several people dressed as clowns”.

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As there was little academic research in coulrophobia, I felt I was as qualified as anyone to speculate on the roots of coulrophobia. I told the BBC that clowns tend to be scary because of their exaggerated looks and evil representation in films. Obviously, the vast majority of individuals are not scared of clowns in a day-to-day context but a clown’s face has become part of a scare culture. I noted that there is a stereotype of the nasty, evil, eerie clown. If you look at clowns facially what you tend to find is part of their face or feet are exaggerated, they have huge noses, scary mouths, huge elongated shoes, and wildfire hair. I also made reference to the cinematic trope of the evil clown. If you look at everything from Heath Ledger as The Joker in Batman to the clown in Stephen King‘s It. These clowns or characters with clown faces are either killers or they are doing really nasty things. Even if you have not come into contact with clowns, you’re likely to be influenced by what you see in television and films. According to the Wikipedia entry on coulrophobia:

“Clown costumes tend to exaggerate the facial features and some body parts, such as hands and feet and noses. This can be read as monstrous or deformed as easily as it can be read as comical. The significant aberrations in a clown’s face may alter a person’s appearance so much that it enters the so-called ‘uncanny valley’ in which a figure is lifelike enough to be disturbing, but not realistic enough to be pleasant—and thus frightens a child so much that they carry this phobia throughout their adult life. According to psychology professor Joseph Durwin at California State University, Northridge, young children are ‘very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face. Researchers who have studied the phobia believe there is some correlation to the uncanny valley effect. Additionally, the fact that much clown behavior is ‘transgressive’ (anti-social behavior) can create feelings of unease”.

A couple of weeks ago after the spate of US clown attacks, Professor Frank McAndrew wrote an article for The Conversation on the psychology of what creeps us out about clowns. He compared his own thinking to that of the Canadian psychologist Dr. Rami Nader. More specifically, Professor McAndrew noted:

“[Dr. Nader] believes that clown phobias are fueled by the fact that clowns wear makeup and disguises that hide their true identities and feelings. This is perfectly consistent with my hypothesis that it is the inherent ambiguity surrounding clowns that make them creepy. They seem to be happy, but are they really? And they’re mischievous, which puts people constantly on guard. People interacting with a clown during one of his routines never know if they are about to get a pie in the face or be the victim of some other humiliating prank. The highly unusual physical characteristics of the clown (the wig, the big red nose, the makeup, the odd clothing) only magnify the uncertainty of what the clown might do next”.

No-one knows why the spate of clown attacks have occurred in the UK (or elsewhere). My own take on it is that the flurry of media stories about the phenomenon has probably contributed to some copycat cases (which then led one news story to the headline based on my radio interview with Talk Radio: Killer clown attacks: Leading professor says sensationalist media has fuelled ‘Clownpocalypse’”) although there are likely to be other reasons (given that Halloween is coming up). As a psychologist I am far more interested in why someone would attack others dressed as a clown in the first place.

Here, I see a lot of similarities with online behaviour in that dressing up as a character is like the taking on of another persona when people are online carrying out anti-social acts such as trolling. While the psychological core and personality of an individual online or dressed up in an outfit with a mask (or thick hideous make-up) is still that same person, the anonymity provided by the nature of online interactions and the anonymity provided by wearing a different face or mask both lead to the person becoming more disinhibited and doing things that they would never do in a normal face-to-face situation. In essence, such people are taking on other identities – at least momentarily – and carrying out anti-social acts that they would normally not do. However, there will also be those who carry out such attacks because they get crazed and/or sadistic pleasure from doing so. Their motives may be as simple as boredom, revenge and/ or just wanting to ‘have a laugh’ – the main motives that have been found in my own research among people who troll online.

The current spate of clown attacks may well die down as quickly as they have come about and I’m sure as the media reporting decreases there will be less of such attacks (at least I am hoping so).

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

Further reading

BBC News (2016). ‘Creepy clown’ police warnings as craze spreads. October 10, Located at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-37605841

Dolan, L. (2016). Killer clown attacks: Leading professor says sensationalist media has fuelled ‘Clownpocalypse’. Talk Radio, October 11. Located at: http://talkradio.co.uk/news/killer-clown-attacks-leading-professor-says-sensationalist-media-has-fuelled-clownpocalypse#eO77SQMbGBWXECHO.99

Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Adolescent trolling in online environments: A brief overview. Education and Health, 32, 85-87.

Hayden, D. (2016). ‘Creepy clowns’ craze: Professionals hit out at pranksters. BBC News, October 11. Located at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-37611993

McAndrew, F.T. (2016). The psychology behind why clowns creep us out. The Conversation, September 29. Located at: https://theconversation.com/the-psychology-behind-why-clowns-creep-us-out-65936

Thacker, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory study of trolling in online video gaming. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 2(4), 17-33.

