Category Archives: Popular Culture

Money for nothing (and your clicks for free?): Why do gamers buy ‘virtual assets’?

Video gaming has evolved from a single-player platform to a multi-player realm where interaction with other players is often a necessity. In order to enter the game, players must first create an avatar, a representation of their self in the game that is used to explore and interact with the virtual environment. When creating an avatar, players can also buy virtual assets to augment and/or enhance their online character. Virtual assets are items or customisations for video game avatars, bases, and characters that are purchased with real money.

In a previous blog, I looked at some of the anecdotal evidence that claimed a few individuals had become ‘addicted’ to buying virtual assets. At the time I wrote that article, there was almost nothing published academically on the psychology of virtual assets and why people bought virtual assets. A few months ago, Jack Cleghorn and I published a qualitative paper in the journal Digital Education Review based on our interviews with gamers that regularly bought virtual assets. Today’s blog looks at some of our findings.

For researchers, the buying of virtual assets provides an opportunity to try and understand why people become so immersed in games and what motivates gamers to spend real money on items that some would consider as having no value. In a multi-player environment, it becomes clear that the avatars seen on screen are graphical representations of someone real and may be part of human desires to be noticed, respected, and interacted with. Furthermore the gamer controlling their avatar has motivations, emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Virtual item purchases are therefore likely to impact on a gamer’s psychological wellbeing.

The growing market for virtual items indicates that transactions are becoming commonplace in gaming. The virtual market functions similarly to real markets in that there is demand, fluctuating markets, and profits to be made. The importance of virtual items to some people is illustrated by a divorce claim in a story on Hyped Talk in which a wife made a claim for over half of her husband’s virtual assets. In a different case (outlined in a 2005 issue of The Lawyer), Qiu Chengwei, a middle-aged man killed a fellow gamer over a dispute involving a virtual item. Obviously these cases are extreme but they highlight the fact that virtual items can have both financial and psychological value for gamers.

But why do people buy virtual items? Performance and general quality of an item is seen to be an important motivation whether the item is real or virtual. Online, an appeal to social status may be a better predictor for purchase behaviour than function. However, some claim that appealing to social status has no motivational significance in purchase behaviour. Another unique element of buying virtual items is the potential exclusivity. Exclusive or limited items tend to be unattainable through gameplay and instead must be bought with money. Exclusivity online has been shown to be of importance, and segmentation is a technique used by the games producers that limits certain items to certain classes, levels, or races. This has been shown to stimulate purchase behaviour. The amount of time invested in a game is also key to understanding spending patterns, and gamers will often buy virtual items after a dedicated amount of gameplay has been spent building an avatar.

Naturally, the longer the amounts of time that are spent online and in-game, the more the player emotionally and psychologically invests in the game. The concept of ‘flow’ (formulated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in many papers and books) has been applied to gaming and can involve becoming emotionally attached to a character (in fact I published a paper on this with Damien Hull and Glenn Williams in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions). Flow is the feeling of complete absorption in an activity and affects consciousness and emotions of the individual experiencing it. A key element of feeling ‘flow’ is the experience and perception of the world of the avatar and has been applied to electronic media. The adaptation of ‘flow’ to the virtual world suggests that just like other leisure activities, an individual investing time in an environment where they feel socially accepted can become emotionally attached to their avatar. Gaming has been shown to affect consciousness and emotions of gamers that are both necessary in experiencing ‘flow’. It could be that purchasing of virtual items is also motivated – at least in part – by the feeling of emotional attachment to an avatar.

Gamers are being drawn in to an environment by the appeal of social interaction, manipulation of objects, exploration, and identification with the avatar. To some gamers, the virtual world can takes on more significance than ‘actual’ life and residency in their preferred games is what they consider their actuality. This suggests that the reward of gaming is great, indicating that those individuals who buy virtual items are doing so because they feel involved in an environment that benefits them personally.

Given the lack of empirical research, the qualitative study I published with Jack Cleghorn was based on in-depth interviews with six gamers who all regularly bought in-game virtual assets. We examined the (i) motivations for purchasing virtual items, (ii) psychological impact of purchasing virtual items on self-esteem and confidence, (iii) social benefits of gaming and virtual asset purchasing, (iv) emotional attachment to an avatar, (v) choice of items and customisation of the avatar as a form of self-expression, (v) impulsivity versus thoughtfulness in purchase intentions of virtual items, and (vii) impact of transaction machinery on the ‘game experience’ from a gamer’s perspective.

Using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA), the study was exploratory and aimed to understand the psychology underlying purchase intention of virtual items and assets among online gamers. As a result of interviewing the gamers, seven theses emerged: (i) motivation for purchase, (ii) social aspects of the gaming and purchasing, (iii) emotional attachment to the avatar, (iv) psychological reward and impact, (v) self-expression, (vi) ‘stock market gaming’ and gaming culture, and (vii) research/impulse buying. The use of IPA allowed each gamer to share their unique experience of playing and purchase behaviour.

Despite the negative aspects of online gaming, the gamers in our study emphasised a more positive side to buying virtual items and gaming more generally. Item exclusivity and item function were major motivating factors and contributed to an item’s importance in-game. Another key motivation for purchase behaviour was the appeal to social status. Attainment of items demonstrates to others how powerful the gamer is. Naturally, if an item has benefits for the avatar it is more likely that the gamer will spend money to obtain it. Function linked to progression, purchasing items, and buying in-game currency are all sometimes a necessity to progress. Novelty and collectability were also important motivators for some of our gamers. Despite subjective motivations, purchasing virtual items arose out of gaming as a predominant pastime. All of the gamers in our sample were dedicated gamers who spent relatively large amounts of time online and, as perhaps expected, larger gaming commitment to led to purchase behaviour.

An integral part of multiplayer gaming is the interaction with other gamers. The feeling of ‘social presence’ in an online environment is reliant on an emotional response to social interaction and the gamers in our study felt social satisfaction. The game sometimes enabled social interaction that might not otherwise be present. Previous research has shown how emotional attachment to games affects behaviour. Our study highlighted the role of emotional attachment to an avatar as a predictor for purchase intention. As well as emotional attachment increasing likelihood of spending, the spending of real money on items increases the attachment felt. It could be that purchasing virtual items may be a cyclical behaviour. It is also the case that purchasing affects the cognitions and emotions of gamers – ‘pride’ was a feeling that resonated among our interviewed gamers.

Our study also highlighted how gamers research items before purchasing them. It might be expected that easy-to-use transaction machinery might facilitate spending. However, in reality, the gamers we interviewed were guarded with their spending online and recommendations from friends playing a major role in purchase behaviour. Virtual assets can be then researched and the placing of real monetary value on the virtual items indicates the value they may hold to the gamer. Unlike media coverage focussing on the more negative impact of online gaming, our study highlighted the positive aspects of purchasing virtual assets for the gamer. They are able to feel connected socially, feel confidence in themselves and their success, express their inner and ideal self without constraint or fear, build lasting relationships, impress people, and generally benefit from gaming and buying virtual items.

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

Further reading

Bowman, N. D., Schultheiss, D., & Schumann, C. (2012). ‘‘I’m attached, and I’m a good guy/gal!’’: How character attachment influences pro- and anti-social motivations to play massively multiplayer online role-playing games. CyberPsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 15(3), 169-174.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. (1992). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Griffiths, M. D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.

Griffiths, M.D., Hussain, Z., Grüsser, S., Thalemann, R., Cole, H. Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2013). Social interactions in online gaming. In P. Felicia (Ed.), Developments in Current Game-Based Learning Design and Deployment (pp.74-90). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Guo, Y., & Barnes, S. (2011). Purchase behavior in virtual worlds: An empirical investigation in Second Life. Information and Management, 48(7), 303-312.

Hamari, J. & Lehdonvirta, V. (2010). Game design as marketing: How game mechanics create demand for virtual goods. International Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, 5(1), 14-29.

Hassouneh, D., & Brengman, M. (2011). Shopping in virtual worlds: Perceptions, motivations and behaviour. Journal of Electronic Commerce Research, 12(4), 320-335.

Huang, E. (2012). Online experiences and virtual goods purchase intention. Internet Research, 22(3), 252-274.

Hull, D., Williams, G. A. & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Video game characteristics, happiness and flow as predictors of addiction among video game players: A pilot study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 145-152.

Hyped Talk (2010). Virtually addicted Chinese woman claims virtual assets in her divorce plea. Available at: [Accessed: 6 March 2013].

Lee, P. (2005). The growth in the computer game market is leading to real legal issues in virtual worlds. The Lawyer, 19 (19), 14.

Lehdonvirta, V. (2009) Virtual item sales as a revenue model: Identifying attributes that drive purchase decisions. Electronic Commerce Research, 9(1-2), 97-113.

Li, Z. (2012). Motivation of virtual goods transactions based on the theory of gaming motivations. Journal of Theoretical and Applied Information Technology, 43(2), 254-260.

Manninen, T. & Kujanpää, T. (2007). The value of virtual assets – the role of game characters in MMOGs. International Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, 2(1), 21-33.

Are you ‘intexticated’?: Another look at excessive smartphone use

Yesterday, I received a copy of a new book called Too Much Of A Good Thing: Are You Addicted To Your Smartphone? by Dr. James Roberts (a Professor of Marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas). It’s a populist and easy-to-read book that you can read from cover to cover inside two hours. It’s not an academic book but there’s lots of input from various academics around the world (including me – which is why I was sent a copy of the book). It’s a fun read and is written by someone (who like myself) loves technology and all the great benefits it brings us.

The main thrust of the book doesn’t concern addiction per se, but is more concerned with how smartphones take us away from or compromises other things in our lives like our friends, our loved ones, our hobbies and (in extreme cases) our jobs. Roberts describes this as ‘cellularitis’ – “a Socially Transmitted Disease (STD) that results in habitual use of one’s cell phone to the detriment of his or her psychological and physical health and well-being”. In the second chapter, Dr. Roberts uses my addiction components model to describe his ‘Six Signs of Cell Phone Addiction Scale’ (although uses an older version of the components model taken from a paper I published on internet addiction back in 1999 in The Psychologist).

