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Learning, yearning, but not earning: A brief look at student gambling

Last week, the UK Gambling Commission put out a press release relating to student gambling. Having been in the university sector for as long as I have been researching gambling (i.e., 30 years), student gambling is an area that has always been close to my professional heart. I have published dozens of papers on youth gambling and student gambling over the last three decades (see ‘Further reading’ below for a few examples).

With my daughter leaving home to go to university this week there are lots I could potentially worry about and gambling isn’t necessarily my main concern where my daughter is concerned, but gambling is still of concern to me especially because a study I published back in 2012 with Luke Benson and Dr. Christine Norman (in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction) found that first year university students gambled more than final year students and were more susceptible to problem gambling compared to final year students.

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The Gambling Commission have just published their own research into the topic. They hired Youth Sight who conducted 1,000 online interviews with undergraduate students in August 2017 (the students were part of an online panel recruited from applicants through Universities and Colleges Admission Service). The quotas chosen reflected the UK student population in terms of gender, course year and university group. Here are some of their key findings:

  • Two-thirds of students had gambled in the previous month
  • Over half of student gamblers (54%) engaged in gambling to make money
  • Two-fifths of students said they felt guilty after they had gambled
  • One in eight student gamblers had missed lectures due to gambling
  • One in four student gamblers (25%) had spent more money gambling than they could afford
  • One in 25 student gamblers (4%) were in debt because of their gambling
  • One in four students that had a gambling debt, had a debt of over £10,000

The Gambling Commission noted there were are number of limitations with the study. They specifically noted that gambling participation rates may have been higher than if the data had been collected using other methodologies (telephone, face-to-face interviews) due to the self-selecting nature of online surveys. However, online surveys were chosen due to students’ access to technology and the availability of a representative panel via this method. 

On the back of their survey, the Gambling Commission also provided their top ten tips to help students avoid getting into trouble with gambling. I have reproduced them here verbatim.

  • Ask yourself why you are gambling: Are you gambling to escape debt or as a way to make quick money? Think carefully about your motivations to gamble. Gambling shouldn’t be seen as the answer to improving your personal finances. If you have concerns about money, speak to a financial adviser or student support services.
  • Monitor how often you’re gambling online: Websites must give you access to historic account activity. This means you can see exactly when, how much and what you’ve been gambling on over time and make well-informed choices about what to do next.
  • Keep track of how much time you’ve spent gambling: With a reality check, you can set alerts to pop up on screen, which help you to monitor the time spent gambling either online or on gaming machines in a betting shop.
  • Limit how much you can spend: If you’re concerned about how much money you’re gambling, you can set a limit on how much you spend across individual gambling products online. You can also set a limit on how much you spend on gaming machines in a betting shop.
  • Give yourself a timeout: During a timeout, you can block yourself from gambling online for a set amount of time, of up to 6 weeks, and even bar yourself from gambling during a specific time of day.
  • Need a longer break? Self-exclude from gambling firms for a minimum of 6 months: If you think you are spending too much time or money gambling – whether online or in gambling premises – you can ask to be self-excluded. This is when you ask the company to stop you from gambling with them for a period of time. The exclusion will last for a minimum of least six months. Self-exclusion can be used if you think you have a problem with gambling and want help to stop. [The Gambling Commission] are also working with industry representatives to develop a national online self-exclusion scheme.
  • Read the terms and conditions: Did you know almost 80% of gamblers haven’t read the terms and conditions on the websites they are gambling on? By taking the time to read the T&Cs, you can ensure you understand exactly what you are gambling on, and what restrictions are attached to promotions and bonus offers (such as a minimum spend level before the bonus is paid) – this will help you make an informed decision.
  • Make sure the website you’re gambling with is licensed: Make sure you’re gambling with a Gambling Commission licensed business. This means you’ll be protected by gambling and consumer protection rules in Great Britain. Licensed gambling businesses must display that they are licensed and provide a link to our licence register where you can see what type of activities they are allowed to offer and also if we have taken any regulatory action against them.
  • Check how your money is protected: Any gambling business that holds customer funds must explain in their T&Cs how customer funds are protected if the business goes bust – this should help you decide who you want to gamble with.
  • Feel it’s getting too much? Talk to someone: There are a number of gambling support groups available if you feel your gambling is getting out of control or too much. More information about the signs of problem gambling can be found on the Gambleaware and Gamcare websites [You can call the National Gambling Helpline on Freephone 0808 8020 133]. They also provide general information about gambling, including how to gamble safely and where to get help if you or someone you know has problems with their gambling.

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

Further reading

Benson, L., Norman, C. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The role of impulsivity, sensation seeking, coping, and year of study in student gambling: A pilot study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 461-473.

Canale, N., Griffiths, M.D., Vieno, A., Siciliano, V. & Molinaro, S. (2016). Impact of internet gambling on problem gambling among adolescents in Italy: Findings from a large-scale nationally representative survey. Computers in Human Behavior, 57, 99-106.

Canale, N., Vieno, A., Lenzi, M., Griffiths, M.D., Borraccino, A., Lazzeri, G., Lemma, P., Scacchi, L., Santinello, M. (2017). Income inequality and adolescent gambling severity: Findings from a large-scale Italian representative survey. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1318. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01318

Gambling Commision (2017). Commission raises awareness of potential risks for students who gamble. September 12. Located at: http://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/news-action-and-statistics/news/2017/Commission-raises-awareness-of-potential-risks-for-students-who-gamble.aspx

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Adolescent Gambling. London: Routledge.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Adolescent gambling: What should teachers and parents know? Education and Health, 20, 31-35.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Gambling and Gaming Addictions in Adolescence. Leicester: British Psychological Society/Blackwells.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Adolescent gambling in Great Britain. Education Today: Quarterly Journal of the College of Teachers. 58(1), 7-11.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent gambling via social networking sites: A brief overview. Education and Health, 31, 84-87.

Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Adolescent gambling and gambling-type games on social networking sites: Issues, concerns, and recommendations. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 33(2), 31-37.

