Category Archives: Popular Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Views news: A brief look at the ‘Problem Series Watching Scale’

A few weeks ago I published the third of three articles on ‘box set bingeing’ (people like myself who sit and watch a whole television series at once either on DVD or on television catch-up services). Not long after writing the last article, a paper was published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions about the development of a new psychometric instrument that assesses problematic television series watching – the Problematic Series Watching Scale (PSWS) – developed by Dr. Gabor Orosz and his colleagues at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (Hungary). The authors noted that:

“[Problematic series watching] might be a relevant issue for many people because accessing series by downloading or streaming is (a) very cheap (or free), (b) it is available for almost everyone who has broadband Internet access, (c) it does not depend on a certain place and time (i.e. playing squash depends on a certain place and time), (d) series have a high variety – everyone can find one which fits his/her interest, (e) they are not age- and socio-economic status-dependent, (f) it does not take effort to watch them, [and] (g) and they are constructed to be highly enjoyable and often contain cliffhangers which motivate the viewer to continue. These characteristics are highly similar to the ones mentioned by Cooper (1998) regarding Internet and pornography…In our research, we aimed to differentiate problematic series watching from the concept of television addiction as we focused on the content of the problematic use (series watching) rather than on the medium through which the problematic use happens (television). In our research, we observed problematic series watching which could be done either through a television (i.e. classical TV series) or a screen attached to a computer (i.e. Netflix)”.

The new scale was developed with over 1,100 participants and was based on my ‘addiction components model’ and comprised the following questions which can each be answered ‘never’, ‘rarely’, ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ and ‘always’. Each of the six items taps into a criterion for addiction (i.e., salience, tolerance, mood modification, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse). More specifically, the questions asks During the last year, how often have you:

  • Thought of how you could free up more time to watch series? [Salience]
  • Spent much more time watching series than initially intended? [Tolerance]
  • Watched series in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression? [Mood modification]
  • Been told by others to cut down on watching series without listening to them? [Relapse]
  • Become restless or troubled if you have been prohibited from watching series? [Withdrawal]
  • Ignored your partner, family members, or friends because of series watching? [Conflict]

For those of you interested in the psychometric properties, the scale had good factor structure and reliability.

“Respondents watch series more than one hour per day which is more than one-fifth of their free time which indicated that series watching might be an important free time activity. However, the amount of free time one has is not associated with PSWS scores. Women had higher scores on PSWS and respondents with higher education had lower scores on it…Given the lack of empirical research on series watching, we supposed that it might be similar to other problematic screen-related behaviors (e.g. online gaming, Internet or Facebook use)… Other possible covariates could be examined in the future such as loneliness or urgency. Also, further investigation is needed whether extensive series watching can lead to health and psychosocial problems…PSWS scores are positively related with time spent on series watching, whereas the amount of free time does not have an effect on PSWS scores. In the more and more digitalized world there are many forces which encourage people watching online series. In the light of these changes, research on problematic series watching will be increasingly relevant”.

The authors also acknowledged that problematic television series watching doesn’t appear to affect many people and that we should be careful of pathologizing everyday behaviours as behavioural addictions (a criticism that has been made against some of my own research papers more recently – with ‘dance addiction’ and ‘study addiction’ being the most obvious ones).

Dr. Orosz and his colleagues have also just published another paper on problematic series watching in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. This second paper examined correlates of passion toward screen-based activities (i.e., problematic series watching and Facebook use). The paper included two studies comprising young adults (Study 1 with 256 individuals, and Study 2 with 420 individuals) who completed the Passion Scale with respect to their series watching and Facebook use as well as examining impulsivity. The Passion Scale comprises two types of passion – obsessive passion (negative, pressured, and controlling) and harmonious passion (positive, flexible, and related to intrinsic motivation). The results showed that impulsivity predicted obsessive (but not harmonious) passion, and that obsessive passion was positively associated with Facebook overuse whereas harmonious passion was positively associated with series watching. They concluded that it was the type of passion underlying the involvement in excessive screen-based activity that determines what’s experienced by the individual.

My argument has always been that depending upon the definition of ‘addiction’ used, almost any activity can be potentially addictive if constant rewards and reinforcement are in place. The watching of DVD or television box sets can certainly be rewarding and reinforcing but I imagine most people are like myself in that they occasionally experience negative consequences as a result of the activity (lack of sleep due to going to bed very late, or ignoring family members while watching an episode or four of your favourite programmes) but that overall the problems are short-lived and have few long-term consequences.

[I ought to note that I have recently been working with Dr. Orosz in the area of workaholism and that we recently published a paper in the topic in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction – see ‘Further reading’ below).