One of the chapters on the phenomena of ‘phubbing’ (i.e., phone snubbing – where someone you are socially interacting with would rather be on their smartphone, rather than talking to you). One recent paper by Dr. Roberts published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior even had the title ‘My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone’. The chapter also contains a 9-item ‘Phubbing Scale’ that Roberts developed with his colleague Dr. Meredith David (and a later chapter also includes the ‘Partner Phubbing Scale’). Academic research into phubbing has already started (see ‘Further reading below) and I’ll hopefully write a blog on that in the future. I also liked the concept of being ‘intexticated’ defined as being “distracted by the act of texting to such a degree that one seems intoxicated”.

In previous blogs I have examined the concept of mobile phone addiction, the most recent of which argued that there was nowhere near enough empirical evidence to be able to confirm whether addiction to smartphones exists. Dr. Roberts asked me about the topic for his book and here are the answers to the questions he asked me.

Can someone be addicted to their cell phone? Why or why not?

That depends on how ‘addiction’ is defined. I believe that anything can be potentially addictive if constant rewards and reinforcement are present. Some people may confuse habitual use of such technology as an addictive behaviour (when in reality it may not be). For instance, some people may consider themselves cell phone addicts because they never go out of the house without their cell phone, do not turn their cell phone off at night, are always expecting calls from family members or friends, and/or over-utilise cell phones in their work and/or social life. There is also the importance of economic and/or life costs. The crucial difference between some forms of cell phone use and pathological cell phone use is that some applications involve a financial cost. If a person is using the application more and is spending more money, there may be negative consequences as a result of not being able to afford the activity (e.g., negative economic, job-related, and/or family consequences). High expenditure may also be indicative of cell phone addiction but the phone bills of adolescents are often paid for by parents, therefore the financial problems may not impact on the users themselves.

It is very difficult to determine at what point cell phone use becomes an addiction. The cautiousness of researchers suggests that we are not yet in a position to confirm the existence of a serious and persistent psychopathological addictive disorder related to cell phone addiction on the basis of population survey data alone. This cautiousness is aided and supported by other factors including: (a) the absence of any clinical demand in accordance with the percentages of problematic users identified by these investigations, (b) the fact that the psychometric instruments used could be measuring ‘concern’ or ‘preoccupation’ rather than ‘addiction, (c) the normalisation of behaviour and/or absence of any concern as users grow older; and (d) the importance of distinguishing between excessive use and addictive use.

What signs or symptoms would you look for when deciding if someone is addicted to their cell phone?

You could argue that a person is no more addicted to their phone than an alcoholic is addicted to the bottle. Individuals tend to have addictions on their mobile phone rather than to their phone. For me to class someone as addicted to their mobile phone they would have to fulfill the following six criteria:

  • Salience – This occurs when the mobile phone use becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialised behaviour). For instance, even if the person is not actually on their phone they will be constantly thinking about the next time that they will be (i.e., a total preoccupation with their mobile phone).
  • Mood modification – This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of mobile phone use and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or paradoxically a tranquilizing feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’) when on the phone.
  • Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of mobile phone use are mobile phone users gradually build up the amount of the time they spend on their phone every day.
  • Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.) that occur when the person is unable to use their phone because there is no signal, mislaid or broken phone, etc.
  • Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intra-psychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) that are concerned with spending too much on their mobile phone.
  • Relapse – This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive mobile phone use to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive mobile phone use to be quickly restored after periods of control.

What is one suggestion you could offer to help someone better control their cell phone use?

I don’t have a single suggestion. If there was a single suggestion to overcome or better control problematic phone use then I could give up my whole research career. However, my tips on digital detox can be found here.


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

Further reading

Bianchi, A. & Phillips, J.G. (2005). Psychological predictors of problem mobile phone use. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 8, 39–51.

Billieux, J. (2012). Problematic use of the mobile phone: A literature review and a pathways model. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 299–307.

Billieux, J., Maurage, P., Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Can disordered mobile phone use be considered a behavioural addiction? An update on current evidence and a comprehensive model for future research. Current Addiction Reports, DOI 10.1007/s40429-015-0054-y

Carbonell, X., Chamarro, A., Beranuy, M., Griffiths, M.D. Obert, U., Cladellas, R. & Talarn, A. (2012). Problematic Internet and cell phone use in Spanish teenagers and young students. Anales de Psicologia, 28, 789-796.

Chóliz M. (2010). Mobile phone addiction: a point of issue. Addiction. 105, 373-374.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). Internet addiction: Fact or fiction? The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 12, 246-250.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Mobile phone gambling. In D. Taniar (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mobile Computing and Commerce (pp.553-556). Pennsylvania: Information Science Reference.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent mobile phone addiction: A cause for concern? Education and Health, 31, 76-78.

Karadağ, E., Tosuntaş, Ş. B., Erzen, E., Duru, P., Bostan, N., Şahin, B. M., … & Babadağ, B. (2015). Determinants of phubbing, which is the sum of many virtual addictions: A structural equation model. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 60-74.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Honrubia-Serrano, L., Freixa-Blanxart, M., & Gibson, W. (2014). Prevalence of problematic mobile phone use in British adolescents. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 17, 91-98.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., & Billieux, J. (in press). The conceptualization and assessment of problematic mobile phone use. In Z. Yan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mobile Phone Behavior (Volumes 1, 2, & 3). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Roberts, J.A. (2016). Too Much Of A Good Thing: Are You Addicted To Your Smartphone? Austin: Sentia Publishing.

Roberts, J. A., & David, M. E. (2016). My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone: Partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction among romantic partners. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 134-141

Smetaniuk, P. (2014). A preliminary investigation into the prevalence and prediction of problematic cell phone use. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 3(1), 41-53.

Ugur, N. G., & Koc, T. (2015). Time for digital detox: Misuse of mobile technology and phubbing. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 195, 1022-1031.

Penned in: How to become an excessive (and productive) writer

Many people that I know would probably describe me as a ‘writaholic’ based on the number of articles and papers that I have had published. When it comes to addictions in academia, ‘writing addiction’ is just about the best one you can have. I don’t believe I have an addiction to writing but it is a very salient activity in my life and I am a habitual writer and I write every day. In previous blogs I examined diary writing and psychological wellbeing as well as an article on graphomania (obsessive writing). Today’s blog briefly examines some of the things that make people more productive writers (and by definition a more excessive writer). During my career I’ve published many articles on the writing process (see ‘Further reading’ below) and today’s blog looks at some of my beliefs and practices.

Before outlining some general advice, it’s also worth exploring many of the false beliefs that many of us have about writing – beliefs which may explain why many of us don’t like writing. For instance:

  • Writing is inherently difficult: Like speaking, writing doesn’t need to be perfect to be effective and satisfying.
  • Good writing must be original: Little, if any, of what we write is truly original. What makes our ideas worthwhile communicating is the way we present them.
  • Good writing must be perfect preferably in a single draft: In general, the more successful writers are more likely to revise manuscripts.
  • Good writing must be spontaneous: There appears to be a belief that writing should await inspiration. However, the most productive and satisfying way to write is habitually, regardless of mood or inspiration. Writers who overvalue spontaneity tend to postpone writing, and if they write at all, they write in binges that they associate with fatigue.
  • Good writing must proceed quickly: Procrastination goes hand in hand with impatience. Those writers who often delay writing suppose that writing must proceed quickly and effortlessly. However, good writing can often proceed at a slow pace over a lengthy period of time.
  • Good writing is delayed until the right mood with big blocks of undisrupted time available: Good writing can take place in any mood at any time. It is better to write habitually in short periods every day rather than in binges.
  • Good writers are born not made: Good writing is a process that can be learned like any other behaviour.
  • Good writers do not share their writing until it is finished and perfect: Although some writers are independent, many writers share their ideas and plans at an early stage and then get colleagues to read over their early drafts for comments and ideas.

Even when these false beliefs about writing are dispelled, many of us can still have problems putting pen to paper or finger to keypad. Insights about writing only slowly translate into actions. For most professionals, writing is only done out of necessity (i.e., a report that they have to hand in). This produces a feeling of ‘having to write’ rather than ‘wanting to write’ and can lead to boredom and/or anxiety. Furthermore, most people appear to view writing as a private act in which their problems are unique and embarrassing. Strategies for overcoming this include getting colleagues to criticize their own work before going ‘public’, sharing initial plans and ideas with others, and practising reviewing other people’s work.

It is generally acknowledged that there is no one proven effective method above all others for teaching people to become better writers. It is also a process that can be learned and can aid learning (i.e., a skill learned through opportunities to write and from instructional feedback). Although there are no ‘quick fixes’ to becoming a better writer, here are some general tips on how to make your writing more productive. I would advise you to:

  • Establish a regular place where all serious writing is done
  • Remove distracting temptations from the writing site (e.g., magazines, television)
  • Leave other activities (e.g., washing up, making the dinner) until after writing
  • Limit potential interruptions (e.g., put a “Do not disturb” sign on the door, unplug the telephone)
  • Make the writing site as comfortable as possible
  • Make recurrent activities (e.g., telephone calls, coffee making) dependent upon minimum periods of writing first
  • Write while ‘feeling fresh’ and leave mentally untaxing activities until later in the day
  • Plan beyond daily goals and be realistic about what can be written in the time available
  • Plan and schedule writing tasks into manageable units
  • Complete one section of writing at a time if the writing is in sections
  • Use a word processor to make drafting easier
  • Revise and redraft at least twice
  • Write daily rather than ‘bingeing’ all in one go
  • Share writing with peers as people are more helpful, judgmental and critical on ‘unfinished’ drafts

Obviously, the problem with such a prescriptive list such as this is that not every suggestion will work for everyone. Many of us know our own limitations and create the right conditions to help get the creative juices going. Some people can’t write in silence or with others in the room. By reading this short blog I cannot make you become a more productive and excessive writer overnight. However, it has hopefully equipped my blog readers with some tips and discussion points that may help in facilitating better writing amongst yourselves and colleagues.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). Productive writing in the education system. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 7, 460-462.

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). How to…get students to write with confidence. Times Higher Education Supplement, June 8, p.24.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Tips on…Report writing. British Medical Journal (Careers), 328, 28.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Writing for non-refereed outlets (Part 1 – Professional journals and newsletters). Psy-PAG Quarterly, 29, 41-42.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). Writing for non-refereed outlets (Part 2 – Newspapers and magazines). Psy-PAG Quarterly, 30, 5-6.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Writing and getting published – My top 10 tips. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 34, 2-4.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Addiction, fiction and media depiction: A light-hearted look at scientific writing and the media. Null Hypothesis: The Journal of Unlikely Science, 2(2), 16-17.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Top tips on…Writing with confidence. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 76, 33-34.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). How writing blogs can help your academic career. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 87, 39-40.

Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Top tips on…Writing blogs. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 90, 13-14.

Good buy to love: Introducing the Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale

(Please note that the following article was co-written using material provided by my research colleague Dr. Cecilie Schou Andreassen and our fellow researchers).

In two of my previous blogs I took a brief look at the area of shopping addiction (that you can read here and here). Since writing those blogs I’ve co-written a few papers on compulsive buying and shopping addiction (see ‘Further reading’ below), the latest of which was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology (FiP) and led by my friend and research colleague Dr. Cecilie Schou Andreassen at the University of Bergen in Norway. In the FiP paper we reported on the development of a newly created instrument to assess this disorder called the Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale (BSAS).

Whether compulsive and excessive shopping represents an impulse-control, obsessive-compulsive or addictive disorder has been debated for several years This fact is reflected in the many names that have been given to this disorder including ‘oniomania’, ‘shopaholism’, ‘compulsive shopping’, ‘compulsive consumption’, ‘impulsive buying’, “compulsive buying’ and ‘compulsive spending’. In a review by Dr. Andreasson in the Journal of Norwegian Psychological Association, she argued that shopping disorder is best understood from an addiction perspective, and defined it as “being overly concerned about shopping, driven by an uncontrollable shopping motivation, and to investing so much time and effort into shopping that it impairs other important life areas”. Several authors (including myself) share this view as a growing body of research shows that those with problematic shopping behaviour report specific addiction symptoms such as craving, withdrawal, loss of control, and tolerance.

Research also suggests that the typical shopping addict is young, female, and of lower educational background. Some personality factors have also been shown to be associated with shopping addiction including extroversion and neuroticism. It has been suggested that neurotic individuals (typically being anxious, depressive, and self-conscious) may use shopping as means of reducing their negative emotional feelings. Other personality factors may actually protect individuals from developing shopping addictions (e.g., conscientiousness). Empirical research (including some research I carried out with Kate Davenport and James Houston published in a 2012 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction) has consistently reported significantly lower levels of self-esteem among shopping addicts. Such findings suggest that irrational beliefs such as “buying a product will make life better” and “shopping this item will enhance my self-image” may trigger excessive shopping behaviour in people with low self-esteem. However, this may be related to depression, which has been shown to be highly comorbid with problematic shopping.

Other factors, such as anxiety have also often been associated with shopping, and it has also been suggested that self-critical people shop in order to escape, or cope with, negative feelings. In addition, shopping addiction has also been explained (by such people as Dr. Marc Potenza and Dr. Eric Hollander) as a way of regulating neurochemical (e.g., serotonergic, dopaminergic, opioid) abnormalities and has been successfully treated with pharmacological agents, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and opioid antagonists.

One of the key problems that we outlined in our new FiP paper is that in prior research there is a lack of a common understanding about how problematic shopping should be defined, conceptualized, and measured. Consequently, there are huge disparities and unreliable prevalence estimates of shopping addiction ranging from 1% to 20% and beyond (depending upon the criteria used to assess the disorder). Although several scales for assessing shopping addiction have been developed (mainly in the late 1980s and early 1990s) many of them have poor theoretical anchoring and/or are primarily rooted within the impulse-control paradigm. We also argued that several items of existing scales are outdated with regards to modern consumer patterns (such as people using cheques or no reference to online shopping). Newer scales that have been developed don’t view problematic shopping behaviour as an addiction in terms of core addiction criteria (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, relapse and resulting problems).

This is why we decided to develop a new shopping addiction scale (i.e., the BSAS) containing a small number of items that reflect the core elements of addiction (and if you want to take the test yourself, it’s at the end of this article). We examined the psychometric properties of the new scale among a large sample of Norwegian individuals (n=23,537), and the testing phase began with 28 items (four statements for each of the seven components of addiction outlined above). The BSAS was constructed simply by taking the highest scoring item from each of seven 4-item clusters. We found that scores on the BSAS were significantly higher among females, as well as being inversely related to age (and therefore in line with previous research). We also found that scores on the BSAS were positively associated with extroversion and neuroticism.

The association of shopping addiction with extroversion may reflect that, in general, extroverts need more stimulation than non-extroverted individuals, a notion that is in line with studies showing that extroversion is associated with addictions more generally. It may also reflect the notion that extroverts purchase specific types of products excessively as a means to express their individuality, enhance personal attractiveness, or as a way to belong to a certain privileged group a (e.g., the buying of high end luxury goods). The association of shopping addiction with neuroticism may be because neuroticism is a general vulnerability factor for the development of psychopathology and that people scoring high on neuroticism engage excessively in different behaviours in order to escape from dysphoric feelings.

We also found that shopping addiction was inversely related to self-esteem. This is also in line with the findings of previous studies and implies that some individuals shop excessively in order to obtain higher self-esteem (e.g., associated “rub-off” effects from high status items such as popularity, compliments, in-group ‘likes’, omnipotent feelings while buying items, attention during the shopping process from helping retail personnel), to escape from feelings of low self-esteem, or that shopping addiction lowers self-esteem. Obviously our new scale needs to be further evaluated in future studies (as it has only been investigated in this one study) and it also requires validation in other cultures.

Overall, we concluded that the BSAS has good psychometrics – basically the scale is quick to administer, reliable and valid. With the advent of new technology and modern consumer patterns we may be witnessing an increase in problematic shopping behaviour. It is likely that new Internet-related technologies can greatly facilitate the emergence of problematic shopping behaviour because of factors such as accessibility, affordability, anonymity, convenience, and disinhibition. Therefore, we encourage other researchers to consider using the BSAS in epidemiological studies and treatment settings.

Want to take the test?  

Answer each of the following questions with one of the following five responses: ‘completely disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘neither disagree nor agree’, ‘agree’, and ‘completely agree’.

  • You think about shopping/buying things all the time
  • You shop/buy things in order to change your mood
  • You shop/buy so much that it negatively affects your daily obligations (e.g., school and work)
  • You feel you have to shop/buy more and more to obtain the same satisfaction as before.
  • You have decided to shop/buy less, but have not been able to do so
  • You feel bad if you for some reason are prevented from shopping/buying things
  • You shop/buy so much that it has impaired your well-being

If you answer “agree” or “completely agree” on at least four of the seven items, you may be a shopping addict.

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

Further reading

Aboujaoude, E. (2014). Compulsive buying disorder: A review and update. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 20, 4021-4025.

Andreassen, C. S. (2014). Shopping addiction: An overview. Journal of Norwegian Psychological Association, 51, 194–209.

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Pallesen, S., Bilder, R.M., Torsheim, T. Aboujaoude, E.N. (2015). The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale: Reliability and validity of a brief screening test. Frontiers in Psychology, 6:1374. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01374.

Davenport, K., Houston, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Excessive eating and compulsive buying behaviours in women: An empirical pilot study examining reward sensitivity, anxiety, impulsivity, self-esteem and social desirability. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 474-489.

Maraz, A., Eisinger, A., Hende, Urbán, R., Paksi, B., Kun, B., Kökönyei, G., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Measuring compulsive buying behaviour: Psychometric validity of three different scales and prevalence in the general population and in shopping centres. Psychiatry Research, 225, 326–334.

McQueen, P., Moulding, R., & Kyrios, M. (2014). Experimental evidence for the influence of cognitions on compulsive buying. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 45, 496–501.

Workman, L., & Paper, D. (2010). Compulsive buying: A theoretical framework. Journal of Business Inquiry, 9, 89–126.

Word up: The phonetics of branding in marketing

Although I have published a number of papers on the psychology of gambling advertising, branding, and marketing, I cannot claim to be in expert in the more general area of branding psychology. However, I feel more knowledgeable about the area having just read a fascinating paper by Sascha Topolinski, Michael Zürn and Iris Schneider recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Their paper examines the biomechanical connection between articulation and ingestion-related mouth movements to introduce a novel psychological principle of brand name design”. Now I’m sure a lot of you will be none-the-wiser from that description but keep with me because I think what they have done is ingenious. Before I get to the heart of their research findings, I ought to add that I also learned a lot in their paper’s introduction. For instance:

  • Repeated exposure to brands increase positive attitudes and the likelihood of eventual brand choice, and also increases the fluency of a brand name.
  • Repetition-induced high fluency due to advertising depends upon subtle mouth exercises. Activities that stop this happening (such as eating popcorn while watching an advert in the cinema) inhibit the effect of the advertising.
  • Easier to pronounce brand names (unsurprisingly) increases fluency. The easier the brand name is to pronounce, the more positive individual’s attitudes are towards the brand.
  • Consumer responses to brands can be influenced by how the name of brand sounds (so-called ‘phonetic symbolism’). In these instances “the sound of a word conveys certain characteristics of the denoted object or product, such as size, color, or touch. For instance, some vowels sound high (for instance [i] as in SWEET), and other vowels sound low, (for instance [u] as in LOOP). High vowels are associated with little, fast, or light objects, while low vowels are associated with large, steady, or heavy objects”. Research has shown that fictitious brand names for hammers (that are heavy items) are preferred by consumers when they contain low vowels whereas fictitious brand names for knives (that are light items) are preferred by consumers when they contain high vowels.

Based on these research findings, Dr. Topolinski and colleagues reached the conclusion that in relation to brand names, consumer choice can be influenced by word sounds and articulation fluency. However, their new research studies (seven studies in one paper) went beyond this by examining consumer behaviour towards brands based on the muscle movements while saying the name of the brand. The studies constructed brand names for diverse products that are spoken inwardly (from the front to the rear of the mouth, such as the fictitious brand name ‘BODIKA’), or are spoken outwardly (from the rear to the front, such as the brand name ‘KODIBA’). Here is the authors’ easy-to-understand explanation:

‘[It] is possible to construe words that feature consonant sequences that wander either from the front to the rear (inward) or from the rear to the front (outward) of the mouth. Take, for instance, the three consonants K, D, and P. Arranged in the word KADAP, first the rear back of the tongue is pressed against the soft palate to generate K, then the tip of the tongue is pressed against the soft palate to generate D, and then the lips are pressed together to generate P. These muscle tensions thus wander from the rear to the front of the mouth, this is, outward. Reversely, arranged in the word PADAK, first the lips are pressed together, then the tip of the tongue touches the soft palate, and then the rear back of the tongue touches the soft palate. These muscle tensions wander from the front to the rear, of the mouth, that is, inward. Combining such articulatory patterns with the muscle patterns of ingestion and expectoration, it is obvious that inward consonantal wanderings (PADAK) resemble the muscular dynamics during ingestion, and outward consonantal wanderings (KADAP) resemble the muscular dynamics during expectoration…Since ingestion is positively associated, and expectoration is negatively associated…consonantal wanderings may feel positive and outward wanderings may feel negative”.