Griffiths, M.D. & Calado, F. (2017). Adolescent gambling. Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology (pp. 1-12). Oxford: Elsevier.

Griffiths, M.D. & Linsey, A. (2006). Adolescent gambling: Still a cause for concern? Education and Health, 24, 9-11.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2010). Adolescent gambling on the Internet: A review. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 22, 59-75.

Aid and a bet: Can personalised feedback help online gamblers play more responsibly?

In recent years, online gambling has become a more common leisure time activity. Research around the world suggests around 8-16% of adults have gambled online during the past year. Research has also demonstrated that there are a number of situational and structural characteristics that make online gambling potentially risky for susceptible and vulnerable individuals. Such factors include increased accessibility, affordability, anonymity and specific structural features of online games such as high event frequency. In addition, some forms of online gambling may be more problematic than others (e.g., online poker, online casino games).

A number of scientific studies have also shown that there are typically more problematic gamblers among those that gamble on the internet compared to those that only gamble in land-based venues. However, problem gambling severity is associated with overall engagement and that when the volume of gambling is controlled for, Internet gambling is not predictive of problems. Furthermore, most online gamblers are also offline gamblers and gamble on many different activities and across different gambling platforms.

Given the increasing number of people gambling online and issues surrounding problem gambling, many of the more socially responsible gambling companies around the world have started to use responsible gambling tools to help their clientele gamble more safely (such as the option to set time and money spending limits or to temporarily self-exclude from gambling for a day, week, month, or longer). In fact, one of our own studies recently demonstrated that the use of both time and money spending limits are most effective among gamblers that play most frequently, and that the effects are differential. For instance, time spending limits were most useful for online poker players and monetary spending limits were most useful for online casino players.

In addition, gamblers can now access and/or are given general advice on healthy and responsible gambling, as well as information about common misbeliefs and erroneous perceptions concerning gambling. However, findings on the effectiveness of providing gamblers with information in correcting or changing erroneous beliefs have been mixed. Some outcomes support the display of information, while other studies have reported non-significant results.

Studies have also shown that the way information is presented can significantly influence behaviour and thinking. Several studies have investigated the effects of interactive versus static pop-up messages during gambling sessions. Static messages do not appear to be effective, whereas interactive pop-up messages and animated information have been shown to change both irrational belief patterns and behaviour of gamblers. It has also been suggested that informational warning signs should promote the application of self-appraisal and self-regulation skills rather than the simple provision of information.

In one of our more recent studies, we investigated the effect of a pop-up message that appeared after 1,000 consecutive online slot machine games had been played during a single gambling session using behavioural tracking data. Our study analysed 400,000 gambling sessions (200,000 sessions before the pop-up had been introduced and 200,000 after the pop-up had been introduced). We found that the pop-up message had a limited effect on a small percentage of players. Although the study reported nine times as many gamblers stopped after 1000 consecutive plays compared to those gamblers before the introduction of the pop-up message, the number of gamblers that actually stopped after viewing the pop-up message was less than 1%.

In a follow-up study, we investigated the effects of normative and self-appraisal feedback in a slot machine pop-up message compared to a simple (non-enhanced) pop-up message. The study compared two representative random samples of 800,000 gambling sessions (i.e., 1.6 million sessions in total) across two conditions (i.e., simple pop-up message versus an enhanced pop-up message). The results indicated that the additional normative and self-appraisal content doubled the number of gamblers who stopped playing after they received the enhanced pop-up message (1.39%) compared to the simple pop-up message (0.67%). Like our previous study, the findings suggested that pop-up messages influence only a small number of gamblers to cease long playing sessions but that enhanced messages are slightly more effective in helping gamblers to stop playing within-session. Our two studies evaluating pop-up messages are the only published studies that examine the impact of messaging on actual gamblers in a real world online gambling environment.

In order to make individuals gamble more responsibly using behavioural tracking data, we believe that player feedback should also be presented in a motivational way. In practical terms, this means presenting messages in a non-judgmental way alongside normative data so that gamblers can evaluate their actions compared to other like-minded individuals. One of our most recent studies examined personalised feedback and information given to players during real world gambling sessions. We hypothesized that gamblers receiving tailored feedback about their online gambling behaviour would be more likely to change their behaviour (as measured by the amount of time and money spent) compared to those who did not receive tailored feedback.

We were given access to the behavioural tracking data of 1,358 gamblers at a European online gambling website that had voluntarily signed up to a behavioural feedback system that we developed (called mentor) that is offered to all customers on the website. The system is an opt-in system (i.e., gamblers can voluntarily choose to use it and the system is not mandatory). Once gamblers have enrolled to use the system, they can retrieve detailed visual and numerical feedback about their gambling behaviour via a button on the website. Player feedback is displayed in a number of ways (numerical, graphical, and textual) and provides information about wins and losses, playing duration, number of playing days, and games played. The system can also display personal gambling behaviour over time. For instance, Figure 1 shows the playing time information for a hypothetical player in the form of a graph over time.

At the top of the screen, players receive information about playing time over the previous 4-week and 24-week period. The white line in Figure 1 indicates that the player shows an upward trend and is steadily increasing the amount of time spent gambling. During the previous 4-week period, the player spent 25.75 hours gambling online. The upper line in Figure 1 is the average playing time for all other comparable online players (depending upon what types of game are typically played) and provides the gambler both normative and comparative feedback. Such feedback has been emphasized as an important aspect in facilitating behavioural change. Players are either assigned to ‘lottery’ type players or ‘casino’ type players based on their playing patterns.

Of the daily active players, 10% (n=1,358) opted into the system. Players could opt-in via a clearly visible button on the post-login website page which appeared immediately after they logged into their account. The personalised information appeared in a new pop-up window. This typically led to a break in play, as gamblers who viewed the information are unlikely to play and view information simultaneously. The system tracks those players who sign up and therefore the opt-in date is known and can also be used for analytical purposes.