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

Further reading

Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2015). Study addiction – A new area of psychological study: Conceptualization, assessment, and preliminary empirical findings. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 75–84.

Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2016). Study addiction: A cross-cultural longitudinal study examining temporal stability and predictors of its changes. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, DOI: 10.1556/2006.5.2016.024

Bates, D. (2015). Watching TV box-set marathons is warning sign you’re lonely and depressed – and will also make you fat. Daily Mail, January 29. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2931572/Love-marathon-TV-session-warning-sign-lonely-depressed.html

Cooper, A. (1998). Sexuality and the Internet: Surfing into the new millennium. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 1(2), 187–193.

Daily Edge (2014). 11 signs of you’re suffering from a binge-watching problem. Located at: http://www.dailyedge.ie/binge-watching-problem-signs-1391910-Apr2014/

Kompare, D. (2006). Publishing flow DVD Box Sets and the reconception of television. Television & New Media, 7(4), 335-360.

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.

Orosz, G., Bőthe, B., & Tóth-Király, I. (2016). The development of the Problematic Series WatchingScale (PSWS). Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5(1), 144-150.

Orosz, G., Dombi, E., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2016). Analyzing models of work addiction: Single factor and bi-factor models of the Bergen Work Addiction Scale. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, DOI 10.1007/s11469-015-9613-7

Orosz, G., Vallerand, R. J., Bőthe, B., Tóth-Király, I., & Paskuj, B. (2016). On the correlates of passion for screen-based behaviors: The case of impulsivity and the problematic and non-problematic Facebook use and TV series watching. Personality and Individual Differences, 101, 167-176.

Spangler, T. (2013). Poll of online TV watchers finds 61% watch 2-3 episodes in one sitting at least every few weeks. Variety, December 13. Located at: http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-survey-binge-watching-is-not-weird-or-unusual-1200952292/

Sussman, S., & Moran, M.B. (2013). Hidden addiction: Television. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(3), 125-132.

Walton-Pattison, E., Dombrowski, S.U. & Presseau, J. (2016). ‘Just one more episode’: Frequency and theoretical correlates of television binge watching. Journal of Health Psychology, doi:1359105316643379

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this space: Another look at box-set bingeing

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have both a professional and personal interest in ‘box set binging’ – people like myself who sit and watch a whole television series at once either on DVD or on television catch-up services (see my two previous articles on the topic here and here). In my previous blogs on the topic I noted there was a lack of published academic research on the topic. However, a new study on the phenomenon – ‘Just one more episode’: Frequency and theoretical correlates of television binge watching’ – has just been published by Emily Walton-Pattison and her colleagues in the Journal of Health Psychology. The paper argues that binge watching may have detrimental health implications and that binge watching has impulsive aspects. As the authors noted in their paper:

“With the emergence of online streaming television services, watching television has never been so easy and a new behavioural phenomenon has arisen: television binge watching, that is, viewing multiple episodes of the same television show in the same sitting. Watching television is the most widespread leisure-time sedentary activity in adults (Wijndaele et al., 2010), involving little metabolic activity (Hu et al., 2003). In the United Kingdom, over one-third of adults spend at least four hours a day watching television (Stamatakis et al., 2009). Up to 33% of men and 45% of women in the United Kingdom fail to achieve recommended physical activity levels (Craig and Mindell, 2014). As lack of physical activity is the fourth leading mortality risk factor (World Health Organization, 2010), identifying factors that pre- vent achieving health-protective levels of physical activity remains important Furthermore, sedentary behaviour is linked with adverse health outcomes independently of physical activity (Veerman et al., 2012). Time spent watching television is also linked with obesity and reduced sleep time (Vioque et al., 2000). Understanding the factors that lead to watching television at ‘binge’ levels may help to target interventions to reduce sedentary activity and obesity rates and improve sleep hygiene”.

The study involved 86 people who completed an online survey that assessed (among other things) outcome expectations (assessed via six attitudinal items such as ‘Watching more than two episodes of the same TV show in the same sitting over the next 7 days will lead me to be physically healthier’), proximal goals (assessed via one question ‘On how many days do you intend to watch more than two episodes of the same TV show in the same sitting over the next 7 days?’), self-efficacy (assessed via five attitudinal items such as I am confident that I can stop myself from watching more than two episodes of the same TV show if I wanted to’), anticipated regret (assessed via two items – ‘If I watched more than two episodes of the same TV show in the same sitting in the next 7 days, I would feel regret’ and ‘If I watched more than two episodes of the same TV show in the same sitting in the next 7 days I would later wish I had not’), goal conflict (with two items such as ‘How often does it happen that because of watching more than two episodes of the same TV show in the same sitting, you do not invest as much time in other pursuits as you would like to?’), goal facilitation (assessed via three items such as ‘Watching more than two episodes of the same TV show in the same sitting in the next 7 days will help/facilitate my participation in regular physical activity’), and self-reported binge watching over the last week (defined as “watching more than two episodes of the same TV show in one sitting”), as well as noting various demographic details (age, gender, marital status, number of children, and body mass index).