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

Wikipedia (2016). Uncanny valley. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

Zidbits (2011). Why are some people afraid of clowns? October 20. Located at: http://zidbits.com/2011/10/why-are-some-people-afraid-of-clowns/

Confession session: The psychology of apology

(Please note: The following blog is an extended version of an article that was first published earlier this year in the Nottingham Post).

Back in March 2016, Nottingham Labour Councillor Alan Rhodes made a public apology after the former social worker Andris Logins was jailed for 20 years for rape and abuse of children at a Nottinghamshire care home. Mr Rhodes said: “It was our role to keep children safe and we clearly didn’t” and that “we failed in our duty of care”. Although most of us apologise for all sorts of things each day, it’s becoming increasingly common for a ‘non-celebrities’ to say sorry in a public way – particularly for historical events that the person giving the apology had no part in.

There are three main ways of saying sorry. The first is the apology with no excuse, when we don’t try to justify what we’ve done. We simply take full responsibility and promise it will never happen again. Secondly, there’s the excuse apology when we say we’re sorry but also add it wasn’t our fault. For instance, we might blame someone else, an accident, human error, or a lapse of judgement. With the third type of apology, we don’t feel we’ve done wrong, but offer some sort of justification. If we’ve wronged someone, we might say they deserved it. We might even feel what we’ve done is so trivial it’s not even worth bothering about. Dr. Aaron Lazare, author of the 2005 book On Apology, says that an apology is one of the most profound interactions that two human beings can have between one another

But why do we apologise? Psychologist Dr. Guy Winch views apologies as linguistic tools that help us acknowledge violations of social expectations and norms. He also says that apologies help us take direct responsibility for the impact of our actions on other individuals and provide a way of asking for forgiveness. Consequently, we are able to repair our relationships with those individuals, restore our own social standing, and help ease guilt and/or shame. Confessing and saying sorry is a simple way to get rid of all those negative feelings. The guilt created by transgressions, such as lying on a CV, or cheating in an exam, can eat away at some people for years.

There also appear to be gender differences. Research studies have tended to find that women appear to say sorry far more than men, because men feel they’re ‘one down’ to someone if they offer an apology. In contrast, women will say sorry for things they haven’t done because they prefer to smooth things over quickly and keep relationships going. However, the differences may be more nuanced. One study found no differences between men and women in the number of the proportion of offenses that prompted apologies but men apologized less frequently than women because they had a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour. Another study found that men apologized more frequently to women than they did to other men.

We also appear to have developed a ‘confessional culture’ over recent years in which celebrities and politicians are keener than ever to publicly admit to their private indiscretions. It could be that we’re more forgiving of public figures and that because we know more about the pressures of fame, we empathise with them. Another reason might be we no longer care because we don’t think what someone does in the private life affects their job. One thing we do expect from public figures is for their apologies to be sincere.

Arguably one of the most high profile examples was former US president Bill Clinton and his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Although Clinton continually denied for seven months any such relationship, when he eventually said sorry in August 1998, it was seen as sincere and many people sympathised with him. By apologising sincerely, or appearing to, public figures demonstrate they’re human, with weaknesses just like the rest of us.

bill-clinton-monica-lewinsky

These days, celebrities are quick to admit to what they’ve done. Lots of actors, comedians, singers and sports people have confessed to their addictions to drugs, alcohol and gambling before checking into high profile clinics like The Priory. For some, it’s no doubt a cynical move to help their public image. By apologising promptly, they’re seen as being brave, and any bad publicity will die down more quickly. Those who offer belated, grudging apologies see their image suffer.

Apologies can also help those who receive them. Police forces up and down the country have piloted schemes where criminals are confronted by their victims and offered a chance to apologies (known as ‘restorative justice’). Many victims say the one thing they’d really appreciate is an apology, and they’re often grateful to receive on. As the saying goes, “sorry seems to be the hardest word” but it has the potential to mean so much to so many.

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

Further reading

Bachman, G. F., & Guerrero, L. K. (2006). Forgiveness, apology, and communicative responses to hurtful events. Communication Reports, 19(1), 45-56.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Saying sorry can make you feel so much better. The Sunday Post, January 23, p. 30-31.

Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Sorry may be the hardest word but more people than ever are saying it. Nottingham Post, April 11, p.14.

Fehr, R., & Gelfand, M.J. (2010). When apologies work: How matching apology components to victims’ self-construals facilitates forgiveness. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 113(1), 37-50.

Frantz, C.M., & Bennigson, C. (2005). Better late than early: The influence of timing on apology effectiveness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(2), 201-207.

Lazare, A. (2005). On Apology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scher, S. J., & Darley, J. M. (1997). How effective are the things people say to apologize? Effects of the realization of the apology speech act. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 26(1), 127-140.

