I was idly looking through some of the academic papers I have published over the last 25 years and I was surprised by how a fair number of them examined aggressive behaviour in some way. Many of these concern the effect of video game violence on aggressive behaviour but I have also published papers examining sexual orientation and aggression, mindfulness and aggression, and gambling and aggression (see ‘Further Reading’ below for a selection of these).
Back when I was doing my PhD on slot machine addiction (1987-1990) I spent a lot of my time in amusement arcades watching fruit machine players. One thing that I noticed during my observational studies is how physically aggressive players could be when they lost (such as kicking or punching the machine if they lost a lot of money or being verbally aggressive towards staff and other players when things weren’t going the way they wanted). A number of studies have reported a link between gambling and aggressive behaviour although most of the research has concentrated on domestic violence between gamblers and their partners (i.e., problem gamblers taking out the frustration of losing lots of money on their partners).
In a paper in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, Dr. Adrian Parke and I speculated that there are two main types of aggressive act which are prevalent in slot machine gambling based on environmental and structural design factors – instrumental aggression and emotional aggression. Instrumental aggression differs from emotional aggression because there is an ulterior motive behind the act whereas emotional aggression is a result of being unpleasantly aroused. The Frustration-Aggression theory states that a barrier to expected goal attainment generates emotional aggression. Furthermore, the level of aggression is directly proportional to the (i) level of satisfaction they had expected, (ii) more they are prevented from achieving any of their goals and (iii) more often their attempts are resisted. Psychologists such as Dr. Leonard Berkowitz maintains that it is not the frustration that causes the aggressive urges, but the negative affect elicited by the frustration.
Dr. Parke and I also published some other papers on slot machine aggression during 2004 and 2005 in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction and Psychological Reports. We carried out a non-participant observation study and monitored the incidence of aggressive behaviour in 303 slot machine players over four 6-hour observation periods in a UK amusement arcade. We concluded that aggression was prevalent in the UK gambling arcade environment with an average of seven aggressive incidents per hour.
We also reported that the majority of aggressive incidents were verbal. Verbal aggression was directed towards members of staff, other gamblers and also the slot machines themselves. Verbal aggression towards members of staff, from an objective point of view, appeared to be caused by a misinterpretation of staff reactions towards incurred losses. With cues available to determine which slot machine will be profitable to play, selecting a machine with which the gambler incurs a loss can be interpreted as poor slot machine gambling skill. The psychologists Dr. Brad Bushman and Dr. Roy Baumeister argue that threatened egotism (an explicit dispute against one’s self value) is a strong risk factor for aggression reprisal. It is probable that in this situation the gamblers were motivated to rebuke such evaluations through an affrontive reprimand. For example:
“After losing all of the money he entered the premises with, participant 6 becomes verbally aggressive to an arcade staff member: ‘I should bring a bat into this place and break the fucking machine…What would you do? You wouldn’t have the balls to call the police.” (Parke & Griffiths, 2005; p. 53)
Given the apparent disproportionate aggressive reaction to minor provocation from staff members, there is scope to propose that rather than being a primary source of frustration and aggression, the phenomenon is evidence of Triggered Displaced Aggression. Displaced Aggression theory contends that individuals who are provoked but who are constrained against retaliating directly to the primary source may displace such anger onto unaccountable individuals. Triggered Displaced Aggression theory extends this position, by stating that after a preclusion of direct retaliation against the provocateur, minor triggers will produce an incommensurate level of aggression. Applying this theory to the phenomenon of verbal aggression towards staff members, it is probable that the gambler while frustrated and negatively aroused may be motivated to displace disproportionately high aggressive reactions onto staff members based on minor triggers such as amusement at incurred losses.
We also reported that verbal aggression directed towards other slot machine gamblers was probably a response to predatory play from opposing slot machine gamblers. With structural design factors enabling identification of slot machines that are profitable to play, naturally the environment becomes competitive. Gamblers become callous in their machine selection because the most effective way to make profits is to target machines that other gamblers have lost considerably on. Again, for the individual, self-esteem is likely to be diminished by permitting opponents to profit from experiencing loss. As a result it is probable that attempts are made to deflect such predatory behaviour with aggressive reprimands. For example:
“Participant 3 had gambled a considerable amount of money on one machine, and had no funds to continue playing. Participant 4 immediately began to play the same machine and win. Participant 3 retorted in an aggressive tone: ‘You watching me lose my money before. Wait till I lose everything and then play mate?’” (Parke & Griffiths, 2005; p.54)
Verbal aggression towards other slot machine gamblers could be understood from perspective of the Cognitive Neo-associationistic Model. (Fundamentally, this model suggests that aversive events produce negative affect, which transforms all associated stimuli into potential triggers of aggression). Applying this theory to the verbal aggression phenomenon, it is reasonable to propose that the experience of losing transforms environmental factors, such as opposing gamblers, into sources of aggression. Berkowitz has advocated two tiers of aggression activation. The first stage is simultaneous emotions of rudimentary fear and anger. The second stage is a second order evaluative phase where the individual considers the actual liability of environmental factors in anger creation. Naturally, as Berkowitz states, the individual’s attributional processes dictate whether they will actualise aggressive emotions. Put simply, an acknowledgement of the ability to isolate slot machines that are profitable to play based on identifying losing gamblers, is potentially a risk factor for acting aggressively towards other gamblers.
Finally, verbal aggression towards the slot machine is considered to be an emotionally aggressive act as a means to vent frustration rather than instrumentally preserve status as suggested above. Invariably, verbal emotional aggression was expressed through vilification and attribution of negative human characteristics to the machine such as sadism. Interestingly, such vilification was primarily sexually aggressive and constituted a feminisation of the slot machine. For example:
“This bitch is fucking me around…Are you going to fuck me around again this week?” (Parke & Griffiths, 2005; p.54)
We argued that the physical aggression towards the slot machine was believed to be an extension of tension release that was previously observed with verbal aggression towards the slot machine. For example:
“After considerable losses, Participant 8 began to slam the glass of the machine. After experiencing a near miss Participant 8 subsequently kicked the base of the machine.” (Parke & Griffiths, 2005; p.55)
Physical aggression was not directed towards opposing gamblers – perhaps identifying a boundary of conduct in order to remain within the gambling environment, as it was probable that such behaviour would result in getting thrown out of the premises. Essentially this does not equate to gamblers not be motivated to act physically aggressive to other slot machine gamblers, rather it only represents a reluctance to actualise such behaviour in the gambling environment.
It is probable that aggressive behaviour observed in the slot machine gambling environment is not solely based on structural and environmental factors. Individual differences of the gamblers are likely to affect the prevalence of aggressive behaviour, based on propositions of the General Aggression Model that suggests that trait hostility can develop through life experiences. It is possible that the participants in our observational study held aggression-related biases. For example, Dr. Karen Dill and her colleagues argue that trait hostility precipitates a hostile expectation bias (the expectation that aggressive behaviour will be used by others instrumentally) and a hostile perception bias (the propensity of interpreting interpersonal interactions as aggressive). For gamblers, it is probable that trait hostility is exacerbating aggressive reactions towards provocation from environmental and structural game design factors. Overall, our research concluded that gambling-induced aggression is a manifestation of the underlying conflict of engaging in dysfunctional behaviour while consciously acknowledging its detrimental effects.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Additional input: Dr. Adrian Parke (University of Lincoln, UK)
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