All the visual, numerical, and textual information can be accessed by the gambler via a user-friendly on-screen dashboard. Responsiveness means that interactive content automatically adapts to technical environments. The player front end thus looks similar on different devices such as desktops, laptops, mobile phones, or tablets and also across different browsers and operating systems such as Windows, Android or iOS.

We investigated whether players’ behaviour changed after they have registered for the mentor system and saw the personalised feedback for the first time. We then compared their gambling behaviour with over 15,000 online gamblers displaying the same types of gambling behaviour (i.e., matched controls). Our results indicated that the personalised feedback system achieved the hypothesised effect and that the time and money spent gambling was significantly reduced compared to the online gambler control group that did not utilize the mentor system. The results suggest that responsible gambling tools such as mentor may help the clientele of gambling companies gamble more responsibly, and may be of help those who gamble excessively.

To our knowledge, this study was the first real world study investigating the effects of behavioural feedback on actual gambling behaviour within a real online gambling website. However, there were a number of limitations. For instance, all of the players in the target population had voluntarily registered to use the mentor system and were therefore not selected randomly from the population of players (but we tried to overcome this by using a control group of matched pairs). In addition, the reliability of our findings is limited because our data were only collected from one online gambling environment. It may also the case that players who voluntarily signed up to receive personalised messages about their gambling were different in other ways from controls (i.e., gamblers who voluntarily signed up to receive personalised messages may have already been interested in reducing their gambling and would be likely to gamble less).

Another limitation is that we did not know whether any of the gamblers who voluntarily opted to use the mentor system were problem gamblers. Therefore we do not know whether the system captures gamblers most in need of such interventions. Based on the findings, one explanation may be that the tool may simply be curtailing gambling in those who already play responsibly. Although our study was performed in a real world setting utilising objective behavioural data, it is limited because the motivations and thoughts of the players were unknown and can only be inferred.

Online gambling operators have the technical capabilities to introduce behavioural feedback systems such as the one we described in our paper, and our findings suggest that a system like mentor can help players limit the amount of time and money spent gambling can be achieved. However, the findings are preliminary and future research should focus on investigating at which point in time players should receive personalised messages to optimize behavioural change.

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

Further reading

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Voluntary limit setting and player choice in most intense online gamblers: An empirical study of gambling behaviour. Journal of Gambling Studies, 29, 647-660.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Personalised feedback in the promotion of responsible gambling: A brief overview. Responsible Gambling Review, 1, 27-36.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Testing normative and self-appraisal feedback in an online slot-machine pop-up message in a real-world setting. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 339. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00339.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). The use of personalized behavioral feedback for problematic online gamblers: An empirical study. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1406. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01406.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Personalized behavioral feedback for online gamblers: A real world empirical study. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1875. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01875. 

Auer, M., Littler, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Legal aspects of responsible gaming pre-commitment and personal feedback initiatives. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 6, 444-456.

Auer, M., Malischnig, D. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Is ‘pop-up’ messaging in online slot machine gambling effective? An empirical research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 29, 1-10.

More mass debating: Compulsive sexual behaviour and the internet

The issue of sex addiction as a behavioural addiction has been hotly debated over the last decade. A recent contribution to this debate is a review by Shane Kraus and his colleagues in the latest issue of the journal Addiction that examined the empirical evidence base for classifying compulsive sexual behaviour (CSB) as a behavioural (i.e., non-substance) addiction. The review raised many important issues and highlighted many of the problems in the area including the problems in defining CSB, and the lack of robust data from many different perspectives (epidemiological, longitudinal, neuropsychological, neurobiological, genetic, etc.).

As my regular blog readers will know, I have carried out empirical research into a wide variety of different behavioural addictions (gambling, video gaming, internet use, exercise, sex, work, etc.) and have argued that some types of problematic sexual behaviour can be classed as sex addiction depending upon the definition of addiction used. I was invited by the editors of Addiction to write a commentary on the review and this has just been published in the same issue as the paper by Kraus and colleagues. This blog briefly looks at the issues in that review that I highlighted in my commentary.

For instance, there are a number of areas in Kraus et al.’s paper that were briefly mentioned without any critical evaluation. For instance, in the short section on co-occurring psychopathology and CSB, reference was made to studies claiming that 4%-20% of those with CSB also display disordered gambling behaviour. I pointed out that a very comprehensive review that I published with Dr. Steve Sussman and Nadra Lisha (in the journal Evaluation and the Health Professions) examining 11 different potentially addictive behaviours also highlighted studies claiming that sex addiction could co-occur with exercise addiction (8%-12%), work addiction (28%-34%), and shopping addiction (5%-31%). While it is entirely possible for an individual to be addicted to (say) cocaine and sex concurrently (because both behaviours can be carried out simultaneously), there is little face validity that an individual could have two or more co-occurring behavioural addictions because genuine behavioural addictions consume large amounts of time every single day. My own view is that it is almost impossible for someone to be genuinely addicted to (for example) both work and sex (unless the person’s work was as an actor/actress in the pornographic film industry).

The paper by Kraus et al also made a number of references to “excessive/problematic sexual behavior” and appeared to make the assumption that ‘excessive’ behaviour is bad (i.e., problematic).  While I agree that CSB is typically excessive, excessive sex in itself is not necessarily problematic. Preoccupation with any behaviour in relation to addiction obviously needs to take into account the context of the behaviour, as the context is far more important in defining addictive behaviour than the amount of the activity undertaken. As I have constantly argued, the fundamental difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasms and addictions is that healthy excessive enthusiasms add to life whereas addictions take away from them.