Struthers, C. W., Eaton, J., Santelli, A. G., Uchiyama, M., & Shirvani, N. (2008). The effects of attributions of intent and apology on forgiveness: When saying sorry may not help the story. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(4), 983-992.

Takaku, S. (2001). The effects of apology and perspective taking on interpersonal forgiveness: A dissonance-attribution model of interpersonal forgiveness. Journal of Social Psychology, 141(4), 494-508.

Takaku, S., Weiner, B., & Ohbuchi, K.I. (2001). A cross-cultural examination of the effects of apology and perspective taking on forgiveness. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 20(1-2), 144-166.

Winch, G. (2013). Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts. London: Penguin.

“Every breath you take”: A brief look at love obsessions in popular music

“You are an obsession/I cannot sleep/I am your possession/Unopened at your feet
/There’s no balance/No equality/Be still I will not accept defeat/I will have you/Yes, I will have you/I will find a way and I will have you/Like a butterfly/A wild butterfly/I will collect you and capture you” (Lyrics to the song ‘Obsession’ by Animotion)

Like the word ‘addiction’, one thing we can say about the word ‘obsession’ that there is no absolute agreed definition. Dictionary definitions of obsession refer to an obsession as:

  • “…an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind” or “a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal” (Oxford Dictionary).
  • “…unable to stop thinking about something; too interested in or worried about something” (Cambridge Dictionary)
  • http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/obsessed
  • “…a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
  • “…an emotional state in which someone or something is so important to you that you are always thinking about them, in a way that seems extreme to other people” (Macmillan Dictionary).

More medical definitions (such as Dorland’s Medical Dictionary) describe obsession as a recurrent, persistent thought, image, or impulse that is unwanted and distressing (ego-dystonic) and comes involuntarily to mind despite attempts to ignore or suppress it”. Given all these overlapping but differing definitions, it can be concluded that obsession means slightly different things to different people. In the latest (fifth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), an obsession must be distressing to be classed as a disorder. (And that’s why my obsession with music is not problematic).

I deliberately mentioned my self-confessed obsession with music because this article is a (somewhat self-admittedly) frivolous look at obsession in song lyrics. The first song I remember listening to called ‘Obsession’ was in 1981 by Scottish band Scars (from one of my all-time favourite LPs Author! Author!), quickly followed by Siouxsie and the Banshees’ song ‘Obsession’ on their 1982 LP A Kiss In The Dreamhouse (which reached No.11 in the UK albums chart). Arguably the most famous song entitled ‘Obsession’ was 1984’s top five hit by the US band Animotion (which was actually a cover version as the original was released by Holly Knight and Michael Des Barres) and later covered by The Sugababes and Karen O (lead singer of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the theme song to the US TV mini-series Flesh and Bone). Many artists have recorded songs simply called ‘Obsession’ including Tich, Tinie Tempah, Future Cut, The Subways, Jake Quickenden, Jesus Culture, and Blue Eyed Christ (amongst others).

Almost all songs with the title of ‘Obsession’ have been about being obsessed (or obsessively in love) with another person and are probably not that far removed from songs about love addiction (such as Roxy Music’s ‘Love Is The Drug’, Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’, and Nine Inch Nail’s ‘The Perfect Drug’). Not all obsessional songs have the word ‘obsession’ in their title and probably the most famous songs about being obsessed with someone are ‘Every Breath You Take’ (The Police) and ‘Stan’ (Eminem; in fact the word ‘Stan’ is now sometimes used as a term for overly-obsessive fans of someone or something). As the Wikipedia entry on ‘Every Breath You Take’ notes:

Sting wrote the song in 1982 in the aftermath of his separation from [actress] Frances Tomelty and the beginning of his relationship with [actress, film producer and director] Trudy Styler. The split was controversial…The lyrics are the words of a possessive lover who is watching ‘every breath you take; every move you make’. [Sting said he] ‘woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour…It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn’t realize at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother surveillance and control…[Sting] insists [the song is] about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow”.

Sting’s experience of writing from what you know and feel is a staple motivation for many songwriters (and probably no different from academics like myself – I tend to write about what I know about). An article in the New York Post by Kirsten Fleming (‘When rockers are stalkers: ‘Love songs’ that cross into obsession‘) features a top ten list of ‘obsessional love’ songs (although I think very few of them are. Much better is the list of ‘greatest stalking songs’ put together by The Scientist on the Rate Your Music website). However, I do think the song-writing process can border on the obsessional and I think the Canadian-American singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette has a realistic (and perhaps representative) take on her song-writing as she noted in an online article:

“For me, what writes songs is passion. So if I’m passionately angry about something or if I’m passionately in love with something or if I’m passionately addicted to something or if I’m passionately curious or scared, this is what creates worlds in art. I think love and anger are two of the most gorgeous life forces, with love being the only one that is bottomless. All of these different feelings that I’ve been running away from my whole life, the only one that has remained bottomless and endless is love. All other emotions seem to ebb and flow and move through once they get my attention long enough to really feel, but love is the one that remains limitless”.