The seven studies that were carried out (comprising a total of 1,261 participants) compared the fictitious inward speaking brand name (e.g., ‘BODIKA’) with the fictitious outward speaking brand name (e.g., ‘KODIBA’). The results of the seven studies (using a variety of different methodologies including laboratory experiments and surveys, and including participants that spoke different languages [German and English]) were very revealing. In summary, the participants (i) preferred the inward name product to the outward name, and (ii) reported higher likelihood to purchase the inward named product, and (iii) reported higher willingness-to-pay for the inward named brand (participants said they would pay 4-13% more for the inward name brand). The same effects were found in both English and German language. The authors concluded:

“[The] present approach exploits the biomechanical connection between articulation and ingestion to introduce a novel psychological principle for brand name design. Brands for which the consonantal articulation spots wander inwards in the mouth compared to outwards are preferred, elicit higher purchase intentions, and even trigger higher willingness-to-pay with a substantial possible monetary gain”.

The paper did make me wonder about implications for brand names in the gambling industry. All things being equal, it suggests that gamblers may prefer to spend their money with companies such as PKR and Bet 365 than Corals and 888.

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

Further reading

Baker, W. E. (1999). When can affective conditioning and mere exposure directly influence brand choice. Journal of Advertising, 28, 31–46.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Children and gambling: The effect of television coverage and advertising. Media Education Journal, 22, 25-27.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Brand psychology: Social acceptability and familiarity that breeds trust and loyalty. Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 69-72.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Does advertising of gambling increase gambling addiction? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 3(2), 15-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Responsible marketing and advertising of gambling. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, August/September, 50.

Hanss, D., Mentzoni, R.A., Griffiths, M.D., & Pallesen, S. (2015). The impact of gambling advertising: Problem gamblers report stronger impacts on involvement, knowledge, and awareness than recreational gamblers. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 29, 483-491.

Janiszewski, C. & Meyvis, T. (2001). Effects of brand logo complexity, repetition, and spacing on processing fluency and judgment. Journal of Consumer Research, 28, 18–32.

Laham, S.M., Koval, P., & Alter, A. L. (2012). The name-pronunciation effect: why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun. Journal of Experimantal Social Psychology, 48, 752–756.

Lodish, L. M., Abraham, M., Kalmenson, S., Livelsberger, J., Lubetkin, B., Richardson, B., et al. (1995). How TV advertising works: a meta-analysis of 389 real world split cable TV advertising experiments. Journal of Marketing Research, 32, 125–139.

Lowrey, T. M., and Shrum, L. J. (2007). Phonetic symbolism and brand name preference. Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 406–414.

Rozin, P. (1999). Preadaptation and the puzzles and properties of pleasure. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (pp.109-133). New York, NY: Russell-Sage).

Song, H. & Schwarz, N. (2009). If it’s difficult-to-pronounce, it must be risky: fluency, familiarity, and risk perception. Psychological Science, 20, 135–138.

Topolinski, S., Lindner, S. & Freudenberg, A. (2014a). Popcorn in the cinema: oral interference sabotages advertising effects. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24, 169–176.

Topolinski, S., Zürn, M. & Schneider, I.K. (2015) What’s in and what’s out in branding? A novel articulation effect for brand names. Frontiers in Psychology 6, 585. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00585

Shock ‘n’ roll: The art of Allen Jones and sexual fetishism

“I’m a friend of Mr. Pastry/I’m a friend of Allen Jones/I’m a friend of Shirley Bassey/I’m a friend of your chromosomes” (Opening verse to ‘Friends’, song by Adam and the Ants)

It was Adam and the Ants song ‘Friends’ where I first heard the name of the British pop artist Allen Jones. The song was first officially released in 1981 as the B-side of ‘Ant Rap’ but earlier versions had been recorded for a 1978 John Peel session and during the sessions for the 1979 Dirk Wears White Sox album. The Dirk version was eventually released on the 1982 ‘Antmusic EP’ (and ended up being Adam and the Ants last single before Adam Ant went solo).

In two previous blogs, I have looked at both the psychology of Adam Ant and an in-depth look at all his songs about sexual fetishism and paraphilias (based on an academic article that I originally wrote for Headpress: The Journal of Sex, Death and Religion). In one of those articles, I noted that Adam’s predisposition towards sex came not from musical influences but from figures in the 20th century art world. Adam Ant’s final year thesis was on sexual perversion and he was inspired by the iconographic images of Andy Warhol, the autoerotic paintings of Allen Jones, the neo-sadomasochistic fantasies of Hans Bellmer, and ‘sexpop’ travellers like Eduardo Paolozzi, Francis Bacon and Stanley Spencer. In 1977, Adam said:

The S&M thing stems from (when) I was at College Art School, with John Ellis (of The Vibrators), and all the time I was at Art College I was very influenced by Allen Jones the artist. All my college work is pretty much like this, this is just a musical equivalent of what I was visually doing at college”

As a teenager I collected badges and the ones designed by Adam Ant were clearly indebted to Allen Jones’ interest in fetishism (you can check out the designs in more detail here). Others in the pop world noted this including Justine Frischmann of Elastica. In a Melody Maker article by Simon Reynolds, Frischmann noted that Adam Ant “epitomised the brilliantly elegant side of punk, using all that Allen Jones type imagery like that table which was a woman on all fours with a glass top on her back. All his paintings were developed from Fifties porn – lots of airbrushed women in black leather. The Antz used a lot of that imagery. On one level, it’s very titillating, but it’s also very pop. So we’re gonna make the next album S & M, with us all in black leather. Actually, I think Madonna‘s ruined that for everyone, ruined the concept of pervy sex forever”.

Jones (born in 1937 in Southampton, UK) is arguably Adam’s greatest single influence and has been cited by Adam in many early interviews. He is best known for his use of slick fetishistic and obsessive objects, often of a sexual character (legs, stockings, shoes, etc.) taken from pornographic and women’s fashion magazines (with rubber fetishism and BDSM themes being very prominent). He was an early and leading figure in the pop-art movement as part of the so-called “dynamic generation” at the Royal College of Art (along with David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield, Peter Phillips, and Frank Bowing), and from where he was expelled in 1960 because of his controversial paintings. He was Britain’s ‘shock art’ bad boy decades before Damien Hirst. His early work was influenced by the Futurism school or art, and by reading the psychology of Freud and Jung, as well as the philosophy of Nietzsche. One of Adam’s songs ‘Ligotage’ (French for bondage) was directly inspired by his paintings. In the Wikipedia entry on Jones, he is quoted as saying:

“I wanted to kick over the traces of what was considered acceptable in art. I wanted to find a new language for representation… to get away from the idea that figurative art was romantic, that it wasn’t tough”.

It was in the late 1960s that Jones first started sculpting what art historian Marco Livingstone describes in his 1979 book Sheer Magic by Allen Jones as “life-size images of women as furniture with fetishist and sado-masochist overtones.” The three most (in)famous works (sharing as art curator Edith Devaney argued “a visual language”) were the erotic sculptures Hat Stand, Table and Chair made of fiberglass that featured busty mannequins dressed (or rather barely dressed) in patent leather. These works were met with both acclaim and disdain both in and outside of the art world with critics perceiving the sculptures as being misogynistic. Livingstone later went on to say “these works still carry a powerful emotive charge, ensnaring every viewer’s psychology and sexual outlook regardless of age, gender or experience”. One of the better descriptions of the three pieces was by Zoe Williams of The Guardian in an article provocatively entitledIs Allen Jones’s sculpture the most sexist art ever?’:

“’Hat Stand’ is a mannequin in radial leather knickers and thigh-high boots. ‘Chair’ is the most famous of the three: a woman lies on her back, with her knees against her chest and a cushion on top of her. That’s the seat, her calves make the chair’s back. While all the clothes – black leather gloves, boots and a strap – reference bondage, she also looks dead, trussed up ready for some inept suburban disposal. ‘Table’, being topless, is more classically provocative. It would be pushing it to say the figure was adopting a more active shape, though: she’s on all fours, holding up a pane of glass with her back, her head looking down into a hand mirror. Yet the physics of the position make her look more like a doll than a corpse…Does Allen Jones’s art expose how female stereotypes are performed and maintained, by presenting us with overtly sexualised hyperboles, or is it just another part of the age-old tradition to objectify and sexualise women? The debate goes on… One thing is sure though, Jones’s work still provokes reactions”.

More infamy followed when the sculptures were referenced in one of cinema’s most controversial films of all time – A Clockwork Orange directed by Stanley Kubrick (in 1971). In a later interview, Jones recalled a telephone call from Kubrick. “[Kubrick said], ‘I’m a very famous film director, this will be seen all over the world and your name will be known.’ I held the phone away from my ear, I was just staggered anyone would say that. It showed an ego that dwarfed that of any artist I’ve known”. Because of this, Jones declined Kubrick’s offer but the director’s prop team made copies of his work. His BDSM designs were also a key feature of the 1975 film Maîtresse about a female dominatrix directed by Barbet Schroeder (and which also caused controversy because of its very graphic depictions of sado-masochism). Zoe Williams in her article for The Guardian goes as far to say: Jones’s images have been so influential that almost no image of woman-as-object or woman-as-other-object can be created, even 40 years later, that doesn’t nod to them”.

In 2014, the Royal Academy of Arts hosted a retrospective of Jones’ work and Richard Dorment in the Daily Telegraph asserted: “you could argue that Jones’s work isn’t really about women; it’s about men and how they look at and think about women. Men use various strategies to neutralise or control desire. One is to fetishise the female body…[while] another is for the man to appropriate it”. The brief biography of Jones on the Artsation website also noted that: Allen Jones was accused of being sexist and depicting women as undignified, mere willing objects of lust. Jones obviously never intended to show women in such a way, he wanted to question prohibitions and moral boundaries. ‘Nothing is as it seems’, the artist once said and also in this case one should not confuse the appearance of the object with its message. With his objects the artist carries trivialities like sexual connotations from advertising and show business into fine art to stylize and satirize them”.