The study found that their participants reported binge watching at least once a week (an average of 1.42 days/week) and that binge watching was predicted most by intention and outcome expectations. Automaticity, anticipated regret, and goal conflict also contributed to binge watching. Based on their results, the authors noted:

“The findings have implications for theory development and intervention…The role of automaticity suggests that interventions aiming to address problematic binge watching (e.g. due to increased sedentary activity) could consider techniques that address automaticity. For example, some online streaming services include in-built interruptions after a number of consecutive episodes have been viewed. There would be opportunities to harness these interruptions. Goal conflict findings indicated that participants who reported more binge watching also reported that binge watching undermined other goal pursuits. Linking such findings to an intervention addressing anticipated regret could provide a useful opportunity…Drawing upon the addiction literature in relation to other types of binge behaviours may further refine potential appetitive and loss of control features that may extend from addictive behaviours with a binge potential, such as eating, sex and drugs, to binge watching”.

Obviously the study relied on self-reports among a small sample of television viewers but given that this is the first-ever academic study of binge watching, it provides a basis for further research to be carried out. As in my own research into gambling where we have begun to use tracking data provided by gambling companies, the authors also note that such objective measures could also be used in the field of researching into television binge watching:

“[Future research] could include using objective measures of binge watching including ecological momentary assessment, ambient sound detection, recording and/or partnering with streaming firms or software-based monitoring. Further insight into binge watching could make a distinction between television show-specific factors, such as genre, length, real-time versus on-demand services, as well as contextual factors (e.g., where binge watching occurred, with whom and when) and assess the association between binge watching and health outcomes including physical activity, eating and sleep hygiene”.

This is one of the first times I can end one of my articles by saying that this is literally a case of “watch this space”!

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

Further reading

Bates, D. (2015). Watching TV box-set marathons is warning sign you’re lonely and depressed – and will also make you fat. Daily Mail, January 29. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2931572/Love-marathon-TV-session-warning-sign-lonely-depressed.html

Craig, R. & Mindell, J. (2014). Health Survey for England 2013. London: The Health & Social Care Information Centre.

Daily Edge (2014). 11 signs of you’re suffering from a binge-watching problem. Located at: http://www.dailyedge.ie/binge-watching-problem-signs-1391910-Apr2014/

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

Hu, F.B., Li, T.Y., Colditz, G.A., et al. (2003) Television watching and other sedentary behaviors in rela- tion to risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes mellitus in women. JAMA, 289, 1785–1791.

Kompare, D. (2006). Publishing flow DVD Box Sets and the reconception of television. Television & New Media, 7(4), 335-360.

Spangler, T. (2013). Poll of online TV watchers finds 61% watch 2-3 episodes in one sitting at least every few weeks. Variety, December 13. Located at: http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-survey-binge-watching-is-not-weird-or-unusual-1200952292/

Stamatakis, E., Hillsdon, M., Mishra, G., et al. (2009) Television viewing and other screen-based entertainment in relation to multiple socioeconomic status indicators and area deprivation: The Scottish Health Survey 2003. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 63, 734–740.

Sussman, S., & Moran, M.B. (2013). Hidden addiction: Television. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(3), 125-132.

Veerman, J.L., Healy, G.N., Cobiac, L.J., et al. (2012) Television viewing time and reduced life expec- tancy: A life table analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46, 927–930.

Vioque, J., Torres, A. & Quiles, J. (2000) Time spent watching television, sleep duration and obesity in adults living in Valencia, Spain. International Journal of Obesity, 24, 1683–1688.

Walton-Pattison, E., Dombrowski, S.U. & Presseau, J. (2016). ‘Just one more episode’: Frequency and theoretical correlates of television binge watching. Journal of Health Psychology, doi:1359105316643379

Wijndaele, K., Brage, S., Besson, H., et al. (2010) Television viewing time independently predicts all-cause and cardiovascular mortality: The EPIC Norfolk study. International Journal of Epidemiology, 40, 150–159.