In this interview extract, Morissette uses the word “addicted” in an arguably positive way and echoes a quote I used in a previous blog from Dr. Isaac Marks who said that “life is a series of addictions and without them we die”. Morissette (in a different interview) was also quoted as saying:

“My top addictions are really recovering from love addictions, which is a tough withdrawal that I’ve also written records in the midst of. Probably the worst withdrawal I’ve experienced. Food addiction, which I’ve been struggling with since I was 14, and work addiction it’s the respectable addiction in the west, but it’s actually an addiction to busy-ness and the fear of stopping and being still, and all that would come up from that. Those three are my top ones, and I’ve dabbled in all the other ones but none of them have grasped hold of me like the first one did”.

The band that I think have lyrically explored obsessive love more than any other is Depeche Mode. I’ve followed them from before their first hit right up until the present day. I’ve included their songs on almost every mix tape I’ve made for any girlfriend I’ve had over the last 35 years. Their main songwriter, Martin Gore, explores the dark side of love better than any lyricist I can think of. Whereas Adam Ant wins the prize for the most songs about different types of fetishes and paraphilias, Martin Gore is the lyrical king of obsessive love (although he does occasionally wander into more paraphilic kinds of love such as the sado-masochisticMaster and Servant’. Here are just a few selected lyrics that I hope help argue my case:

  • Extract 1: “Dark obsession in the name of love/This addiction that we’re both part of/
Leads us deeper into mystery/
Keeps us craving endlessly/Strange compulsions/That I can’t control/Pure possession of my heart and soul
/I must live with this reality/I am you and you are me” (‘I Am You’ from Exciter, 2001)
  • Extract 2: I want somebody who cares for me passionately/With every thought and with every breath/Someone who’ll help me see things in a different light/All the things I detest I will almost like” (‘Somebody’ from Some Great Reward, 1984)
  • Extract 3: “Well I’m down on my knees again/And I pray to the only one/Who has the strength to bear the pain/To forgive all the things that I’ve done/Oh girl, lead me into your darkness/When this world is trying it’s hardest
/To leave me unimpressed/
Just one caress from you and I’m blessed” (‘One Caress’ from Songs Of Faith And Devotion, 1993).
  • Extract 4: “Taking hold of the hem of your dress/
Cleanliness only comes in small doses/
Bodily whole but my head’s in a mess/Do you know obsession that borders psychosis?/It’s a sad disease/Creeping through my mind/Causing disabilities/Of the strangest kind/Getting lost in the folds of your skirt/There’s a price that I pay for my mission/Body in heaven and a mind full of dirt/How I suffer the sweetest condition” (‘The Sweetest Condition’ from Exciter, 2001)
  • Extract 5: “It’s only when I lose myself with someone else/That I find myself/I find myself/Something beautiful is happening inside for me/Something sensual, it’s full of fire and mystery/I feel hypnotized, I feel paralized/I have found heaven/Did I need to sell my soul/For pleasure like this?/Did I have to lose control/To treasure your kiss?/Did I need to place my heart/In the palm of your hand?/Before I could even start/To understand” (‘Only When I Lose Myself’ from The Singles, 86-98)
  • Extract 6: “I want you now/
Tomorrow won’t do/
There’s a yearning inside/And it’s showing through/Reach out your hands/And accept my love/We’ve waited for too long/Enough is enough/I want you now” (‘I Want You Now’ from Music For The Masses, 1987)
  • Extract 7: “Don’t say you’re happy/Out there without me/I know you can’t be
/’Because it’s no good/I’m going to take my time/I have all the time in the world
/To make you mine/It is written in the stars above” (‘It’s No Good’ from Ultra, 1997)
  • Extract 8: “Wisdom of ages/Rush over me/Heighten my senses/Enlighten me/Lead me on, eternally/And the spirit of love/Is rising within me/Talking to you now/Telling you clearly/The fire still burns” (‘Insight’ from Ultra, 1997).

These are just a few of the ‘obsessional’ lyrics from Depeche Mode’s back catalogue (and there are plenty of other songs I could have featured). I often think that the lyrics in songs or poetry say far more about the human condition than any paper I have published on the topic, and that is why I am (and will continue to be) a music obsessive.

