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Identity floored: Can gambling addicts be identified in gambling venues?

Although the behavioural characteristics of problem gamblers have been studied for several decades, it has only been the in last decade that there has been interest in studying gambling within the gambling venue itself. Along with my research colleagues Dr. Paul Delfabbro and Dr. Daniel King at the University of Adelaide, we have just published a paper in the journal International Gambling Studies reviewing all the studies that have examined whether problem gamblers and gambling addicts can be identified as having problems based on their gambling within gambling environments.

For instance, a 2004 study published in the journal Gambling Research by Dr. Tony Schellinck and Dr. Tracy Schrans obtained data from a population sample of 927 video lottery terminal (VLT) gamblers in Nova Scotia (Canada) of whom 16.5% were problem gamblers (as measured by the Problem Gambling Severity Index. Based on their analyses, the authors found that the most common experiences or behaviours reported by problem gamblers in terms of frequency were spending three-quarters of their time gambling, gambling for more than 180 minutes in one session, feeling angry, and sweating. Feeling sick or sad or gambling for over 180 minutes in one session were the factors that most strongly differentiated problem gamblers from other gamblers. For example, a person was around three times more likely to be a problem gambler as compared with the base-rate in the sample if they reported feeling sick while gambling. Some indicators (using credit cards, shaking, going out to get cash) were more commonly reported by problem gamblers, but did not occur very often when problem gamblers played VLTs.

A Swiss study carried out by Dr. Jorg Hafeli and Dr. Caroline Schneider in 2006 carried out qualitative interviews with a sample of 28 problem gamblers, 23 casino employees and seven regular gambling patrons in an attempt to develop a range of indicators that might be used to identify problem gamblers within Swiss casinos. Material from these interviews was content analysed and classified into meaningful categories. Only statements that were simple and concise, and which referred to concrete examples of behaviour were included. Problem gamblers were perceived as those who gambled more intensely and frequently, who were compelled to find many different ways to raise funds to defray the costs of gambling, and whose social and emotional responses differed from other gamblers. Problem gamblers were seen to be more socially withdrawn, angry, anxious, depressed, but also more immersed in the activity. Most of these items appeared to have good face validity as indicators of problem gambling.

A similar Australian study undertaken by Dr. Paul Delfabbro and his colleagues in 2007, but which also drew upon material from the two studies outlined above. Unlike the previous studies, attempts were made to develop indicators that were not so specifically focused on particular activities (e.g., casino table games), but which could be applied to venue-based gambling more broadly. Once again, there were items that referred to the statistically unusual frequency or intensity of gambling; evidence concerning gamblers’ need for funding while gambling; variations in social and emotional responses, but also evidence that gamblers had lost control over their gambling urges.

In an initial stage of this research, a list of indicators was provided to both venue staff (n=120) and counsellors (n=20) recruited from several different parts of Australia. Both groups of respondents were asked to indicate whether each item in the checklist was a valid indicator of problem gambling. The main component of the research was a detailed survey of almost 700 regular gamblers recruited either from the general community or from outside gaming venues. Participants were eligible to participate if they gambled at least fortnightly on electronic gaming machines, casino games or sports and race betting, although the principal focus was on gaming because this is largely venue-based. All respondents completed the Problem Gambling Severity Index with 20% classified as problem gamblers.

Their analyses were based on the proportion of problem and non-problem gamblers who reported producing the particular behaviour rarely or more often. There was one group of indicators that occurred relatively quite commonly in problem gamblers, but which were also reported by a moderate proportion of other regular gamblers. A second group were more rarely reported, but typically only by problem gamblers. Some activities, such as using ATMs on several occasions, playing very fast, or try very hard to win on one machine were relatively common amongst problem gamblers (similar to observations reported by an observational study I carried out way back in 1991 and published in the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology in his longitudinal study of British amusement arcade players), but also reported by a modest proportion of other gamblers. By contrast, very strong emotional responses or attempts to disguise one’s gambling were rarely reported by non-problem gamblers. The strongest predictors for males appeared to relate to impaired control (i.e., an inability to stop gambling) and emotional responses, whereas strong emotional responses and a preoccupation with gambling appeared most indicative when considering female problem gamblers.

Although these studies found theoretical support for the notion that there are valid indicators available to identify problem gamblers in venues, there are a number of caveats that need to be applied to these findings. The first difficulty is that all of the studies described involved only single samples. For models to be usefully applied to support harm minimisation policies, it would be important to show that models developed in one sample can be replicated using another. A second difficulty is that survey-based responses do not provide a lot of information concerning the practical reality of observing and consolidating information in a venue environment. Even if the same staff members are available in the venue over a protracted period, it does not necessarily follow that they will have the ability to observe the same patrons all the time.

Another potential challenge for the identification process is that studies are based on aggregate results. Although problem gamblers are likely to share many similarities, it is also known that different subgroups of gamblers very likely exist. These views suggest that the significance of particular indicators may, therefore, differ depending upon the type of gambler. For example, in a number of these models or typologies, a distinction is often drawn between gamblers who are emotionally vulnerable and gamble to escape from feelings of anxiety or depression and those who gamble because of the excitement or ‘action’. Those gamblers who are more emotionally vulnerable may be more likely to display emotion when they gamble and be detectable because of these characteristics, whereas there may be others whose behaviour is distinctive because of stronger externalised behaviours (e.g., displays of anger, large bet sizes, histrionics, etc.). At present, based on existing research evidence, it is difficult to determine whether visible indicators cluster according to these subtype models, but it will be important for this possibility to be considered in future research.

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

Additional contributions from Dr. Paul Delfabbro and Dr. Daniel King

Further reading

Delfabbro, P.H., Osborn, A., McMillen, J., Neville, M., & Skelt, L. (2007). The identification of problem gamblers within gaming venues: Final report. Melbourne, Victorian Department of Justice.

Delfabbro, P.H., Borgas, M., & King, D. (2011). Venue staff knowledge of their patrons’ gambling and problem gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 27, 1-15.

Delfabbro, P.H., King, D.L & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Behavioural profiling of problem gamblers: A critical review. International Gambling Studies, 12, 349-366.

Ferris, J. & Wynne, H. (2001). The Canadian Problem Gambling Index Final Report. Phase II final report to the Canadian Interprovincial Task Force on Problem Gambling.

Griffiths, M.D. (1991). The observational study of adolescent gambling in UK amusement arcades. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 1, 309-320.

Hafeli, J. & Schneider, C. (2006). The early detection of problem gamblers in casinos: A new screening instrument. Paper presented at the Asian Pacific Gambling Conference, Hong Kong.

Schellinck, T., & Schrans, T. (2004). Identifying problem gamblers at the gambling venue: Finding combinations of high confidence indicators. Gambling Research, 16, 8-24.