Bizarrely, perhaps one of Jones’ unforeseen legacies is that his work appears to have unwittingly spawned a new sexual paraphilia – namely forniphilia. As I noted in my previous article on forniphilia, it is a form of sexual objectification and is viewed by many as a form of sexual bondage as the human body is typically incorporated into the shape of a piece of furniture where the person has to stay still for extended periods of time. The difference between Jones’ art and forniphilia is that forniphilia involves real humans whereas Jones’ works of art uses ‘humans’ made of fibreglass. The term ‘forniphilia’ was allegedly coined by Jeff Gord, the man behind The House of Gord (“The Home of Ultra Bondage”). In The House of Gord, there are many types of furniture that women had been temporarily turned into. This included many different types of table, lamps, pedestals, various types of chair (office chair, rocking chair, etc.), footstools, ceiling decorations (including chandeliers), lawn sprinklers, and bird tables. If Jones’ art was the direct inspiration for Gord and his followers, I wouldn’t be surprised. But even if it wasn’t, Jones’ work will continue to live on and will continue to garner controversy and feminist critique.

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

Further reading

Ant, A. (2007). Stand and Deliver: The Autobiography. London: Pan.

Artsation (2015). Allen Jones – Biography. Located at:

Deurell, J. (2014). 10 key facts about Allen Jones. AnOther, November 10. Located at:

Dorment, R. (2014). Allen Jones, Royal Academy, review: ‘dangerous, perverse and brilliant’. Daily Telegraph, November 14. Located at:

Gregory, H. (2014). Fetish, fantasy & “women as furniture”: The complicated legacy of Allen Jones., December 3. Located at:

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

Guadagnini, W. (2004). Pop Art UK: British Pop Art 1956-1972. Milan: Silvana.

Levy, P. (2014). A Fetish for Art. Touring Pop artist Allen Jones’s London workspace. Wall Street Journal, November 14. Located at:

Livingstone. M. (1979). Sheer Magic by Allen Jones. London: Thomas & Hudson.

Wikipedia (2013). Allen Jones (artist). Located at:

Williams, Z. (2014). Is Allen Jones’s sculpture the most sexist art ever? The Guardian, November 10. Located at:

Glum drone pleasures: The psychology of Ian Curtis and Joy Division

“Now there’s a really good book…[by French economist] Jacques Attali wrote in the late [1970s] called ‘Noise: The Political Economy of Music’…and the main tenet of that book is that…music is the best form of prophecy that we have…so that working with music or sound is our best way of divining a future, and being able to show to ourselves what’s round the corner in that psychological, or even psychic sense” (writer and graphic designer Jon Wozencroft being interviewed for the 2007 film Joy Division)

As a poverty stricken teenager in the early 1980s, all of my minimal disposable income was spent on buying records, cassettes, and music magazines (and to be honest, 35 years later nothing much has changed except I now buy far too many CDs instead of cassettes). Unlike most of my friends at the time I refused to be pigeon holed as a new romantic, a punk, a mod, or a goth because I liked music from all those genres. In the early 1980s was as equally as likely to buy a record by Adam and the Ants and Bauhaus as I was to buy records by Secret Affair and The Clash. I was also into city music scenes with my favourites being the ‘Liverpool scene’ (Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, Wah! etc.), the ‘Sheffield scene’ (Human League, Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire, etc.), and the ‘Manchester scene’ (Magazine, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Smiths, The Passage, etc.).

The Manchester music scene was incredibly buoyant although often portrayed by the music press at the time as psychologically and emotionally ‘miserablist’. My parents could never understand what I saw in the “depressing and alienating music” (as they saw it) of bands like Joy Division and The Smiths. But it was through these bands that I developed an interest in psychology and what could be described as ‘psychgeography of post-punk’. In the case of Joy Division, their geographical location in Manchester and its surrounding area (Salford, Macclesfield) was integral to their music. In fact, a number of commentators (such as Liz Naylor, the co-editor of City Fun fanzine) have asserted that Joy Division “relayed the aura of Manchester” in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

All of my information about Joy Division came from reading the NME, listening to the John Peel Show on Radio 1, and listening to their two studio LPs (Unknown Pleasures and Closer) and assorted singles (that I mainly taped off the radio as most of them were not widely available). I was too young to go to gigs and they rarely appeared on television. Of the four members of Joy Division – Ian Curtis (vocals), Peter Hook (bass guitar), Bernard ‘Barney’ Sumner (guitar), and Stephen Morris (drums) – it was Curtis that captivated my adolescent attention. It was through Curtis’ documented medical conditions that helped develop my interest in psychology. Curtis suffered from epilepsy (like one of musical heroes Jim Morrison of The Doors) and clinical depression. It has also been alleged that he suffered from bipolar disorder (i.e., what used to be called ‘manic depression’) although this was never formally diagnosed (and many of those close to Curtis claim that such a claim is speculative at best).

Descriptions of Curtis’ behaviour on first sight look like bipolar disorder given the reports by his wife and others of his severe mood swings (where on one day he could have feelings of happiness and elation but on the next day could have feelings of intense depression and despair). However, other members of the band claimed that the mood swings were caused by the epilepsy medication Curtis was taking. However, bipolar disorder is not uncommon among musicians given many other high profile rock and pop stars have suffered from it including Brian Wilson (Beach Boys), Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Ray Davies (The Kinks), Sinéad O’Connor, Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), and Adam Ant (to name just a few). Curtis was never afraid to write about psychological and medical conditions and the song ‘She’s Lost Control’ is arguably the most insightful song ever written about epilepsy (based not on his own experiences, but his observations of a female epileptic client who died while he was an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer based at the Job Centre in Macclesfield).

As any Joy Division fan knows, as a result of his severe depression, Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself on May 18, 1980 (a date I always remember because it was my favourite gran’s birthday), just two days before Joy Division were due to go on their first US tour. Even as a 14-year old teenager, I remember going to my local library in Loughborough not long after his death to learn more about depression, epilepsy, suicide, and attempted suicide (as he had two previous attempts to commit suicide earlier that year). I’m not saying that this alone was responsible for my career choice but it certainly facilitated my growing interest in psychology and mental health issues.

It was also through Joy Division that I started to read history books (and still do) on various psychological and non-psychological aspects of Nazism (and is evidenced by my previous blogs on the personality of Adolf Hitler and Nazi fetishism). Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Joy Division were often accused of having Nazi tendencies. It didn’t help that their name came from the 1955 novella House of Dolls by Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor Yehiel De-Nu (writing under his pen name Ka-tzetnik 135633). The ‘Joy Division’ was the name given to a group of Jewish women in World War II concentration camps whose only purpose was to provide sexual pleasure to Nazi soldiers. I have to admit I’ve never read any of De-Nu’s books. According to an online article by David Mikies (‘Holocaust Pulp Fiction’), De-Nu’s writings were “often lurid novel-memoirs, works that shock the reader with grotesque scenes of torture, perverse sexuality, and cannibalism“. In the 2006 book Joy Division and the Making of Unknown Pleasures, Jake Kennedy asserted that “Curtis’ fascination with extremes would hint to anyone willing to look beyond the headlines that the choice of name was probably an old fashioned punk exercise,  matter of old habits dying hard”.

One of the bands earliest songs ‘Warsaw’ (which was also their band name prior to becoming Joy Division) is arguably a lyrical biography of Hitler’s deputy Führer Rudolf Hess. The song even begins with the lyric “3 5 0 1 2 5 Go!” (Hess’ prisoner of war serial number after he was captured after flying to the UK in 1941). Another of their early songs ‘No Love Lost’ features a spoken word section with a complete paragraph from The House of Dolls. A 2008 article by music writer Jon Savage in The Guardian newspaper noted that Curtis’ songs “such as ‘Novelty’, ‘Leaders of Men’ and ‘Warsaw’ were barely digested regurgitations of their sources: lumpy screeds of frustration, failure, and anger with militaristic and totalitarian overtones”.

Deborah Curtis (Ian’s wife) also remembered that her husband had a book by John Heartfield that included photomontages of the Nazi Period and that graphically documented the spread of Hitler’s ideals. The cover artwork of the band’s first record, the ‘An Ideal For Living’ EP, also featured a boy member the Hitler Youth drawn by guitarist Barney Sumner banging on a drum. Much of the flirtation with Nazi symbolism was arguably juvenile fascination and playful naivety. It’s also been noted that Joy Division’s early music concentrated on the nihilistic provocations of industrial music’s pioneers Throbbing Gristle (whose music I also examined at length in a previous blog). An interesting 2010 article by Mateo on the A View From The Annex website defended Joy Division’s use of Nazi imagery and lyrics:

“The Labour government´s betrayal of the working class during the 1970s and the rise of Thatcherism at the end of the 1970s heralded a future of mass unemployment, government repression and decaying industry. The perspective taken by Ian Curtis, the band´s sole lyricist, towards this growing authoritarianism and despair is crucial to understand if one is to place the references to fascism found in the band´s album art in the context intended by the artist, that is, a despairing anti-Nazism…Punk at that time was a unique music scene in which battles between anti-racists and neo-nazis were being thrashed out at concerts as the skinheads tried to appropriate the punk aesthetic and hijack the following of alienated, disillusioned working class youth who gravitated towards such a sub-culture in places like Manchester at the beginning of the 1980s…The lyrics of Ian Curtis made it clear that this was a presence suffered and feared as opposed to tolerated or toyed with by the band…Joy Division feared fascism, they did not flirt with it and the artwork and lyrics in ‘An Ideal for Living’ serves as a warning of growing fascistic tendencies in British society…For this, Curtis and his bandmates should be lauded for tackling such a controversial issue and expressing such a well-grounded fear and hostility towards such a veritable enemy of the working class during a swift turn to the right in Britain”.

By all accounts, Curtis was a voracious reader and read books by William Burroughs, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche, Nikolai Gogol, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hermann Hesse and J.G. Ballard, many of which made their way into various Joy Division songs (an obvious example being their song ‘Interzone’ taken directly from a collection of short stories by William Burroughs). As Jon Savage noted:

“Curtis’s great lyrical achievement was to capture the underlying reality of a society in turmoil, and to make it both universal and personal. Distilled emotion is the essence of pop music and, just as Joy Division are perfectly poised between white light and dark despair, so Curtis’s lyrics oscillate between hopelessness and the possibility, if not need, for human connection. At bottom is the fear of losing the ability to feel”.