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

Further reading

Dorrell, P. (2005). Is music a drug? 1729.com, July 3. Located at: http://www.1729.com/blog/IsMusicADrug.html

Fleming, K. (2014). When rockers are stalkers: ‘Love songs’ that cross into obsession. New York Post, July 2. Located at: http://nypost.com/2014/07/02/the-10-creepiest-musical-stalkers/

Griffiths, M.D (1999). Adam Ant: Sex and perversion for teenyboppers. Headpress: The Journal of Sex, Death and Religion, 19, 116-119.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Music addiction. Record Collector, 406 (October), p.20.

Morrison, E. (2011). Researchers show why music is so addictive. Medhill Reports, January 21. Located at: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=176870

Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. Dagher, A. & Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 14, 257–262.

Smith, J. (1989). Senses and Sensibilities. New York: Wiley.

Silver cross? The strange case of counterfactual thinking among Olympic athletes

As a psychologist, I’m very interested in how people decide what the reasons for a behaviour or action are. For instance, if Brazil wins the gold medal in football at the Olympics there might be a whole range of reasons that we attribute this success to (e.g., the skill of the team, the manager’s team selection, the influence of home crowd support, etc.). If they get knocked out early in the competition, we might attribute the failure to a related but slightly different set of reasons (e.g., the manager didn’t pick the best players, the referee was biased in his decision-making, etc.).

However, there is a lot of psychological research showing that – on occasions – our attributions about the outcome of sporting events (both failures and successes) can be relatively unrealistic. Psychologists explain reasoning in these cases as due to counterfactual thinking (CFT) because it runs counter to the facts of the situation. There are always things that have happened to us in our lives where we dwell on something that we have done and make attributions about the causes of those events, even though we can no longer do anything about it.

Olympians who perform below their best can waste lots of time ‘torturing’ themselves about their performance (e.g., sprinters may re-run races in their head and imagine what they could have done differently). This is known as upward CFT. The opposite phenomenon (i.e., downward CFT) is when a person spends loads of time thinking about how things could have been a lot worse.

Psychological research has demonstrated that CFT is more likely to occur when an outcome is upsetting, negative, and/or unexpected. A really good example of this was in the 1998 football World Cup when England’s David Beckham was sent off for kicking an opposition player during the quarter-final against Argentina. There is no way of knowing whether England would have won the game if Beckham hadn’t been sent off. However, immediately after England’s loss, there was an almost universal attribution by the British media and the British general public that the only reason we didn’t reach the semi-final was the sending off of David Beckham.

This was a classic example of downward CFT at a national level. If England had been losing at the time of Beckham’s red card, it is debatable whether such attention would have been given. Similar types of national downward CFT were displayed when Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany in the 2010 football World Cup was not given. Had the goal been given by the referee, England would have levelled the game at 2-2 and perhaps the outcome would have been very different (even though most neutral observers claim Germany’s 4-1 win was fully deserved).

My favourite study in the area of CFT was actually carried out on Olympians by American psychologists Victoria Medvec, Scott Madley and Thomas Gilovich. They published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology entitled When Less Is More: Counterfactual Thinking and Satisfaction Among Olympic Medalists’. They were interested in whether the effects of different counterfactual comparisons were strong enough to cause people who are objectively worse off to sometimes feel better than those in a superior state. They came up with an ingenious way to look at this by studying the medals won during athletic competition.

“We chose this domain of investigation because in athletic competition outcomes are typically defined with unusual precision. Someone finishes first, second, or third, for example, thereby earning a gold, silver, or bronze medal. With all else equal, one would expect the athletes’ levels of satisfaction to mirror this objective order. We suspected, however, that all else is not equal – that the nature of athletes’ counterfactual thoughts might cause their levels of satisfaction to depart from this simple, linear order”

And that’s exactly what they found because they found that bronze medalists tend to be happier than silver medalists – and they explained this by comparison between upward and downward CFT. They expected those who won silver medals to be more focused on why they failed to win a gold medal (upward CFT). For bronze medalists, they expected them to be more focused on the fact that they finished with a medal rather than nothing at all (downward CFT). Medvec and colleagues put it a lot more eloquently than I could:

“For the silver medalist, this exalted status was only one step away. To be sure, the silver medalist also finished only one step from winning a bronze, but such a downward social comparison does not involve much of a change in status (i.e., neither the bronze nor silver medalist won the event, but both won medals), and thus does not constitute as much of a counterfactual temptation. In contrast, bronze medalists are likely to focus their counterfactual thoughts downward. Like the qualitative jump between silver and gold, there is a categorical difference between finishing third and finishing fourth. Third place merits a medal whereas the fourth-place finisher is just one of the field. This type of categorical difference does not exist in the upward comparison between second and third place”.