Pressing the right buttons: The positives of playing video games

Whether playing video games has negative effects is something that has been debated for 30 years, in much the same way that rock and roll, television, and even the novel faced much the same criticisms in their time. Purported negative effects such as gaming addiction, increased aggression, and various health consequences such as obesity and repetitive strain injuries tend to get far more media coverage than the positives. I know from my own research examining both sides that my papers on video game addiction receive far more publicity than my research into the social benefits of, for example, playing online role-playing games.

However there is now a wealth of research which shows that video games can be put to educational and therapeutic uses, as well as many studies which reveal how playing video games can improve reaction times and hand-eye co-ordination. For example, research has shown that spatial visualisation ability, such as mentally rotating and manipulating two- and three-dimensional objects, improves with video game playing.

To add to this long line of studies demonstrating the more positive effects of video games is a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Vikranth Bejjanki and colleagues. Their paper demonstrates that the playing of action video games – the sort of fast-paced, 3D shoot-em-up beloved of doomsayers in the media – confirms what other studies have revealed, that players show improved performance in perception, attention, and cognition.

In a series of experiments on small numbers of gamers (10 to 14 people in each study), the researchers reported that gamers with previous experience of playing such action video games were better at perceptual tasks such as pattern discrimination than gamers with less experience. In another experiment, they trained gamers that had little previous experience of playing action games, giving them 50 hours practice. It was showed that these gamers performed much better on perceptual tasks than they had prior to their training. The paper concludes:

“The enhanced learning of the regularity and structure of environments may act as a core mechanism by which action video game play influences performance in perception, attention, and cognition”.

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In my own papers, I have pointed out many features and qualities that make video games potentially useful. For instance, in an educational context, video games can be fun and stimulating, which means it’s easier to maintain a pupil’s undivided attention for longer. Because of the excitement, video games may also be a more appealing way of learning than traditional methods for some.

Video games have an appeal that crosses many demographic boundaries, such as age, gender, ethnicity, or educational attainment. They can be used to help set goals and rehearse working towards them, provide feedback, reinforcement, self-esteem, and maintain a record of behavioural change. Their interactivity can stimulate learning, allowing individuals to experience novelty, curiosity and challenge that stimulates learning. There is the opportunity to develop transferable skills, or practice challenging or extraordinary activities, such as flight simulators, or simulated operations. Because video games can be so engaging, they can also be used therapeutically. For instance, they can be used as a form of physiotherapy as well as in more innovative contexts. A number of studies have shown that when children play video games following chemotherapy they need fewer painkillers than others.

Video games can have great educational potential in addition to their entertainment value. Games specifically designed to address a specific problem or teach a specific skill have been very successful, precisely because they are motivating, engaging, interactive, and provide rewards and reinforcement to improve. But the transferability of skills outside the game-playing context is an important factor. What’s also clear from the scientific literature is that the negative consequences of playing almost always involve people that are excessive video game players. There is little evidence of serious acute adverse effects on health from moderate play.

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

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

Further reading

Bejjanki, V. R., Zhang, R., Li, R., Pouget, A., Green, C. S., Lu, Z. L., & Bavelier, D. (2014). Action video game play facilitates the development of better perceptual templates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(47), 16961-16966.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Video games and clinical practice: Issues, uses and treatments. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 36, 639-641.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). The educational benefits of videogames Education and Health, 20, 47-51.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). The therapeutic use of videogames in childhood and adolescence. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 8, 547-554.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Can videogames be good for your health? Journal of Health Psychology, 9, 339-344.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Adolescent video game playing: Issues for the classroom. Education Today: Quarterly Journal of the College of Teachers, 60(4), 31-34.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2016). Videogames as therapy: An updated selective review of the medical and psychological literature. International Journal of Privacy and Health Information Management, in press.

Griffiths, M. D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2013). Videogames as therapy: A review of the medical and psychological literature. In I. M. Miranda & M. M. Cruz-Cunha (Eds.), Handbook of research on ICTs for healthcare and social services: Developments and applications (pp.43-68). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Griffiths, M.D. & Sutton, M. (2013). Proposing the Crime Substitution Hypothesis: Exploring the possible causal relationship between excessive adolescent video game playing, social networking and crime reduction. Education and Health, 31, 17-21.

Griffiths, M.D. & Sutton, M. (2015). Screen time and crime: The ‘Crime Substitution Hypothesis’ revisited. Education and Health, 33, 85-87.

Loud and proud: A psychological (and personal) look at the ‘Sin of Pride’

A number of years ago, I was asked to write an article on “The Sin of Pride” for the British Psychological Society. Before writing that article, I knew very little about the topic. To me it was the title of an record album by The Undertones that I bought in 1983 when I was 16 years old from Castle Records in Loughborough. I perhaps learned a bit more about it when I watched 1995 film Sevendirected by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt (which coincidentally just happens to be one of my all-time favourite films).