J.G. Ballard was a particular inspiration to Curtis (particularly the books High Rise and Crash, the latter of which was about the suffering of car accident victims and sexual arousal, and which I wrote about in a previous blog on symphorophilia). One of Joy Division’s best known songs (the opening ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ from their second LP Closer) took its’ name from Ballard’s collection of ‘condensed novels’ (and given its focus on mental asylums is of great psychological interest). So distinct is Ballard’s work that it gave rise to a new adjective (‘Ballardian’) and defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J.G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments”. Given this definition, many of Joy Division’s songs are clearly Ballardian as they examine the emotional and psychological effects of everything around them (including personal relationships on songs such as their most well known and most covered song, and only British hit ‘Love Will tear Us Apart’).

The overriding psychology and underlying philosophy of both Ian Curtis and Joy Division are both contradictory and complex but ultimately the band members were a product of the environment they were brought up in and the sum of their musical and literary influences. At the age of 24 years, Curtis’ suicide was undoubtedly tragic and like many other literary and musical ‘artists’, his death has been somewhat romanticized by the mass media. Although he didn’t quite make it into the infamous ‘27 Club’ of ‘rock martyr’ musicians that died when they were 27 years (e.g., Dave Alexander [The Stooges], Chris Bell [Big Star], Kurt Cobain [Nirvana], Richey Edwards [Manic Street Preachers], Pete Ham [Badfinger], Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Brian Jones [Rolling Sones], Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison [The Doors], Amy Winehouse) he is surely a candidate for being a prime honorary member (along with Jeff Buckley). Retrospectively looking at his lyrics (In the shadowplay, acting out your own death, knowing no more” from ‘Shadowplay’, you can’t help but wonder (given that many of them were autobiographical) whether Curtis’ death could have been prevented by those closest to him.

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

Further reading

Curtis, D. (1995). Touching From A Distance. London: Faber and Faber.

Curtis, I., Savage, J. & Curtis, D. (2015). So This Is Permanence: Joy Division Lyrics and Notebooks. London: Faber and Faber.

Gleason. P. (2015). This Is the Way: “So This Is Permanence” by Ian Curtis. Located at:

Hook, P. (2013). Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. London: Simon and Schuster.

Kennedy, J. (2006). Joy Division and the Making of Unknown Pleasures. London: Omnibus.

Mikies, D. (2012). Holocaust pulp fiction. The Tablet, April 19. Located at:

Morley, P. (2007). Joy Division: Piece by Piece: Writing About Joy Division 1977-2007. London: Plexus Publishing.

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

Savage, J. (2008). Controlled chaos. The Guardian, May 10. Located at:

A battle of Witts: A brief look at ‘Taboos’ and the work of The Passage

“If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it” (Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare)

Today’s blog is not academic but it’s about an academic (but I’ll come to that later). Back in the early 1980s when I was in my early teenage years, my obsession for music was fed by listening to the John Peel show every weekday night. I still have dozens of cassettes of the songs that I taped off the show that I still cannot throw away (and before you ask, yes I am a hoarder when it comes to anything music-related). It was 1981 when I first heard a song that has become one of my all-time favourites – ‘Taboos’ by post-punk band The Passage. From the opening verse I was transfixed. Here was a group writing songs about sexual dysfunction in both a cerebral and humorous way. Around this time I was also a massive fan of Adam and the Ants, particularly their songs on sexual perversions and paraphilias (which I have already documented in two previous blogs on the psychology of Adam Ant, and Ant as a portrait in pop perversion)

The Passage formed March 1978 in Manchester and the band was led by Richard ‘Dick’ Witts (formerly a percussionist in the Halle Orchestra) and the only ever present member until they split up in 1983. Their early material as been likened to The Fall (not totally a surprise given that The Passage’s first bassist Tony Friel also played bass in The Fall), and like The Fall there was a constant change of line-ups with Witts being the equivalent of The Fall’s lead singer Mark E. Smith. Witts was also an occasional television presenter of music programmes (such as The Oxford Road Show). Witts also recalled the story of Morrissey auditioning for them before he formed The Smiths (“‘As we were spineless about singing we once auditioned a bunch of hopefuls, including a certain Steve Morrissey, who we thought a bit too glum for the likes of us”).


Between November 1980 and March 1983, The Passage released four great albums (Pindrop; For All And None; Degenerates; and Enflame) on three different record labels (first Object Music, then Virgin subsidiary label Night & Day, and finally with legendary indie label Cherry Red). The LPs were all re-released in 2003 on the LTM label along with a compilation album (BBC Sessions). There’s also a ‘best of’ CD collection with the homophonically titled Seedy (geddit? A prime example of Witts’ wit) which is well worth getting as a primer to their later recorded output. Much of their music was critically lauded including (then NME critic and later a member of the band Art of Noise) Paul Morley who compared them to Joy Division (a band that was actually the support act at one of The Passage’s early gigs). Morley’s review of their debut LP noted:

‘With the disquieting Pindrop, The Passage can be accepted as major even by the cowardly, cautious and cynical: it’s a work of disciplined intellectual aggression, frantic emotions and powerfully idiomatic musicality. Pindrop is densely shaded, erratically mixed (which often works in its favour), rough edged, heavy in an unloveable sense of the word…It’s as shocking a beautiful nightmare, as stormy and aware a debut LP as [Joy Division’s] Unknown Pleasures. Where you gasp a lot. Comparisons will harm. Their sound is their own. It’s the shock of the new – new shades, textures, noises, pulses, atmospheres, energies, the opening up of new realms of feeling.’

One of the things I loved about The Passage was they were never afraid to write songs that were lyrically intellectually political and/or sexual (e.g., ‘Troops Out’, ‘Carnal’, ‘Taboos’, ‘XoYo’). Their ‘love songs’ (to use a quote from the Soft Cell’s song ‘Perversity‘) are “deliciously twisted” (e.g., ’16 Hours’. Love Is As’, ‘Revelation’, ‘Time Will Tell’). In fact, a number of music critics would talk about Witts’ “rigorously intellectual approach” to music and lyric writing. Their second album (For All and None) even took its title from the four-part philosophical novel by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (i.e., Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None). In the song ‘My One Request’, Witts refrain “Love, fear, power, hope” appears to be his manifesto on life. In a lengthy interview with Johnny Black for indie fanzine Masterbag about his continued fascination with form and structure:

“‘We’ve done 53 songs now and they’re all based on just three words,’ says Witts, beginning to illustrate his musical triangle on a paper napkin. At the corners of the triangle he writes the words and speaks them as he does so. ‘Fear, power and…love.’ ‘Another triangle takes shape while he tells me about power. ‘Power is ambiguous, it depends on how it’s used. In the same way, a knife can be used to cut bread, or to slit a throat.’ ‘The second triangle is ready, and at each corner he writes, semitone, minor third, major third, then pushes the napkin over to me. ‘Within these triangles you can sum up everything about Western music.’ The Witts fixation with structure (and triangles) is reflected even in the design of their album covers. ‘We use only black, red and white, which are symbolic colours. The red flag, the black flag for anarchy, black and white united fight – all these things…There are three people in the group and I associate those colours with us. I’m red, Andrew [Wilson] blue, and Paul [Mahoney] is white.”

I should also note that the track ‘Love Song’ from their New Love Songs EP was the first song I ever heard that featured the word ‘c**t’ in a rhyming couplet (‘I love you/Cos I need a c**t/I love you/To use you back and front’). (As a possibly amusing aside, I was the first ever academic to get the word ‘f**kwit’ into the British Journal of Psychology in a study examining the role of cognitive bias in slot machine gambling – see ‘Further reading’ below). The same song also referred to fellatio (but Adam and the Ants had already covered the topic in the song Cleopatra on their 1980 debut LP Dirk Wears White Sox). The Passage are arguably one of the most unsung bands of the 1980s. Perhaps the best tribute to the band was from Nick Currie (aka the musician Momus) who said:

“[The Passage were] one of the greatest, yet least known of 80s groups. I bought ‘Pindrop’ after hearing a track on [the John Peel show]. The album (slightly murkier, more introverted and mysterious sounding than later releases) was like nothing else being made at the time. Totally electronic, spooky, intelligent, political, passionate as hell, like Laurie Anderson crossed with The Fall. ‘Degenerates’ and ‘Enflame’ are also great records, Brechtian politics melded to angular, caustic lyrics. The Passage were very un-English in their willingness to write about sex and politics. I think you’d have to see them as libertarians in a peculiarly Protestant mode, like Quakers or Methodist radicals or something”.

Which brings me to arguably their two greatest songs – ‘Taboos’ and ‘XoYo’ – both about sex but both very different both musically and lyrically (sexual dysfunction versus sexual liberation). Both songs are on the 2003 CD reissue of the Degenerates LP and most people that have heard of The Passage probably prefer ‘XoYo’ because they are likely to be one of the 100,000+ music lovers (like myself) that bought the Cherry Red indie classic sampler album Pillows and Prayers on which it also appeared. The opening quote by Shakespeare is actually the first lyric on ‘XoYo’ (which you can listen to here) and it fits perfectly with the lyrical content of the song (you can read all the lyrics here as they also work as prose).