Basically, the authors attributed their findings to the fact that the most compelling counterfactual alternative for the silver medalist is winning the gold, whereas for the bronze medalist it is finishing without a medal. Therefore, bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists with the outcome – even though the silver medalists did objectively better in the event. The authors also noted that CFT might be very long lasting for athletes. They briefly recalled the case of the 1500m middle distance runner Abel Kiviat, who won a silver medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Kiviat had all but won the race until the British athlete Arnold Jackson “came from nowhere” and won the race by one-tenth of a second. In a 1995 interview to the Los Angeles Times, the then 91-year old Kiviat said: “I wake up sometimes and say, ‘What the heck happened to me?’ It’s like a nightmare”.

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

Further reading

Baron, R. A. (2000). Counterfactual thinking and venture formation: The potential effects of thinking about “what might have been”. Journal of business venturing, 15(1), 79-91

Byrne, R. M., & McEleney, A. (2000). Counterfactual thinking about actions and failures to act. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26(5), 1318-1331.

Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2008). The functional theory of counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12(2), 168-192

Medvec, V. H., Madey, S. F., & Gilovich, T. (1995). When less is more: counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic medalists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 603-610.

Roese, N. J. (1997). Counterfactual thinking. Psychological bulletin, 121(1), 133-148.

Roese, N. J., & Olson, J. M. (2014). What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking. London: Psychology Press

“Just one more thing”: The psychology of ‘Columbo’

My favourite TV detective has always been Columbo (played by Peter Falk). I have watched every single one of the 69 episodes (as my family will attest) many times. While I am working, I will often have Columbo on in the background in the way that other people have music on in the background (although I do the latter as well). For those reading this that have not come across Columbo, here is a brief synopsis from Wikiquote:

“Columbo (1968, 1971-1978, 1989-2003) was an American crime fiction television show about Lieutenant Columbo, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. He uses his deferential and absent-minded persona to lull criminal suspects into a false sense of security, by harassing and pestering suspects non-stop – without letting them know that they’re suspects – under the pretense that he’s simply being a pesky detective, in order to spy on them and agitate them into giving up clues”.

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I have asked myself many times why I love the iconic show so much and it’s hard to put my finger on any single reason. One of the things I love about the show is that almost all the episodes are a ‘reverse whodunit’ (often referred to as an ‘open mystery’) in which the viewer knows the identity of the murderer(s) and we watch to see how Lt. Columbo uncovers who the killer or killers are. (I say “almost all” because there are actually a few episodes that are more typical ‘whodunits’ such as 1976’s ‘Last Salute To The Commodore’, 1992’s ‘No Time To Die’ [involving a kidnapping rather than a murder] and 1994’s ‘Undercover’). Another aspect I love is the inherent contradictions in Lt. Columbo’s day-to-day behaviour. His dishevelled clothing (the infamous beaten-up raincoat), his apparently bumbling absent-minded nature, and his habit of going off-topic in conversations, but knowing that he is actually one of the most astute and clever detectives that you are ever likely to meet (he would no-doubt fit the description of the stereotypical ‘absent-minded professor’). As a psychologist I find him fascinating. As an article about Columbo on the Cult TV Lounge rightly notes:

“The emphasis is on the psychological duel between detective and suspect, with (mercifully) no interest in social commentary and few concessions to the ‘realism’ that would become more and more of a fetish in TV cop shows during the course of the 70s. This is pure entertainment and it’s all the better for it”.

And finally, it is Lt. Columbo’s brilliant trademark ‘false exits’ that wrongfoot all the murderers. After most informal interrogations with the murderer, Columbo leaves the scene, only to return a few seconds later with the opening gambit of “there’s just one more thing” (or a variant of the phrase) only for it to be the most important question that he “forgot to ask”. As an obituary at the In The Dark website on Peter Falk noted:

“The more trivial the “thing” is, the more damning it proves. As an application of psychology, it’s a superb tactic and it slowly but surely grinds down the criminal’s resistance. Often the murderer’s exasperation at Columbo’s relentless badgering leads to rash actions and errors; the second murder, if there is one, is never as carefully planned as the first”.

As the selected (emboldened) quotes above show, psychology is an integral part of Columbo’s appeal. I was also surprised to find that clinical psychologists and forensic psychologists have used Lt. Columbo’s modus operandi in their day-to-day work. (In fact, even some writers claim that if you want to be a better writer you should watch Columbo according to an article by Shahan Mufti in the New York Times; also, a number of marketing gurus claim that Lt. Columbo can teach marketers a thing or two – check out ‘10 things marketeers can learn from Columbo’). For instance, in an article on motivational interviewing (MI) via the Australian Mental Health Academy describe the ‘Columbo approach’:

“Proponents of motivational interviewing owe a debt of gratitude to the 1970s television series Columbo…[Columbo] was a master of the skill of ‘deploying discrepancies’, and MI therapists/practitioners can use the same skill to get clients to help them make sense of their (the clients’) discrepancies. With the Columbo approach, an interviewer makes a curious enquiry about discrepant behaviours without being judgmental or blaming. In a non-confrontational manner, information that is contradictory is juxtaposed, allowing the therapist to address discrepancies between what clients say and their behaviour without evoking defensiveness or resistance. Wherever possible when deploying discrepancies, practitioners are encouraged to end the reflection on the side of change, as clients are more likely to elaborate on the last part of the statements”

The article then goes on to explicitly describe specific MI interventions using the ‘Columbo approach’. Another online article by Greg Lhamon (‘A simple trick to make a powerful last impression’) describes the ‘Columbo Technique’. Here is an abridged version:

“One way in which you can leave someone with a powerful last impression is to use…“the Columbo Technique”…named after the lovable yet shrewd TV detective from the 1970s…He was unassuming and appeared almost absent-minded as he questioned a murder suspect. Yet his seemingly random line of questioning was the process by which he built an airtight case against the suspect. At the conclusion of every interview, he did something unique: he’d thank the suspect profusely, step toward the door, stop, and then turn back, and say, “Oh, just one more thing.” Then he’d ask one last question, a particularly damning question that let the suspect know that Lieutenant Columbo was onto him. Like every form of good communication, sincerity is critical. It cannot be contrived. The goal is simply to make a strong, memorable point, not to manipulate someone. The process is simple: (1) hold back a critical piece of information and reserve it for the end of the meeting, (2) right before you part company, share the information or ask a question, and (3) enjoy the response you receive”.

A 2009 article in the American Bar Association Journal reported that the best way to interrogate a suspect is to ‘Think Columbo’. The advice given was that police should focus on what suspects say rather than their behaviour (such as fidgeting, sweating, and averting eyes during an interview). After reviewing interrogation tapes, Professor Ray Bull, a British forensic psychologist told the Times newspaper that British police use an investigative interviewing technique:

“These interviews sound much more like a chat in a bar. It’s a lot like the old Columbo show, you know, where he pretends to be an idiot but he’s gathered a lot of evidence.”

The ABA article also included comments from American psychologist Kevin Colwell, who said that suspects that lie in police interviews “often prepare a script that doesn’t have much detail”. Colwell recommended using interview techniques where the individual undergoing questioning should talk about the event in question more than once “adding details in retelling the event about things such as sounds and smells” and asking the person “to recall the event in reverse” and that:

“Those who tell the truth tend to add 20% to 30% more external detail than do those who are lying. Those who are adept at lying may start to feel more strain if the interviewer introduces evidence throughout the questioning that has been previously uncovered. Detective Columbo, it turns out, was not just made for TV”.

Another reason I love Columbo because a number of episodes featured psychologists and/or psychiatrists as the killer, most of who used their psychological expertise to carry out an ingenious murder. This included the episodes ‘Prescription Murder’ (1968 – the first ever episode; Dr. Ray Flemming who uses his high intelligence rather than his psychiatric expertise to murder his wife), ‘Double Exposure’ (1973; Dr. Bart Kepple, a consumer psychologist who uses subliminal advertising to lure his victim to be killed), ‘A Deadly State Of Mind’ (1975; Dr. Marcus Collier, a psychiatrist who uses hypnosis to make his victim jump from a high rise apartment), ‘How To Dial A Murder’ (1978; Dr. Eric Mason, a behavioural psychologist who uses classical conditioning to train his dogs to kill his victim), and ‘Sex And The Married Detective’ (1998; Dr. Joan Allenby, a sex therapist who uses her knowledge of psychosexual roleplay to ensnare and kill her lover). In one episode (‘How To Dial A Murder’), Columbo and the psychologist Dr. Eric Mason have an interesting exchange:

Dr. Eric Mason: You’re a fascinating man, Lieutenant. Columbo: To a psychologist, sir? Dr. Eric Mason: You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat happily running around the yard digging holes all up in the garden, only you’re laying a mine field and wagging your tail.

As an ex-Professor of Gambling Studies, another aspect that I have noticed is how many episodes of Columbo feature gamblers and gambling that are often integral to the storyline. Gambling is a key feature in the episodes ‘Double Shock’ (1973; the murderer Norman Paris, a banker, is featured at a Las Vegas casino running up gambling debts), ‘A Friend in Deed’ (1974; the murderer Mark Halperin, a deputy police commissioner, is shown in his opening scene to be a regular casino gambler), ‘Uneasy Lies The Crown’ (1990; the murderer, Dr. Wesley Corman is a dentist and a compulsive gambler), ‘Death Hits The Jackpot’ (1991; photographer and murder victim Freddy Brower wins a $30 million on the lottery and is killed by his uncle Leon Lamarr), ‘A Bird In The Hand’ (1992; would-be murderer Harold McCain, a compulsive gambler tries to murder his millionaire uncle, owner of a US football team), ‘All in The Game’ (1993; murder victim Nick Franco is a playboy and high stakes poker player killed by his lover Laura Staton), and ‘Strange Bedfellows’ (1995; Randy McVeigh the murder victim owes money for gambling debts to the Mafia and is killed by his brother Graham who has ‘inherited’ his brother’s debt).