The paper also appeared to have an underlying assumption that empirical research from a neurobiological and genetic perspective should be treated more seriously than that from a psychological perspective. Whether problematic sexual behaviour is described as CSB, sex addiction and/or hypersexual disorder, there are thousands of psychological therapists around the world that treat such disorders. Consequently, clinical evidence from those that help and treat such individuals should be given greater credence by the psychiatric community.

shutterstock_cybersex

Arguably the most important development in the field of CSB and sex addiction is how the internet is changing and facilitating CSB. This was not even mentioned until the concluding paragraph yet research into online sex addiction (while comprising a small empirical base) has existed since the late 1990s including sample sizes of up to almost 10,000 individuals. In fact, there have been a number of recent reviews of the empirical data concerning online sex addiction including its treatment including ones by myself in journals such as Addiction Research and Theory (in 2012) and Current Addiction Reports (in 2015). My review papers specifically outlined the many specific features of the Internet that may facilitate and stimulate addictive tendencies in relation to sexual behaviour (accessibility, affordability, anonymity, convenience, escape, disinhibition, etc.). The internet may also be facilitating behaviours that an individual would never imagine doing offline such as cybersexual stalking.

Finally, there is also the issue of why Internet Gaming Disorder was included in the DSM-5 (in Section 3 – ‘Emerging measures and models’) but sex addiction/hypersexual disorder was not, even though the empirical base for sex addiction is arguably on a par with IGD. One of the reasons might be that the term ‘sex addiction’ is often used (and arguably misused) by high profile celebrities as an excuse to justify their infidelity (e.g., Tiger Woods, Michael Douglas, David Duchovny, Russell Brand), and is little more than a ‘functional attribution’. For instance, the golfer Tiger Woods claimed an addiction to sex after his wife found out that he had many sexual relationships during their marriage. If his wife had never found out, I doubt whether Woods would have claimed he was addicted to sex. I would argue that many celebrities are in a position where they are bombarded with sexual advances from other individuals and have succumbed. But how many people would not do the same thing if they had the opportunity? Sex only becomes a problem (and is pathologised) when the person is found to have been unfaithful. Such examples arguably give sex addiction a ‘bad name’, and provides a good reason for those not wanting to include such behaviour in diagnostic psychiatry texts.

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

Further reading

Bocij, P., Griffiths, M.D., McFarlane, L. (2002). Cyberstalking: A new challenge for criminal law. Criminal Lawyer, 122, 3-5.

Cooper, A., Delmonico, D.L., & Burg, R. (2000). Cybersex users, abusers, and compulsives: New findings and implications. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 6, 79-104.

Cooper, A., Delmonico, D.L., Griffin-Shelley, E., & Mathy, R.M. (2004). Online sexual activity: An examination of potentially problematic behaviors. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 11, 129-143.

Cooper, A., Galbreath, N., Becker, M.A. (2004). Sex on the Internet: Furthering our understanding of men with online sexual problems. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 18, 223-230.

Cooper, A., Griffin-Shelley, E., Delmonico, D.L., Mathy, R.M. (2001). Online sexual problems: Assessment and predictive variables. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 8, 267-285.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Compulsive sexual behaviour as a behavioural addiction: The impact of the Internet and other issues. Addiction, 111, 2107-2109.

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

Kraus, S., Voon, V., & Potenza, M. (2016). Should compulsive sexual behavior be considered an addiction? Addiction 111, 2097-2106.

Orzack M.H., & Ross C.J. (2000). Should virtual sex be treated like other sex addictions? Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 7, 113-125.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Meditation Awareness Training for the treatment of sex addiction: A case study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5, 363–372.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation as self-medication: Can mindfulness be addictive?

(Please note, the following blog is an extended version of an article by my research colleagues Dr. Edo Shonin and William Van Gordon (that was first published hereand to which I have added some further text. If citing this article, we recommend: Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Meditation as self-medication: Can mindfulness be addictive? Located at: https://drmarkgriffiths.wordpress.com/2016/10/24/meditation-as-self-medication-can-mindfulness-be-addictive/).

Mindfulness is growing in popularity and is increasingly being used by healthcare professionals for treating mental health problems. There has also been a gradual uptake of mindfulness by a range of organisations including schools, universities, large corporations, and the armed forces. However, the rate at which mindfulness has been assimilated by Western society has – in our opinion – meant that there has been a lack of research exploring the circumstances where mindfulness may actually cause a person harm. An example of a potentially harmful consequence of mindfulness that we have identified in our own research is that of a person developing an addiction to mindfulness.

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In a previous blog, the issue of whether meditation more generally can be addictive was examined. In a 2010 article by Michael Sigman in the Huffington Post entitled “Meditation and Addiction: A Two-Way Street?”, Sigman recounted the story about how one of his friends spent over two hours every day engaging in meditation while sat in the lotus position. He then claimed:

“There are those few for whom meditation can become compulsive, even addictive. The irony here is that an increasing body of research shows that meditation – in particular Buddhist Vipassana meditation – is an effective tool in treating addiction. One category of meditation addiction is related to the so-called ‘spiritual bypass’. Those who experience bliss when they meditate may practice relentlessly to recreate that experience, at the expense of authentic self-awareness. A close friend who’s done Transcendental Meditation for decades feels so addicted to it, she has a hard time functioning when she hasn’t ‘transcended’”.

Obviously, this is purely anecdotal but at least raises the issue that maybe for a very small minority, meditation might be addictive. In addition, empirical studies have shown that meditation can increase pain tolerance, and that the body produces its own morphine-like substances (i.e., endorphins). Therefore, the addictive qualities of meditation may be due to increased endorphin production that creates a semi-dissociative blissful state.

Being addicted to meditation – and more specifically mindfulness – would constitute a form of behavioural addiction (i.e., as opposed to chemical addiction). Examples of better known forms of behavioural addiction are gambling disorder, internet gaming disorder, problematic internet use, sex addiction, and workaholism. According to the components model of addiction, a person would suffer from an addiction to mindfulness if they satisfied the following six criteria:

  • Salience: Mindfulness has become the single most important activity in their life.
  • Mood modification: Mindfulness is used in order to alleviate emotional stress (i.e., escape) or to experience euphoria (i.e., a ‘high’).
  • Tolerance: Practising mindfulness for longer durations in order to derive the same mood-modifying effects.
  • Withdrawal: Experiencing emotional and physical distress (e.g., painful bodily sensations) when not practising mindfulness.
  • Conflict: The individual’s routine of mindfulness practice causes (i) interpersonal conflict with family members and friends, (ii) conflict with activities such as work, socialising, and exercising, and (iii) psychological and emotional conflict (also known as intra-psychic conflict).
  • Relapse: Reverting to earlier patterns of excessive mindfulness practice following periods of control or abstinence.