After agreeing to write the article I did a bit of research on the subject (which admittedly meant I did a quick Google search followed by a more considered in-depth search on Google Scholar). While I’m no expert on the topic I can at least have a decent pub conversation about it if anyone is prepared to listen. Just to show my complete ignorance, I wasn’t even aware that the sin of pride was the sin of all sins (although I could in a pub quiz be relied upon to name the seven deadly sins).

I was asked to write on this topic because I was seen as someone who is very proud of the work that I do (and for the record, I am). However, I have often realized that just because I am proud of things that I have done in my academic career it doesn’t necessarily mean others think in the same way. In fact, on some occasions I have been quite taken aback by others’ reactions to things that I have done for which I feel justifiably proud (but more of that later).

At a very basic level, the sin of pride is rooted in a preoccupation with the self. However, in psychological terms, pride has been defined by Dr. Michael Lewis and colleagues in the International Journal of Behavioral Development as “a pleasant, sometimes exhilarating, emotion that results from a positive self-evaluation” and has been described by Dr. Jessica Tracy and her colleagues (in the journal Emotion) as one the three ‘self-conscious’ emotions known to have recognizable expressions (shame and embarrassment being the other two). From my reading of the psychological literature, it could perhaps be argued that pride has been regarded as having a more positive than negative quality, and (according to a paper in the Journal of Economic Psychology by my PhD supervisors – Professor Paul Webley and Professor Stephen Lea) is usually associated with achievement, high self-esteem and positive self-image – all of which are fundamental to my own thinking. My reading on the topic has also led to the conclusion that pride is sometimes viewed as an ‘intellectual’ or secondary emotion. In practical (and psychological) terms, sin is either a high sense of one’s personal status or ego, or the specific mostly positive emotion that is a product of praise or independent self-reflection.

One of the most useful distinctions can be made about sin (and is rooted in my own personal experience), is what Lea and Webley distinguish as ‘proper pride’ and ‘false pride’. They claim that:

“Proper pride is pride in genuine achievements (or genuine good qualities) that are genuinely one’s own. False pride is pride in what is not an achievement, or not admirable, or does not properly belong to oneself. Proper pride is associated with the desirable property of self-esteem; false pride with vanity or conceit. Proper pride is associated with persistence, endurance and doggedness; false pride with stubbornness, obstinacy and pig-headedness.”

As I noted above, there have been times when I have been immensely proud of doing something only for friends and colleagues to be appalled. ‘Proper pride’ as Lea and Webley would argue. One notable instance was when I wrote a full-page article for The Sun on ‘internet addiction’ published in August 1997. I originally wanted to be a journalist before I became a psychologist, and my journalist friends had always said that to get a full-page ‘by line’ in the biggest selling newspaper in the UK was a real achievement. I was immensely proud – apart from the headline that a sub-editor had dubbed my piece ‘The Internuts’ – and showed the article to whoever was around.

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I had always passionately argued (and still do) that I want my research to be disseminated and read by as many people as possible. What was better than getting my work published in an outlet with (at the time) 10 million readers? My elation was short-lived. One close colleague and friend was very disparaging and asked how I could stoop so low as to “write for the bloody Sun?” Similar comments came from other colleagues and I have to admit that I was put off writing for the national tabloids for a number of years. (However, I am now back writing regularly for the national dailies and am strong enough to defend myself against the detractors).

In 2006, I was invited to the House of Commons by the ex-Leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan-Smith and invited to Chair his Centre For Social Justice Working Party on Gambling and write a report as part of the Conservative Party’s ‘Breakdown Britain’ initiative. Anyone who knows me will attest that my political leanings are left of centre and that I working with the Conservatives on this issue was not something I did without a lot of consideration. I came to the conclusion that gambling was indeed a political issue (rather than a party political issue) and if the Conservative Party saw this as an important issue, I felt duty bound to help given my research experience in the area. I spent a number of months working closely with Iain Duncan-Smith’s office and when the report was published I was again very proud of my achievement.

However, as soon as the report came out I received disbelieving and/or snide emails asking how I could have “worked with the Conservatives”. I have spent years trying to put the psychosocial impact of gambling on the political agenda. If I am offered further opportunities by those with political clout, I won’t think twice about taking them. I am still immensely proud of such actions despite what others may think.

Pride is ultimately a subjective experience and the two personal experiences that I outlined above will not put me off doing what I want to do. I shall continue to engage in activities where I think my work can have an impact and shall work with (and write for) those that can help me disseminate my research findings to as many people as possible.