In another episode (‘Troubled Waters’, 1975), it turns out that the killer (Hayden Danzinger, an autocar executive) is also a regular casino gambler but this only comes to light late in the episode when Lt. Columbo talks to his wife (Sylvia Danzinger). Here we learn that Lt. Columbo thinks about slot machines:

Columbo: You see that fellow over there playing the slot machines? Waste of money. I’ve played it 44 times. I won once right at the beginning and I never won again. Sylvia Danzinger: You can’t beat ‘em. I don’t even try. Columbo: You’re not a gambler? Sylvia Danzinger: No, I prefer more quiet activities. Columbo: That’s funny. I was under the impression you and your husband went to Las Vegas quite a few times. Sylvia Danzinger: Oh, no. Hayden goes often but without me. I wouldn’t be caught dead there.

I’ve often wondered if gambling was an important issue (positive or negative) for Peter Falk in his private life, because when he wasn’t playing Lt. Columbo, it wasn’t unusual for him to be in gambling-related acting roles. Most notably, he played an ageing bookmaker Vinnie in the 1988 film Money Kings (also known under the title Vig, a film about the illegal world of gambling), and the 1988 film Pronto he played Harry Arno, a sports bookmaker who stole money from the local mafia boss Jimmy Capatorto. He also played the poker player Waller in a 1960 episode of Have Gun – Will Travel (‘Poker Fiend‘), and in the 1970 film Husbands he played Archie Black, one of three men undergoing mid-life crises following the death of their friend who then who all go to Europe to gamble, drink, and womanise.

If you’ve got this far, I’ll just leave you with the answers to a couple of my favourite Columbo trivia questions. The most asked question concerning Lt. Columbo (like Inspector Morse) is what was his first name. (When asked the same question in the series itself, Columbo would answer ‘Lieutenant’!). Lt. Columbo never once revealed his first name verbally in the series but did once flash his police badge in an early episode (‘Dead Weight’; Episode 3, Series 1) and accidentally revealed his name was Frank. The second most asked question is how Peter Falk lost his eye. Falk had his eye removed at the age of three years (due to cancer) and had a glass eye for the rest of his life. Although Falk had a glass eye, fans debated for years whether Lt. Columbo had only one eye. The answer was revealed in the 25th anniversary episode (‘A Trace of Murder’) when Lt. Columbo asked the murderer (Patrick Kinsley, a forensic expert) to look at something with him because “three eyes are better than one”!

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

Further reading

Burns, S. (2016). The Columbo Episode Guide. Located at: http://www.columbo-site.freeuk.com/episode.htm

Changing Minds (2013). The Columbo Technique. Located at: http://changingminds.org/techniques/questioning/columbo_technique.htm

Dawidziak, M. (1989). The Columbo Phile. Mysterious Press.

D For Doom (2015). Columbo, Season 1 (1971). Cult TV Lounge, July 3. Located at: http://cult-tv-lounge.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/columbo-season-one-1971.html

Haynes, N. (2012). Guide to TV detectives: No.1. The Guardian, January 23. Located at: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2012/jan/23/natalie-haynes-detectives-columbo

Henley, J. (2013). 10 things marketeers can learn from Columbo – yes, Columbo. Rock The Deadline, November 24. Located at: http://rockthedeadline.com/blog/content-marketing/10-things-marketers-can-learn-from-columbo-yes-columbo/

Mental Health Academy (2015). Principles and techniques of motivational interviewing. January 12. Located at: http://www.aipc.net.au/articles/principles-and-techniques-of-motivational-interviewing/

Mufti, S. (2013). Want to write better? Watch Columbo. New York Times (The 6th Floor), September 25. Located at: http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/25/want-to-write-better-watch-columbo/?_r=2

Telescoper (2011). In memorium: Peter Falk (1927-2011). In The Dark, https://telescoper.wordpress.com/2011/06/25/in-memoriam-peter-falk-1927-2011/

Weiss, D.C. (2009). The best way to interrogate: Think Columbo. American Bar Association, May 12. Located at: http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/the_best_way_to_interrogate_think_columbo/

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

Wikipedia (2016). List of Columbo episodes. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Columbo_episodes

Wikipedia (2016). Peter Falk. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Falk

Wikiquote (2016). Columbo. Located at: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Columbo

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.