In modern society, the word ‘addiction’ has negative connotations but it should be remembered that addictions have been described by some as both positive and negative (for instance, Dr. Bill Glasser has spent his whole career talking about ‘positive’ addictions). For example, in separate clinical case studies that we conducted with individuals suffering from pathological gambling, sex addiction, and workaholism, it was observed that the participants substituted their addiction to gambling, work, or sex with mindfulness (and maybe even developed an addiction to it, depending upon the definition of addiction). In the beginning phases of psychotherapy, this process of addiction substitution represented a move forward in terms of the individual’s therapeutic recovery. However, as the therapy progressed and the individual’s dependency on gambling, work, or sex began to weaken, their “addiction” to mindfulness was restricting their personal and spiritual growth, and was starting to cause conflict in other areas of their life. Therefore, it became necessary to help them change the way they practiced and related to mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a technique or behaviour that an individual can choose to practice. However, the idea is that the individual doesn’t separate mindfulness from the rest of their lives. If an individual sees mindfulness as a practice or something that they need to do in order to find calm and escape from their problems, there is a risk that they will become addicted to it. It is for this reason that we always exercise caution before recommending that people follow a strict daily routine of mindfulness practice. In fact, in the mindfulness intervention that we (Shonin and Van Gordon) developed called Meditation Awareness Training, we don’t encourage participants to practice at set times of day or to adhere to a rigid routine. Rather, we guide participants to follow a dynamic routine of mindfulness practice that is flexible and that can be adapted according to the demands of daily living. For example, if a baby decides to wake up earlier than usual one morning, the mother can’t tell it to wait and be quite because it’s interfering with her time for practising mindfulness meditation. Rather, she has to tend to the baby and find another time to sit in meditation. Or better still, she can tend to the baby with love and awareness, and turn the encounter with her child into a form of mindfulness practice. We live in a very uncertain world and so it is valuable if we can learn to be accommodating and work mindfully with situations as they unfold around us.

One of the components in the components model of addiction is ‘salience’ (put more simply, importance). In general, if an individual prioritises a behaviour (such as gambling) or a substance (such as cannabis) above all other aspects of their life, then it’s probably fair to say that their perspective on life is misguided and that they are in need of help and support. However, as far as mindfulness is concerned, we would argue that it’s good if it becomes the most important thing in a person’s life. Human beings don’t live very long and there can be no guarantee that a person will survive the next week, let alone the next year. Therefore, it’s our view that it is a wise move to dedicate oneself to some form of authentic spiritual practice. However, there is a big difference between understanding the importance of mindfulness and correctly assimilating it into one’s life, and becoming dependent upon it.

If a person becomes dependent upon mindfulness, it means that it has remained external to their being. It means that they don’t live and breathe mindfulness, and that they see it as a method of coping with (or even avoiding) the rest of their life. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to see how a person can develop an addiction to mindfulness, and how they can become irritable with both themselves and others when they don’t receive their normal ‘fix’ of mindfulness on a given day.

Mindfulness is a relatively simple practice but it’s also very subtle. It takes a highly skilled and experienced meditation teacher to correctly and safely instruct people in how to practise mindfulness. It’s our view that because the rate of uptake of mindfulness in the West has been relatively fast, in the future there will be more and more people who experience problems – including mental health problems such as being addicted to mindfulness – as a result of practising mindfulness. Of course, it’s not mindfulness itself that will cause their problems to arise. Rather, problems will arise because people have been taught how to practice mindfulness by instructors who are not teaching from an experiential perspective and who don’t really know what they are talking about. From personal experience, we know that mindfulness works and that it is good for a person’s physical, mental, and spiritual health. However, we also know that teaching mindfulness and meditation incorrectly can give rise to harmful consequences, including developing an addiction to mindfulness.

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

Further Reading

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

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.

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

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 63-71.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). The treatment of workaholism with Meditation Awareness Training: A case study. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 10, 193-195.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Mindfulness as a treatment for behavioral addiction. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5, e122. doi: 10.4172/2155- 6105.1000e122.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Are there risks associated with using mindfulness for the treatment of psychopathology? Clinical Practice, 11, 389-382.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Mindfulness and Buddhist-derived Approaches in Mental Health and Addiction. New York: Springer.

Sigman, M. (2010). Meditation and addiction: A two-way street? Huffington Post, November 15. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-sigman/meditation-and-addiction_b_783552.htm

Sussman, S., Lisha, N., Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professionals, 34, 3-56.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Mindfulness in mental health: A critical reflection. Journal of Psychology, Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Brain Stimulation, 1(1), 102.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Meditation Awareness Training for the treatment of sex addiction: A case study. Journal of Behavioral Addiction, 5, 363-372.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Ontological addiction: Classification, etiology, and treatment. Mindfulness, 7, 660-671.

Teaming with gain: Are daily fantasy sports a form of gambling?

Fantasy sports games have been popular for many years and involves individuals assuming the role of a professional sports team manager (typically football) and assembling a virtual team of sportsmen to compete against other players within a private or public league. For decades, the game was played out across the whole season with the winners being those that had accumulated the most points (with the points gained being based on the real-life statistics of individual sportsmen using a predetermined scoring system).

However, fantasy sports have changed dramatically over the last few years. Although the game can still be played over a whole season, the playing of daily fantasy sports (DFS) has become increasing popular (particularly in countries such as the USA, Canada, and Australia) and can operate over much shorter time periods. In DFS, players can pay to play and this has led to the blurring of lines of whether the activity is a game or whether it is gambling. As Dr. Dylan Pickering and his colleagues noted in a 2016 issue of Current Addiction Reports:

“Daily fantasy sports (DFS) is the most recent and controversial of FS games…It is an accelerated version of FS conducted over much shorter time periods: generally a single game (per day) or weekly round of competition. Users pay entry fees ranging from US 25 cents to US $5000 per league, which is deposited into a prize pool typically paid out to the highest ranked users in the contest. A portion of the entry fees also goes to the operator as commission. Accordingly, DFS, as such, is most associated with wagering. Currently, the US DFS market is dominated by ‘FanDuel’ and ‘DraftKings’ (combined with about 95 % of the market)”.