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

Further reading

Averill, J.R. (1991). Intellectual emotions. In: C.D. Spielberger, I.G. Sarason, Z. Kulesar & G.L. van Heck (Eds.), Stress and Emotion: Anger, Anxiety and Curiosity [Vol. 14] pp.3-16. New York: Hemisphere.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). The internuts (internet addiction). The Sun, August 13, p.6.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Gambling addiction in the UK. In K. Gyngell (Ed.), Breakdown Britain: Ending the Costs of Social Breakdown (pp.393-426). London: Social Justice Policy Group.

Kemper, T.D. (1987). How many emotions are there? Wedding the social and autonomic components. American Journal of Sociology, 93, 263-289.

Lawler, E.J. (1992). Affective attachments to nested groups: A choice-process theory. American Sociological Review, 57, 327-339.

Lea, S.E.G. & Webley, P. (1997). Pride in economic psychology. Journal of Economic Psychology, 18, 323-340.

Lewis, M., Takai-Kawakami, K., Kawakami, K., & Sullivan, M. W. (2010). Cultural differences in emotional responses to success and failure. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 34, 53-61

Tracy, J.L., Robins, R.W. & Schriber, R.A. (2009). Development of a FACS-verified set of basic and self-conscious emotion expressions. Emotion, 9, 554-559.

Occult figure: David Bowie and living life at the extremes

Since David Bowie’s death earlier this year, I’ve already written two articles on the psychology of Bowie (which you can read here and here) but this article takes a look at the more extreme aspects of Bowie’s life (excluding his various addictions which I briefly examined in my previous pieces). As a long-time David Bowie fan I’ve been meaning to write this particular blog for a long time but just never got around to it. I had made lots of notes taken from various Bowie biographies (see ‘Further reading’ below) but Dr. Dean Ballinger (University of Waikato) recently beat me to the punch by publishing a similar article to the one I had planned in the March 2016 issue of the Fortean Times.

During Bowie’s five decades in music he has been interviewed on almost every conceivable topic but it’s always the interviews about his most extreme and esoteric subjects that have caught my eye whether it concerned his religious and spiritual beliefs, his political views, or his moral philosophy. I’ve always looked for hidden meanings in his lyrics and taken the view that his lyrics provide an insight into his personality as much as anything else that I have seen or read about him in the print and broadcast media. Like most other hardcore Bowie fans, I have been poring over the lyrics of his final studio album Blackstar now knowing that he wrote and recorded it while suffering from an aggressive form of cancer. The album is arguably his most cryptic and mysterious since the classics of the mid- to late-1970s (Station To Station, Low and “Heroes”) – although I also love 1.Outside and Heathen both lyrically and musically.

Looking back, it was probably the Station To Station title track that really made me wonder what was going on in Bowie’s head. Although Bowie says he was “out of his gourd” on cocaine at the time (and has little recollection of recording the album), the lyrics (as a teenager) made no sense to me at all (Here are we/One magical movement/From Kether to Malkuth/There are you/You drive like a demon/From station to station”). I had no idea that Kether (“the crown” – divine will or pure light) and Malkuth (“the kingship” – the nurturing receptacle of the light) originated from Kabbalah (an esoteric school of thought rooted in Judaism) representing two of 10 sephirots (sometimes spelled ‘sefirots’ and meaning ’emanations’ or ‘attributes’) in the Tree of Life.

During his cocaine-fuelled days, Bowie rarely slept and filled his time reading books. Not only books about Kabbalah but also books on the occult (a number of books by Aleister Crowley; Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians; Israel Regardie’s books on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), on the symbolic obsessions of Nazism (most notably Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny), and defensive magic and tarot cards (Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense) as well as more general books on the secret history of Christianity, UFOs, political conspiracies, and numerology. It’s also worth noting that Bowie’s 1976 persona (‘The thin white duke’ in his ‘Station To Station’ lyric) is almost certainly taken from Crowley’s erotic poetry (“The return of the thin white duke making sure white stains” from the 1898 book White Stains).

It’s been claimed by Chris O’Leary (author of the excellent Rebel Rebel and founder of the Pushing Ahead of The Dame website) that “Bowie’s immersion in Kabbalah was part of an overarching spiritual quest that took him from Tibetan Buddhism (he almost joined a monastery in the late 1960s, until his teacher told him that he’d make a better musician than monk) to Christian mysticism, occult worship and a flirtation with neo-Nazi imagery that nearly derailed his career when it was discovered that he collected Nazi memorabilia”. I hadn’t realised that Bowie had made reference to the occult in earlier songs such as ‘Quicksand’ (The Order of the Golden Dawn – a late 19th/early 20th century organisation devoted to the practice of occult, metaphysical, and paranormal phenomena, and the root of more traditional modern day occult practices such as Thelema and Wicca) as well as Tibetan Buddhism (more specifically his use of the word ‘Bardo’ in the song – the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth).