The ‘Taboos’ single (which you can listen to here) was recorded at Stockport’s Strawberry Studio in August 1981. Witts was apparently unhappy with the mix (although I think it’s great) as he was quoted as saying: “I drowned the drumming with timpani and other percussion, in particular Taboos which now sounds more like an Orange Order marching band than the [Phil] SpectorWall of Sound‘ I had in mind”. Lyrically, I just loved the whole song. Below are the lyrics to the whole song that I transcribed myself as (unlike ‘XoYo’), they don’t appear to be published anywhere online:

“I use this magazine that gives instructions/It tells me many things about seduction/It comes in monthly parts, there’s 16 sections/I need nine more for the complete collection

In Number 6 there’s chapters on disorders/And Number 7’s all about withdrawal/In Number 8 there’s pictures of positions/I’m stuck till I receive the ninth edition

Whoever hopes to dance with me/Must abandon all such guides and schemes/And measure up a million ways and means/Take to heart strange choreography

We have to wait until we’ve read them through/With things like this we’re better safe than sorry/I have it written here, four things to do/Each one a cornerstone of carnal knowledge

It makes you go blind/By closing your mind/Obstructing the view/Too many taboos/Too many taboos

We really should wait till we’ve read them through/You know we’re/always better safe than sorry/You see it written here a thousand rules/Certain regulations should be followed

Perhaps these studies on cassette are wisest/While they play you try the exercises/Just one of 15 minutes would be plenty/My body can’t take all five C-120s

Whoever hopes to dance with me/Must leave behind what’s being heard and seen/And stepping through a thousand routes and dreams/Take to heart new choreography

It makes you go blind/Disclosing the mind/A little taboos/Two million taboos

Let’s wait until we’ve seen the TV series/A programme titled ‘All Your Bedroom Queries’/You may will think I’m making lame excuses/I just don’t like, you know it more than I do

My only option is to write about/A verse or two of hollow lies about you/So you’d be flattered by my sharp deception/And words were made to exercise deception

Whoever wants to dance with me/Must abandon traps and trickery/Take to heart new choreography/Take by storm strange choreography

It makes you go blind/By closing the mind/Obstructing the view/Too many taboos/Too many taboos”

‘Taboos’ (words and music: Dick Witts and Andy Wilson)

Since The Passage disbanded, Witts has put his musical talents to good use. He became an academic and university lecturer in modern music and has taught at Edinburgh University, Goldsmiths University (London) and Edge Hill University (Ormskirk, Lancashire). He’s also written some great books including ones on Nico and The Velvet Underground (that you can download at his academic website). Hopefully after reading this, a few more people will delve into The Passage’s back catalogue and discover one of the great cult bands of the 1980s.

Note: I would like to thank both Dick Witts and Keith Nuttall (at for their help in compiling this article.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). The role of cognitive bias and skill in fruit machine gambling. British Journal of Psychology, 85, 351-369.

Nice, J. (2003). The Passage\Biography. LTM Recordings. Located at:

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

Wikipedia (2015). Richard Witts. Located at:

Wikipedia (2015). The Passage (band). Located at:

Sound conclusions: The psychology of musical preferences

Last week I was invited to give a keynote talk at an Italian conference on community psychology in Padova. The reason I mention this is because it was at this conference I met another academic – Dr. Tom Ter Bogt – that has a job that I would love to have. Dr. Ter Bogt is a Professor in Popular Music and Youth Culture at the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences of Utrecht University. Regular readers of my blog will know that I have an obsessive love of music and have written about the psychology many of my musical heroes in previous blogs.

It all started when Dr. Ter Bogt innocently asked me what I thought of Noel Gallagher’s latest album (Chasing Yesterday). When I told him that I thought it was great, it sparked a long conversation where we discussed our eclectic love of music taking in a shared appreciation of Oasis, The Beatles, Throbbing Gristle, The Velvet UndergroundLou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Grace Jones, Johnny Cash, and Chic (to name but a few). I also learned that he used to be a club DJ and that he had authored a best selling book on the history of pop music in his home country. In further email conversations, he also shared with me that his most played artists were Television and the Comsat Angels (something I would never have predicted based on out initial conversation but something that I found endearing).

In the nicest way possible, I am envious of Dr. Ter Bogt’s job. He has managed to become a professor through his love of music, and now carries out scientific research on the topic. Our respective research backgrounds – while very different – occasionally intersect. For instance, Dr. Ter Bogt and his colleagues published a paper in a 2002 issue of Contemporary Drug Problems on ‘Dancestasy’ (dance and MDMA use) in Dutch youth culture and I have published papers on both dance as an addiction, and young people’s use of ecstasy as a ‘risky but rewarding behaviour’ (see ‘Further reading below).

As an avid music fan I was interested to read Dr. Ter Bogt’s typology of music listeners in a 2010 paper in the journal Psychology of Music. In this study, Dr. Ter Bogt and his colleagues constructed a typology of music listeners based on the of importance attributed to music and four types of music use (among a sample of nearly a thousand Dutch participants): (i) mood enhancement (e.g., “Music helps me to relax and stop thinking about things”), (ii) coping with problems (e.g., “I always play music when I feel sad”), (iii) defining personal identity (e.g., “Lyrics of my music often express how I feel”), and (iv) social identity (e.g., “I can’t be friends with someone who dislikes my music”).

Using latent class analysis, the study’s participants were classed into three listener groups – High-Involved Listeners (HILs; 19.7% of the sample), Medium-Involved Listeners (MILs; 74.2%), and Low-Involved Listeners (LILs; 6.1%). HILs listened to music most often for mood enhancement, coping with distress, identity construction and social identity formation. MILs and LILs formed predictably attached less importance to music in their lives. HILs liked a wide range of musical genres (e.g., pop, rock, urban, dance, etc.) and experienced the most positive affects when listening to music. Interestingly, both HILs and MILs (when compared to LILs) reported more negative affects (such as anger and sadness) when listening to music. The study also reported that even LILs listened to music frequently and used it as a mood enhancer.

In a 2010 study in the Journal of Adolescence, Dr. Ter Bogt and his colleagues examined the association between music preferences and adolescent substance use. In a nationally representative sample of 7324 Dutch adolescents (aged 12–16 years), the study collected data concerning music preferences, substance use behaviors, and the perceived number of peers using substances. Adolescent music preferences for eight different music genres clustered into four distinct styles labeled as pop (chart music, Dutch pop), adult (classical music, jazz), urban (rap/hip-hop, soul/R&B) and hard (punk/hardcore, techno/hard-house). Adolescent substance use among the participants comprised smoking, drinking, and cannabis use. The results showed that music preference and substance use was either wholly or partially mediated by perceived peer use.

Using the same dataset, a study published in a 2009 issue of Substance Use and Misuse reported that when all other factors were controlled for, higher levels of substance use was more likely among those who liked punk/hardcore, techno/hard-house, and reggae while lower levels of substance use was more likely among those who preferred pop and classical music. According to Ter Bogt and his colleagues, prior empirical research had demonstrated that liking heavy metal and rap predicted substance use. The Dutch data in this study found that “a preference for rap/hip-hop only indicated elevated smoking among girls, whereas heavy metal was associated with less smoking among boys and less drinking among girls”. Consequently, it was concluded that the music genres associated with increased substance use “may vary historically and cross-culturally, but, in general, preferences for nonmainstream music are associated positively with substance use, and preferences for mainstream pop and types of music preferred by adults (classical music) mark less substance use among adolescents”. The authors also noted that the data were correlational therefore the direction of causation of the music–substance use link cannot be drawn.

In a more recent (2013) study published in the journal Pediatrics, Dr. Ter Bogt and colleagues examined the relationship between early adolescents’ musical preferences and minor delinquency. Following 309 adolescents (149 boys, 160 girls) from the age of 12 years over a four-year period, the study found that that early fans of different types of rock (e.g., rock, heavy metal, gothic, punk), African American music (rhythm and blues, hip-hop), and electronic dance music (trance, techno/hard-house) showed elevated minor delinquency both concurrently and longitudinally. Conversely, preferring conventional pop (chart pop) or highbrow music (classic music, jazz) was negatively related to minor delinquency. The study concluded that “early music preferences emerged as more powerful indicators of later delinquency rather than early delinquency, indicating that music choice is a strong marker of later problem behavior”.

On a personal level, I know how important music is in my on life and as a source of my own identity. The many studies carried out by Dr. Ter Bogt and his research colleagues further our understanding of music across the lifespan (particularly its role in adolescence) and I look forward to reading their future work.

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

Further reading

Delsing, M. J., Ter Bogt, T. F., Engels, R. C., & Meeus, W. H. (2008). Adolescents’ music preferences and personality characteristics. European Journal of Personality, 22(2), 109-130.

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

Maraz, A., Király, O., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D., Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Why do you dance? Development of the Dance Motivation Inventory (DMI). PLoS ONE, 10(3): e0122866. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0122866

Maraz, A., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics Z. (2015). An empirical investigation of dance addiction. PloS ONE, 10(5): e0125988. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0125988.

Mulder, J., Ter Bogt, T. F., Raaijmakers, Q. A., Gabhainn, S. N., Monshouwer, K., & Vollebergh, W. A. (2009). The soundtrack of substance use: music preference and adolescent smoking and drinking. Substance Use and Misuse, 44(4), 514-531.

Mulder, J., Ter Bogt, T. F., Raaijmakers, Q. A., Gabhainn, S. N., Monshouwer, K., & Vollebergh, W. A. (2010). Is it the music? Peer substance use as a mediator of the link between music preferences and adolescent substance use. Journal of Adolescence, 33, 387-394.

Mulder, J., Ter Bogt, T., Raaijmakers, Q., & Vollebergh, W. (2007). Music taste groups and problem behavior. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36(3), 313-324.

Selfhout, M. H., Branje, S. J., ter Bogt, T. F., & Meeus, W. H. (2009). The role of music preferences in early adolescents’ friendship formation and stability. Journal of Adolescence, 32(1), 95-107.

Ter Bogt, T., Engels, R., Hibbel, B., Van Wel, F., & Verhagen, S. (2002). ‘Dancestasy’: Dance and MDMA use in Dutch youth culture. Contemporary Drug Problems, 29, 157–181.

Ter Bogt, T. F., Keijsers, L., & Meeus, W. H. (2013). Early adolescent music preferences and minor delinquency. Pediatrics, 131(2), e380-e389.

Ter Bogt, T.F., Mulder, J., Raaijmakers, Q.A., & Gabhainn, S.N. (2010). Moved by music: A typology of music listeners. Psychology of Music, 39, 147-163.

Extremes of dreams (so it seems): The psychology of ‘Vanilla Sky’

Regular readers of my blog will know that when it comes to certain films and television shows (and their accompanying DVD box sets) I can be somewhat obsessive and fanatical (for instance see, my blog on my love of all things concerning Hannibal Lecter). I’m one of those individuals that will watch some films again and again looking for further insight and deeper meanings (such as Memento, The Usual Suspects, Donnie Darko, Inception, Shutter Island, Seven, and The Shining). One of the films I have watched many times is Cameron Crowe’s psychological thriller Vanilla Sky (starring Tom Cruise, Kurt Russell, Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz), a remake of the Spanish film Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes).