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According to figures in the same paper, in the USA, the fantasy sports (FS) market is currently estimated to be between $3 billion and $4 billion. In 2015, approximately 57 million Americans played FS. Research suggests that the prevalence rates are higher in North America than elsewhere with 19% of Canadian adults and 16% of American adults engaging in FS compared to 10% of British adults and 6% of Australian adults (Pickering et al., 2016). However, these figures relate to FS rather than DFS and many FS players do not pay money to participate in the game and simply play for fun. Some research by Dr. Joris Drayer and colleagues in a 2013 issue of the European Sport Management Quarterly also suggests that those who engage in playing DFS do not typically engage in other forms of gambling. Furthermore, in a 2011 issue of Journal of Sport Management, Dr. Brendan Dwyer and Dr. Yongjae Kim reported that compared to more traditional forms of gambling, the elements of fun, excitement, competition play a bigger role than winning money in the playing of DFS games.

A study carried out by Dr. Ryan Martin and Dr. Sarah Nelson published in a 2014 issue of Addictive Behaviors found that college students who were FS users (free and fee-based) were five times more likely to incur gambling problems than non-FS users, and students who played FS for money had significantly higher rates of gambling problems than those who played in free leagues. A more recent 2016 study by Loredana Marchica and Dr. Jeff Derevensky in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction examined data from national surveys of collegiate athletes and reported a steady rise in FS participation among college students between 2004 and 2012. They reported that approximately half of the male and a quarter of the female college athletes who qualified as at-risk or problem gamblers also reported wagering on FS.

There has been much debate (particularly by US legislators) as to whether playing DFS for money is classed as a legitimate form of gambling. If gambling is defined as “an agreement between two or more parties to deliberately stake something of value (typically money) with intent to profit on the outcome of an event that is determined wholly, or partially by chance” (by Pickering and colleagues), then DFS could well be a form of gambling as they argue:

“DFS can be construed as representing a form of gambling: (a) DFS includes an agreement between an individual and others, (b) money is staked on the relative performances of athletes across a certain number of sporting events with the outcome determined by both chance and skill, and (c) chance is involved given that multiple unknown factors can influence outcomes. In this regard, similarities are found in horse and sports wagering where some skill in selecting horse/sports outcomes is present, but unpredictable variables influence results (i.e., chance)…Literature from the legal field asserts that gambling must contain three elements: (a) consideration (staking something of value in order to participate), (b) chance (luck is a substantial factor in determining results), and (c) prizes (cash, merchandise, services, or points) are redeemable…While the first and third elements are clearly present in DFS, the second element, chance, is the source of current disagreement”.

The US legislation on gambling rests on whether an activity is more skill than chance determined. If DFS is predominantly a game of skill it is not deemed to be a form of gambling. The DFS operators claim that DFS games are not gambling because of the “substantial” amount of skill involved in the selection and management of FS teams. But is this any different for the professional gambler who bets on horse racing given the many factors that the person gambling has to take into account (the form of the horse, the skill of the jockey, the weather conditions, the state of the track, the number of other horses involved in the race, etc.). Similarly, poker and blackjack are both games that players can win big if they are skilful. Personally, I believe that playing DFS games for money is definitely a form of gambling, and even if it isn’t legally classed as a form of gambling, the games contain structural elements (including high event frequencies, low entry fee per game, lots of games, etc.) that can facilitate excessive use and expose vulnerable players to harm. DFS operators also allow team line-ups from a previous sporting event to populate other events which increases the speed of play, another factor that can facilitate habitual use. Furthermore, as Dr. Samantha Thomas and her colleagues argued in a recent 2015 report, the enhanced participatory role that fantasy games introduce could facilitate the illusion of control as they perform actions, making bettors overestimate the importance of skills and knowledge for the outcome of the competitions.

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

Further reading

Drayer, J., Dwyer, B., & Shapiro, S. L. (2013). Examining the impact of league entry fees on online fantasy sport participation and league consumption. European Sport Management Quarterly, 13(3), 339-335.

Dwyer, B., & Kim, Y. (2011). For love or money: Developing and validating a motivational scale for fantasy football participation. Journal of Sport Management, 25(1), 70-83.

Marchica, L., & Derevensky, J. (2016). Fantasy sports: A growing concern among college student-athletes. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1-15. Epub ahead of print.

Martin, R. J., & Nelson, S. (2014). Fantasy sports, real money: Exploration of the relationship between fantasy sports participation and gambling-related problems. Addictive Behaviors, 39(10), 1377-138.

Pickering, D., Blaszczynski, A., Hartmann, M., & Keen, B. (2016). Fantasy sports: Skill, gambling, or are these irrelevant issues? Current Addiction Reports, 3(3), 307-313.

Thomas, S., Bestman, A., Pitt, H., Deans, E., Randle, M., Stoneham, M., & Daube, M. (2015). The marketing of wagering on social media: An analysis of promotional content on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Victoria, Australia: Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation.

Confession session: The psychology of apology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bill-clinton-monica-lewinsky

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Market forces: Does gambling advertising increase problem gambling?

Anyone who watched the Euro 2016 football tournament on ITV a couple of months ago will have noticed the many offers to gamble on the matches. You were encouraged to download the bookies’ mobile apps, or asked to bet-in-play and gamble responsibly. But how do we respond to gambling ads? Do they actually draw us in? Arguably the most noticeable change in the British gambling landscape since the Gambling Act came into force in September 2007 has been the large increase in gambling advertising on television. Prior to this, the only gambling ads allowed on TV were those for National Lottery products, bingo, and the football pools.

