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A toning for reward and punishment: A brief look at the impact of colour on gambling behaviour

Researchers and those working in the gambling industry have been interested in the factors that lead to the acquisition, development and maintenance of gambling. Aside from individual differences, the combination of the situational characteristics of the environment, and the structural characteristics of the actual game being played have been highlighted as critical ingredients in determining these behaviours in relation to gambling. This idea parallels with that of store designers who manipulate various features of the environment in shops to encourage purchase behaviour in consumers.

Situational characteristics are typically those features of the environment that may encourage people to gamble in the first place, and in some cases to keep on gambling. Examples of such characteristics could include accessibility (e.g., the number of outlets or opportunities to gamble, membership rules); sensory factors (e.g., atmospherics, light, colour and sound effects); the use of advertising; access to other things (e.g., cash machines, alcohol, food); physical comfort (e.g., seating, temperature); and social facilitation (the presence or absence of other people in the vicinity). These are often acquisition factors and are often important in the initial decision for an individual to gamble. Structural characteristics are features of the game itself that can contribute to the development and maintenance of gambling behaviour. These can be reinforcing to the player as they offer constant rewards. For instance, the ‘aura’ of a slot machine may offer excitement, arousal and tension in terms of its high event frequency, near misses, stake size, and the use of music, lights and colour.

One characteristic that can impact on both a situational and structural level in gambling is colour. For instance, this can be manipulated and/or adapted in terms of the design of a slot machine or scratchcard, an Internet gambling website, or the décor and ambience of a gambling environment. Research more specifically into the psychology of colour has been somewhat controversial in how it affects individual emotions. The majority of literature in the colour psychology field has come from advertising and marketing papers. This is because they are interested in colour selection in the way that it may facilitate the sale of their products. It has been speculated that learning about consumers’ emotional reactions to colour can be a useful predictor of purchase behaviour. This is because certain colours can provoke a particular positive or negative reaction. For instance, red has consistently been found to be stronger, more exciting, and more arousing than blue. This concept has been applied in a variety of situations in an attempt to manipulate people’s behaviours. However, a lot of this evidence is anecdotal, as it is not based on any sort of controlled experimental design.

Colour preference has been explained in terms of cultural significance and associative learning. It has been suggested that associations of colour that have been developed in the past have been forwarded as explanations of perceptions of colour today. For example, blue has been associated with night, dark and quiet. Warm colours, such as red, are used in order to attempt to arouse consumers such as in gambling environments. Across cultures, red has predominantly been found to be the most effective in influencing human emotions. Individual responses to colour have also been explained in relation to the arousal that they produce. It has been suggested that colours that are on the extreme ends of the colour spectrum (e.g., red and violet) generate greater arousal than those in-between. However, when red and blue have been compared in terms of their influences on arousal, differences have been found between them, with red producing greater cortical arousal.

With regards to the gambling literature in this field there has been minimal research conducted looking at the impact of colour on gambling. In an observational  study I published with Helen Swift back in 1992, we reported our findings about various situational characteristics of five English amusement arcades. We noted that the interiors were generally red or towards the red end of the colour spectrum. This observation appears to suggest that gaming venue designers make use of the principle of red light exciting whilst gambling. Light and colour effects have developed in their sophistication over recent years and the gaming and casino industry have taken advantage of this when designing machines, games, and gaming venue interiors.

An old 1982 study by Graham Stark and colleagues in the journal Current Psychological Research provides one of the few empirical contributions assessing the effects of coloured light on gambling behaviour. Their study found that compared to gambling under blue light, gambling under red light leads to more risks taken, higher stakes made, and more frequent bets. They suggested that because blue is less arousing it leads to slower performance, as their attention is not specially focused on the task. As red was highly arousing it caused participants to focus on the salient aspects resulting in faster bets. The arousing effects of red were speculated to increase overt behaviour.

Similar types of research study have also been carried out on computer gaming. For instance, a study led by Dr. Sandy Wolfson in a 2000 issue of Interacting With Computers examined the effects of music and lighting on computer game play. It was found that red lighting led to participants underperforming in the latter games played (compared to blue), although initially both groups improved continuously. The red group’s heart rate also decreased in line with their decline in performance. This was explained in terms of red initially being more arousing, which led to higher concentration and less error rates than blue, but as time went on they became desensitized to its arousal.

A more recent experimental investigation by Jenny Spenwyn, Dr. Doug Barrett and myself in a 2010 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction reported what we believe was the first ever empirical study into the combined effects of both music and lighting colour on gambling behaviour. While playing an online version of roulette, participants took part in one of four experimental conditions; (1) gambling with fast tempo music under normal (white) light, (2) gambling with fast tempo music under red light, (3) gambling with slow tempo music under normal (white) light, and (4) gambling with slow tempo music under red light. We reported a significant interaction between light and music for betting speed, and that the speed at which participants gambled was increased while playing under red light and fast tempo music.

It is clear that situational characteristics of gambling environments (including colour) appear to have the potential to play a role in the acquisition, development and maintenance of gambling behaviour. The success of the gambling establishment’s situational and structural characteristics (where success is defined as an increase in gambling due to the situational or structural characteristic) depends upon the psycho-situational and/or psychostructural interaction. The importance of a characteristic approach to gambling is the possibility of pinpointing more accurately where an individual’s psychological constitution is influencing gambling behaviour. Such an approach also allows for psychologically context specific explanations of gambling behaviour rather than explanations that focus solely on personality and individual differences.

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

Further reading

Babin, B.J., Hardesty, D.M., & Suter, T.A. (2003). Colour and shopping intentions: The intervening effect of price fairness and perceived affect. Journal of Business Research, 56, 541-551.

Bellizi, J., Crowley, A.E., & Hasty, R.W. (1983). The effects of colour in store design. Journal of Retailing, 59, 21-45.

Bellizi, J. A. & Hite, R.E. (1992). Environmental colour, consumer feelings and purchase likelihood. Psychological Marketing, 9 (5), 347-363.

Friedman, B. (2000). Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition. Reno, NV: Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, University of Nevada.

Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Fruit machine gambling: The importance of structural characteristics. Journal of Gambling Studies, 9, 101-120.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed), Gambling: Who wins? Who looses? pp. 277-292. New York: Prometheus Books.

Griffiths, M.D. & Swift, G. (1992). The use of light and colour in gambling arcades: A pilot study. Society for the Study of Gambling Newsletter, 21, 16-22.

Grossman, R. P., & Wisenblit, J. Z. (1999). What we know about consumers colour choices. Journal of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science, 5 (3), 78-88.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics re-visited. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 151-179.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). The role of structural characteristics in gambling. In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies. pp.211-243. New York: Elsevier.

Spenwyn, J., Barrett, D.K.R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of lights and music in gambling behavior: An empirical pilot study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 107-118.

Stark, G.M., Saunders, D.M, & Wookey, P.E. (1982). Differential effects of red and blue coloured lighting on gambling behaviour. Current Psychological Research, 2, 95-99.

Valdez, P. & Mehrabian, A. (1994). Effects of colour on emotion. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 123 (4), 394-409.

Wolfson, S., & Case, G. (2000). The effects of sound and colour on responses to a computer game. Interacting With Computers, 13, 183-192.

Yoto, A., Katsuura, T., Iwanaga, K. & Shimomura, Y. (2007). Effects of object colour stimuli on human brain activities in perception and attention referred to EEG alpha band response. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 26, 373-379.