One of the reason I like the film is that it prominently features the concept of lucid dreaming. I’d never heard of lucid dreaming until 1988. I was doing my PhD at the University of Exeter at the time and one of my best friends (Robert Rooksby) was doing his PhD on lucid dreaming. As the Wikipedia entry on lucid dreaming notes:

“A lucid dream is any dream in which one is aware that one is dreaming. In relation to this phenomenon, Greek philosopher Aristotle observed: ‘often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream’…The person most widely acknowledged as having coined the term is Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik (Willem) van Eeden…In a lucid dream, the dreamer has greater chances to exert some degree of control over their participation within the dream or be able to manipulate their imaginary experiences in the dream environment…Lucid dreams can be realistic and vivid. It is shown that there are higher amounts of beta-1 frequency band (13–19 Hz) brain wave activity experienced by lucid dreamers, hence there is an increased amount of activity in the parietal lobes making lucid dreaming a conscious process”.

Much like the films of David Lynch (one of my favourite film directors), Vanilla Sky is a film forces you to think about what is going on and is one of those films that you can come to your own conclusions as to what it all means. As a psychologist, I love films that play with the mind and Vanilla Sky is one of those films, particularly as psychology in the form of dreams, subjective reality, and the unconscious lie at the heart of the film. The director Cameron Crowe added many obscure clues and hidden references throughout the film to help viewers further explain the film and to add more layers.  There are dozens of dedicated websites that have compiled lists of theories, messages and/or hidden clues. In the film’s production notes, Crowe later admitted: “We constructed the movie, visually and story-wise, to reveal more and more the closer you look at it. As deep as you want to go with it, my desire was for the movie to meet you there”. That alone is enough of a hook to get me watching repeatedly.

Another aspect of the film that I love is the perfect use of music. Almost every lyric of every song used throughout the movie interweaves seamlessly between the actors, the in-scene narrative, and the developing story line. The songs are expertly chosen. This is no surprise given that Crowe was formerly a music journalist and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. Like me, Crowe is a huge fan of The Beatles, and referred to the “clues” in Vanilla Sky as his own version of the ‘Paul McCartney is Dead’ rumour that swept the world in 1969 (i.e., the notorious Beatles hoax when fans worldwide became convinced through song lyrics, sonic tricks, and album art that Paul McCartney had died and was replaced by a look-alike). As Crowe commented: “Divorcing it from whether Paul was really dead or not, that was a really great parlour game: searching for clues, the excitement of different layers, some of them chilling, some of them really funny. It was a great model for us [on Vanilla Sky]”. One of the homages to The Beatles in the film concerns their song Revolution 9. The film contains countless references to the number (or time) 9:09 (on Aames’ wristwatch, a child’s shirt, the prison chalkboard, and multiple references to cats who, has myth has it, have nine lives).

I’m assuming that anyone that has read this far has seen the film (but if you haven’t – spoiler alert – some of what I’m about to write will likely reduce the enjoyment of watching the film for the first time). The thrust of the plot is as follows:

“From a prison cell where he has been charged for murder, David Aames (Tom Cruise, in a prosthetic mask, tells his life story to court psychologist Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell). In flashback, David [who is acrophobic with an irrational fear of heights] is shown to be the wealthy owner of a large publishing firm in New York City which he inherited from his father, leaving its regular duties to his father’s trusted associates. As David enjoys the bachelor lifestyle, he is introduced to Sofia Serrano (Penélope Cruz) by his best friend and author Brian Shelby [who is writing a book on Aames] at a party. David and Sofia spend a night together talking, and fall in love. When David’s former lover, Julianna “Julie” Gianni (Cameron Diaz) hears of Sofia, she attempts to kill herself and David in a car crash. Julie dies but David survives, his face grotesquely disfigured, leading him to wear a mask to hide the injuries. With no hope to use plastic surgery to repair the damage, David cannot come to grips with the idea of wearing the mask for the rest of his life. One night on a night out with Sofia…David gets hopelessly drunk, and [is left by Sophia] to wallow in the street outside” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky)

It is generally accepted that everything from this point in the film is a dream (although others say the whole film is a dream). Rather than live out the rest of his life in a disfigured state, Aames has his body cryogenically frozen by a company called Life Extension after attempting suicide. He lives the rest of his life as a lucid dream from the moment he was found on the pavement after his drunken night out (“under the ‘vanilla sky’ from a Monet painting”). However, during cryogenic sleep, the lucid dream goes horribly wrong and starts to incorporate elements from his subconscious. After 150 years in suspended sleep, the company that placed Aames into cryogenic suspension calls in ‘Tech Support’ and Aames is offered a choice to either be reinserted into a corrected lucid dream, or to wake up by taking a leap of faith – literally – from the top of a high roof (that forces him to challenge his fear of heights).

Conquering his final fear, David jumps off the building, his life flashing before his eyes, and whites out immediately before hitting the ground. A female voice commands him to ‘open your eyes’ (a recurring theme in the movie), and the film ends with David opening his eyes” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky).

Many different websites examining the film claim there are five interpretations of the film’s ending (and this is supported by Crowe himself). The five interpretations (taken verbatim from the Wikipedia entry on the film) are:

  • “Tech support is telling the truth: 150 years have passed since Aames killed himself and subsequent events form a lucid dream.
  • The entire film is a dream, evidenced by the sticker on Aames’ car that reads “2/30/01” (February 30 does not occur in the Gregorian Calendar).
  • The events following the crash form a dream that occurs while Aames is in a coma.
  • The entire film is the plot of the book that Brian [Shelby, his best friend] is writing.
  • The entire film after the crash is a hallucination caused by the drugs that were administered during Aames’ reconstructive surgery”.

(I’m most persuaded by the first interpretation). What I also love about the film is that Crowe added lots of little details that take a few viewings of the film before they are usually spotted. All of these help in both trying to interpret the film, as well as becoming a game where repeated watching becomes more rewarding. For instance:

  • In the first scene in which Julianna appears, the tune ringing on her cell phone is Row Row Row Your Boat that features the lyric “life is but a dream”.
  • At his birthday party, Aames is asked how it’s going to which he responds “Livin’ the dream, baby…livin’ the dream”.
  • At the same party, Aames’ best friend Brian Shelby comes into the second apartment wears a t-shirt with the words “fantasy” in sparkly sequins.
  • In one of the prison scenes, the word ‘DREAM’ is spelt out backwards on a chalkboard.
  • In the prison cell, the book, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections (by Carl Jung) is on the table while Aames is talking to his psychiatrist Dr. McCabe. The book concerns Jung’s personal dreams and how they helped uncover his “shadow” and removed his persona (his ‘mask’). In fact one critique of the film by Carlo Cavagna described the whole film as “overtly Jungian”. More specifically, he asserted that Vanilla Sky is fundamentally about the relationship between the ego and the unconscious, and practically a primer on the most fundamental concepts found in any Jungian glossary…For Jung, the unconscious includes desires repressed by our education and socialization, but there is more ‘psychic material that lies below the threshold of consciousness’. The unconscious is the foundation on which the conscious mind is based”.
  • On Aames’ prison uniform the name tag says “Frozen Guy”.
  • His patient number on his Life Extension cryogenic tank says “PL515NT 4R51MS” (which if the numbers are replaced with their corresponding letters of the alphabet, it almost spells “Pleasant Dreams”).
  • As Aames is getting his prison photograph taken, the slate spells ‘When did the dream become a nightmare?’ (in simple code).
  • Sofia calls Aames a “pleasure delayer” twice in the film (but says it so subtly that it’s hard to hear properly).
  • When Aames and Sophia are lying in bed after making love, Sophia asks “Is this is a dream?” and Aames replied “absolutely”.
  • At one point in the film, Dr. McCabe tells Aames that he’d had a nightmare the day before.  Aames replies that “It’s all a nightmare”.

I said earlier in the article that I thought the songs were perfectly chosen. Many fans of the film have noted that the lyrics repeatedly appear to match the emotion of the scene where it is played. As the Uncool website notes:

“For example, the song that plays over David leaving Sophia’s in the morning is Jeff Buckley’s, ‘Last Goodbye’…that morning was there last one true goodbye. Yes, they see each other after this, but after the car wreck when both of their lives are forever changed. ‘Last Goodbye’ also contains the lyrics: ‘Kiss me, please kiss me, but kiss me out of desire, babe not consolation’ which follows David’s plight rather well (as the next time he sees her is after the accident and he wants her affections but not sympathy for his disfigurement)…Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’ album (featured in the closing montage) also has some lyrical significance. One of the best lines from the song ‘The River’ is: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Also, two R.E.M. songs are featured. Don’t forget what R.E.M. stands for. Rapid eye movement. As in a state of sleep. It’s when you dream”.

It doesn’t take a psychologist to work out that I simply love the level of detail that went into making the film. I am not a great fan of psychodynamic (psychoanalytic) interpretation, but in Vanilla Sky, the mask that Aames wore became his ‘persona’ and the term was used by Carl Jung to describe the face that we as individuals present to society and (in some cases) to ourselves. Carlo Cavagna argues that:

“[Aames] attraction to [Sophie] is irresistible because she is his anima, his archetypal dream lover, the personification of the feminine nature in his own unconscious. Jung posited that all men carry an ideal image of woman in their heads and unconsciously project that image onto “the person of the beloved…David’s disfigured face, which he sometimes hides with his mask, represents his shadow. For Jung, the shadow is the inferior part of the personality, the sum of all personal and collective psychic elements that, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life and therefore coalesce into a relatively autonomous “splinter personality” in the unconscious. Despite the negative connotations of the word ‘shadow’, Jung meant it to encompass all those qualities that are suppressed, both positive and negative. ‘The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly’… [Aames] reality is subjective, and his shadow is breaking through into consciousness. This is the source of the film’s main conflict. In discussing dream therapy and the difficulty of processing and assimilating the unconscious, Jung wrote that several negative outcomes are possible – eccentricity, infantilism, paranoia, schizophrenia, or regression (the restoration of the persona). The revelation and assimilation of David’s unconscious is essentially the story of Vanilla Sky”.

Although there are many critics who hated the film, I love it on many different levels (including the underlying psychology).

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

Further reading

Cavagna, C. (2001, December). Vanilla Sky. Located at:

Jung, C.G. (1961). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vantage.

Kummer, R. (2010). “What is happiness to you?” Vanilla Sky (2001) Film Analysis. Located at:

Rooksby, R. and Terwee, Sybe J.S. (1990). Freud, van Eeden and lucid dreaming. Lucidity Letter, 9(2), 18–28. Located at:

Turner, R. (2014). Vanilla Sky movie review: Beyond lucid dreams. Located at:

The Uncool (2015). Vanilla Sky secrets. Located at:

Wikipedia (2015). Vanilla Sky. Located at:


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