In 2013, Ofcom published their research examining the volume, scheduling, frequency and exposure of gambling advertising on British television. The findings showed that there had been a 600% increase in UK gambling advertising between 2006 and 2012 – more specifically, there were 1.39m adverts on television in 2012 compared to 152,000 in 2006. The report also showed that gambling adverts accounted for 4.1% of all advertising seen by viewers in 2012, up from 0.5% in 2006 and 1.7% in 2008.

So is the large increase having any effect on gambling and problem gambling? In 2007, prior to there being widespread gambling ads on TV, the British Gambling Prevalence Survey (BGPS) of over 9,000 people (aged 16 years and over) reported that 0.6% of them were problem gamblers. In the 2010 BGPS, the problem gambling prevalence rate had increased by half to 0.9%. Some of this increase may, arguably, have been due to increased gambling advertising. However, the latest British survey research shows that the prevalence of problem gambling is back down (to 0.5%), so perhaps increased gambling advertising hasn’t resulted in an increase of problem gambling.

Surprisingly, there is relatively little scientific evidence that advertising directly influences gambling participation and problem gambling. This is partly because demonstrating empirically that the negative effects of gambling are solely attributable to advertising is hard. For instance, a study of 1,500 people in New Zealand by Ben Amey, a governmental social science researcher at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, reported an association between participation in gambling activities and recall of gambling advertising. The study fund that over 12 months, 83% of people who had gambled between zero and three times remembered seeing gambling ads during that time. For people that had gambled four or more times, the figure was at 93%.

Last year, research colleagues from the University of Bergen in Norway and I published one of the largest studies carried out on gambling advertising. It involved more than 6,000 people and examined three specific dimensions of gambling advertising impacts: gambling-related attitudes, interest, and behavior (“involvement”); knowledge about gambling options and providers (“knowledge”); and the degree to which people are aware of gambling advertising (“awareness”). Overall, we found that impacts were strongest for the “knowledge” dimension. We also found that for all three dimensions, the impact increased with the level of advertising exposure.

We then compared the responses from problem gamblers against those of recreational (non-problem) gamblers. We found that problem gamblers were more likely than recreational gamblers to agree that gambling advertising increased their gambling involvement and knowledge, and that they were more aware of gambling advertising. In simple terms, our study showed that gambling advertising has a greater impact on problem gamblers than recreational gamblers. This indirectly supports previous research showing that problem gamblers often mention that gambling advertising acts as a trigger to their gambling.

We also found that younger gamblers were more likely than older ones to agree that advertising increased their gambling involvement and knowledge. This supports previous research showing that problem gambling is associated with stronger perceived advertising impacts among adolescents. One of the more worrying statistics reported in the Ofcom study was that children under 16 years of age were each exposed to an average of 211 gambling adverts a year (adults saw an average of 630). I am a firm believer that gambling is an adult activity and that gambling adverts should be shown only after the 9pm watershed. Unfortunately, all televised sporting events such as Euro 2016 can feature gambling ads at any time of the day, and that means that tens of thousands of schoolchildren have been bombarded with gambling ads over the last month.

Most of us who work in the field of responsible gambling agree that advertising “normalises” gambling and that all relevant governmental gambling regulatory agencies should prohibit aggressive advertising strategies, especially those that target impoverished individuals or youths. Most of the research data on gambling advertising uses self-report data (surveys, focus groups, interviews, etc.) and very little of these data provide an insight into the relationship between advertising and problem gambling. A review by the British lawyer Simon Planzer and Heather Wardle (the lead author of the last two BGPS surveys) concluded that gambling advertising is an environmental factor that has the power to shape attitudes and behaviours relating to gambling – but just how powerful it is remains unclear.

Overall, the small body of research on the relationship between gambling advertising and problem gambling has few definitive conclusions. If gambling advertising does have an effect, it appears to impact specific groups (such as problem gamblers and adolescents) but most of this research uses self-reported data that has been shown to be unreliable among gamblers.

At best, the scientific research only hints at the potential dangers of gambling ads. But in order to challenge the increasing normalisation of gambling among these most-at-risk groups, we need more robust evidence. Only then will we be able to understand the psychosocial impact of the kind of blanket advertising seen by children and adults during major sporting events such as Euro 2016.

(N.B. 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

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

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Media and advertising influences on adolescent risk behaviour. Education and Health, 28(1), 2-5.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Social responsibility in marketing for online gaming affiliates. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, June/July, p.32.

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

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

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Is European online gambling regulation adequately addressing in-play betting advertising? Gaming Law Review and Economics, in press.

Reid, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Lotteries, television advertising, and televised lottery draws, Panorama (European State Lotteries and Toto Association), 15, 8-9.

Zangeneh, M., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2008). The marketing of gambling. In Zangeneh, M., Blaszczynski, A., and Turner, N. (Eds.), In The Pursuit Of Winning (pp. 135-153). New York: Springer.

“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

Back tracking: A brief look at using big data in gambling research

I’ve been working in the area of gambling for nearly 30 years and over the past 15 years I have carrying out research into both online gambling and responsible gambling. As I have outlined in previous blogs, one of the new methods I have been using in my published papers is online behavioural tracking. The chance to carry out innovative research in both areas using a new methodology was highly appealing – especially as I have used so many other methods in my gambling research (including online and offline surveys, experiments in laboratories and ecologically valid settings, offline focus groups, online and offline case study interviews, participant and non-participation observation, secondary analysis of survey data, and analysis of various forms of online data such as those found in online forums and online diary blogs).

Over the last decade there has been a big push by gambling regulators for gambling operators to be more socially responsible towards its clientele and this has led to the use of many different responsible gambling (RG) tools and initiatives such as voluntary self-exclusion schemes (where gamblers can ban themselves from gambling), limit setting (where gamblers can choose how much time and/or money they want to lose while gambling), personalized feedback (where gamblers can get personal feedback and advice based on their actual gambling behaviour) and pop-up messages (where gamblers receive a pop-up message during play that informs them how long they have been playing or how much money that have spent during the session).