Bowie’s interest in Buddhism and Tibet dates back to the 1960s as evidenced by songs such as ‘Silly Boy Blue’ (first demoed in 1965). In an interview by Bowie with the Melody Maker (24 February, 1966) notes:

I want to go to Tibet. It’s a fascinating place, y’know. I’d like to take a holiday and have a look inside the monasteries. The Tibetan monks, Lamas, bury themselves inside mountains for weeks, and only eat every three days. They’re ridiculous—and it’s said they live for centuries…As far as I’m concerned the whole idea of Western life – that’s the life we live now – is wrong. These are hard convictions to put into songs, though”.

Chris O’Leary also noted that:

“Bowie’s interest in Tibetan Buddhism wasn’t a sudden trendy affectation—he had begun exploring the religion when he was in his mid-teens, first inspired by reading Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet, and he eventually met and befriended the Tibetan lama Chimi Youngdong Rimpoche, who was exiled in London. Bowie even fantasized about becoming a Buddhist monk – cropping his hair and dyeing it black, wearing saffron robes and even changing his skin color (he’d have to settle for becoming Ziggy). Buddhism was an early influence in his songs: he had meant for the backing chorus of his single ‘Baby Loves That Way’ to sound like chanting monks.”

Bowie didn’t appear to have strong religious beliefs. In an interview in 1997 he noted that there was an “abiding need in me to vacillate between atheism or a kind of Gnosticism…what I need is to find a balance, spiritually, with 
the way I live and my demise” but in relation to thoughts on his own mortality he said “I believe in a continuation, kind of a dream-state without the dreams. Oh, I don’t know. I’ll come back and tell you”. In addition to his spiritual leanings, Dr. Ballinger in his 2016 Fortean Times article goes as far to say that occult and paranormal themes constituted an “integral dimension” of Bowie’s career. Bowie clearly had an interest in aliens, science fiction, and the paranormal as reflected in many of his singles dating back to ‘Space Oddity’ (1969) through to ‘Loving The Alien’ (1985) and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ (1996) (as well as many album tracks and his acting breakthrough as an alien in Nic Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell To Earth). Dr. Ballinger also argued that:

“Bowie was also reading upon esoteric subjects and alternative ideas in a relatively in-depth way beyond fashionable name dropping is made clear by the songs 
on his fourth album, Hunky Dory (1971).
 The jaunty pop of ‘Oh You Pretty Things!’ is belied by lyrics that evoke a rather sinister picture of spiritual evolution, in which the listener is asked to ‘make way’ for ‘the coming race’ of ‘homo superior’ Nietszchean super children…The ‘coming race’ is also a probable nod to the Bulwer-Lytton novel of the same name that became a staple of the ‘Vril’ mythos associated with occult-minded Nazis, a subject that would have a rather negative influence on Bowie in the near future. More overt is the ballad ‘Quicksand’, in which Bowie expounds a New Age manifesto – ‘I’m not a prophet or a Stone Age man/Just a mortal with potential of a superman’ – with reference to the Western magical tradition (‘I’m closer to the Golden Dawn/Immersed in Crowley’s uniform/of imagery), [and] The Tibetan Book of the Dead (‘You can tell me all about it on the next Bardo’)”.

Bowie wasn’t the first musician to use The Tibetan Book of the Dead as inspiration for lyrics. More famously, John Lennon used it for The Beatles classic ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the final track on the 1966 Revolver album (something I forgot to mention in my previous article on Bowie and The Beatles). However, John Lennon based his lyrics after reading The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. (And while I’m going off on tangents, I just wanted to mention that Alpert’s most well known book Be Here Now just happens to be the title of (Beatle-loving) Oasisthird album).