However, very little is known about whether these RG tools and initiatives actually work, and most of the research that has been published relies on laboratory methods and self-reports – both of which have problems as reliable methods when it comes to evaluating whether RG tools work. Laboratory experiments typically contain very few participants and are carried out in non-ecologically valid settings, and self-reports are prone to many biases (including social desirability and recall biases). Additionally, the sample sizes are also relatively small (although bigger than experiments).

The datasets to analyse player behaviour are huge and can include hundreds of thousands of online gamblers. Given that my first empirical paper on gambling published in the Journal of Gambling Studies in 1990 was a participant observational analysis of eight slot machine gamblers at one British amusement arcade, it is extraordinary to think that decades later I have access to datasets beyond anything I could have imagined back in the 1980s when I began my research career. The data analysis is carried with my research colleague Michael Auer who has a specific expertise in data mining and we use traditional statistical tests to analyse the data. However, the hardest part is always trying to work out which parameters to use in assessing whether the RG tool worked or not. The kind of data we have includes how much time and money that players are spending on the gambling website, and using that data we can assess to what extent the amount of time and money decreases as a result of using limit setting measures, or receiving personalized feedback or a pop-up message.

One of the biggest problems in doing this type of research in the gambling studies field is getting access to the data in the first place and the associated issue of whether academics should be working with the gambling industry in the first place. The bottom line is that we would never have been able to undertake this kind of innovative research with participant sizes of hundreds of thousands of real gamblers without working in co-operation with the gambling industry. (It should also be noted that the gambling companies in question did not fund the research but provided simply provided access to their databases and customers). In fact, I would go as far as to say the research would have been impossible without gambling industry co-operation. Data access provided by the gambling industry has to be one of the key ways forward if the field is to progress.

Unlike other consumptive and potentially addictive behaviours (smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, etc.), researchers can study real-time gambling (and other potentially addictive behaviours like video gaming and social networking) in a way that just cannot be done in other chemical and behavioural addictions (e.g., sex, exercise, work, etc.) because of online and/or card-based technologies (such as loyalty cards and player cards). There is no equivalent of this is the tobacco or alcohol industry, and is one of the reasons why researchers in the gambling field are beginning to liaise and/or collaborate with gambling operators. As researchers, we should always strive to improve our theories and models and it appears strange to neglect this purely objective information simply because it involves working together with the gambling industry. This is especially important given the recent research by Dr. Julia Braverman and colleagues published in the journal Psychological Assessment using data from gamblers on the bwin website showing that self-recollected information does not match with objective behavioural tracking data.

The great thing about online behavioural tracking data collected from gamblers is that it is totally objective (as it provides a true record of what every gambler does click-by-click), is collected from real world gambling websites (so is ecologically valid), and has large sample sizes (typically tens of thousands of online gamblers). There of course some disadvantages, the main ones being that the sample is unrepresentative of all online gamblers (as the data only comes from gamblers at one website) and nothing is known about the person’s gambling activity at other websites (research has shown that online gamblers typically gamble at a number of different websites and not just one). Despite these limitations, the analysis of behavioural tracking data (so-called ‘big data’) is a reliable and cutting-edge way to assess and evaluate online gambling behaviour and to assess whether RG tools actually work in real world gambling settings with real online gamblers in real time.

To get access to such data you have to cultivate a trusting relationship with the data providers. It took me years to build up trust with the gambling industry because researchers who study problem gambling are often perceived by the gambling industry to be ‘anti-gambling’ but in my case this wasn’t true. I am ‘pro-responsible gambling’ and gamble myself so it would be hypocritical to be anti-gambling. My main aim in my gambling research is to protect players and minimise harm. Problem gambling will never be totally eliminated but it can be minimised. If gambling companies share the same aim and philosophy of not wanting to make money from problem gamblers but to make money from non-problem gamblers, then I would be prepared to help and collaborate.

You also need to be thick-skinned. If you are analysing any behavioural tracking data provided by the gambling industry, then you need to be prepared for others in the field criticizing you for working in collaboration with the industry. Although none of this research is funded by the industry, the fact that you are collaborating is enough for some people to accuse you of not being independent and/or being in the pockets of the gambling industry. Neither of these are true but it won’t stop the criticism. Nor will it stop me from carrying on researching in this area using datasets provided by the gambling industry.

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

Further reading

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Behavioral tracking tools, regulation and corporate social responsibility in online gambling. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 17, 579-583.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Voluntary limit setting and player choice in most intense online gamblers: An empirical study of gambling behaviour. Journal of Gambling Studies, 29, 647-660.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Personalised feedback in the promotion of responsible gambling: A brief overview. Responsible Gambling Review, 1, 27-36.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). An empirical investigation of theoretical loss and gambling intensity. Journal of Gambling Studies, 30, 879-887.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Testing normative and self-appraisal feedback in an online slot-machine pop-up message in a real-world setting. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 339. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00339.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Theoretical loss and gambling intensity (revisited): A response to Braverman et al (2013). Journal of Gambling Studies, 31, 921-931.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The use of personalized behavioral feedback for problematic online gamblers: An empirical study. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1406. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01406.

Auer, M., Littler, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Legal aspects of responsible gaming pre-commitment and personal feedback initiatives. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 6, 444-456.

Auer, M., Malischnig, D. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Is ‘pop-up’ messaging in online slot machine gambling effective? An empirical research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 29, 1-10.

Auer, M., Schneeberger, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Theoretical loss and gambling intensity: A simulation study. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 16, 269-273.

Braverman, J., Tom, M., & Shaffer, H. J. (2014). Accuracy of self-reported versus actual online gambling wins and losses. Psychological Assessment, 26, 865-877.

Griffiths, M.D. (1990). Addiction to fruit machines: A preliminary study among males. Journal of Gambling Studies, 6, 113-126.

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2011). Approaches to understanding online versus offline gaming impacts. Casino and Gaming International, 7(3), 45-48.

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2015). Research funding in gambling studies: Some further observations. International Gambling Studies, 15, 15-19.