Dr. Ballinger also makes the argument that in Bowie’s 1972 breakthrough LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars there were “evident resonances between occultism and his musical career” and that he drew inspiration from a wide range of esoteric cultural influences to source “stimulating ideas and imagery to explore in lyrics, costumes and videos”. Ballinger also claims that Bowie’s work at this point of his career had a more integral relationship with the theory and practice of magic and occultism:

“Parsing Crowley’s legacy, one of the key aspects of magic is the transformation of the self (and, possibly, the wider social reality) through acts that focus the imagination/will towards such change, such acts including sex, drug consumption, meditation, and creative performance (i.e., rituals). In this vein Bowie can be considered a distinctly magical musician whose whole career revolved around the transformation of the self and the wider culture through the ‘ritual performances’
of rock music, such as concerts, recordings, and videos. In his most influential period
 of the 1970s, Bowie created personae (such 
as Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke) and undertook musical experiments (the ‘plastic soul’ of Young Americans and the avant-garde/krautrock/funk synthesis of the ‘Berlin trilogy’) that in turn transformed rock culture by inspiring scores of other artists. The gender-bending that was a notable aspect of Bowie’s personae in this period (for example, the androgynous cover photo for The Man Who Sold The World (1970) or the 1979 video for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’), and the cultivation of bisexual overtones in his lyrics and performance (‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ as an account of bisexual angst), are also interesting to consider in relation to Crowley’s emphasis on sexuality as a core component of magical transformation”.

Like some of the best music by The Beatles, some of the best music made by Bowie was while he was using drugs excessively (often described by his biographers as a ‘cocaine-induced psychosis’). Bowie himself claims that in 1975 he was in poor mental and physical health but ironically he was producing some of the best music (and acting) of his career. However, Bowie’s cocaine addiction has also been used as an excuse for his behaviour during the 1976 period where he flirted with Nazi occultism and made the claim that the UK would benefit from a fascist leader (“I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I’d be an excellent dictator. Very eccentric and quite mad”). Many musicians have said they are interested in Nazi imagery and fashion (e.g., Bryan Ferry) and others have collected Nazi memorabilia (e.g., Lemmy) but these interests do not mean such people are Nazi-loving or fascists.

Bowie’s esoteric and occultist interests appear to subside as his career progressed and it wasn’t until his final album that Bowie appeared to be using music (and the accompanying promo videos) in a symbolic way for people to re-interpret his music as a cryptic death note to all his hardcore acolytes (of which I would include myself). Unless Bowie left any explanation for his final seven songs, we can only speculate. However, I’ll leave you with the thoughts of Dr. Ballinger who has done a better job than I could ever do:

“The Blackstar album has seen Bowie go out with a distinctly occult bang…As every prior Bowie album cover has featured a portrait, the five-pointed ‘black star’ of 
this one is presumably meant to represent Bowie too – perhaps in his ultimate persona as spirit (the five-pointed star being a classic Hermetic/Gnostic symbol of ‘man as microcosm’, with the contradictory image of a ‘black star’ also evoking a koan or the alchemical union of opposites). The creepy atmosphere conjured up by the lyrics of the title track – “In the villa of Ormen/Stands a solitary candle/On the day of execution/Only women stand and smile” – is successfully evoked in the video for the song. Bowie 
is depicted as preacher of some dark 21st century faith, brandishing a Blackstar bible among acolytes whose spasmodic ‘dancing’ suggests a state of possession. A reading of the imagery here as analogous to Crowley and his Book of the Law is perhaps apt; director Johan Renck, who designed the videos with Bowie, has mentioned Crowley as a reference point. Some kind of Hermetic/Gnostic subtext about eternity, spirit and the flesh is further implied in the imagery of the video’s other ‘storyline’, in which the shade of a dead astronaut – Bowie himself, in his formative Major Tom persona? – floats up into a ‘black star’ of eternity, before, in a possibly Orphic reference, leaving behind his bejewelled skull for ritual veneration by a sect of mutant women. Where the esoteric overtones of the ‘Blackstar’ video are eerie, those of the video for ‘Lazarus’ are poignant. Bowie plays himself as a patient in a hospital bed, whose closet is a portal from which appears a double who is seemingly meant to signify his essential spirit. This figure is not garbed as Ziggy, the Thin White Duke
 or any of Bowie’s most famous personae, but in the striped black jumpsuit in which he undertook the famous occult photo shoot for Station to Station, in which he is depicted drawing Kabbalistic symbols on the wall. That Bowie chose this costume for his valedictory performance suggests he was giving a subtle nod to the deep, lasting metaphysical significance that this period had upon the rest of his life”.

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

Further reading

Ballinger, D. (2016). The mage who sold the world. Fortean Times, 338, 28-33.

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

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

Doggett, P. (2012). The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s. London: Vintage.

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

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

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

O’Leary, C. (2016). Rebel Rebel. Alresford: Zero Books.

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

Rogovoy, S. (2013). The secret Jewish history of David Bowie. Forward.com, April 16. Located at: http://forward.com/culture/174551/the-secret-jewish-history-of-david-bowie/

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

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

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

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