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The punch bunch: Aggressive behaviour in adult slot machine gamblers

I was idly looking through some of the academic papers I have published over the last 25 years and I was surprised by how a fair number of them examined aggressive behaviour in some way. Many of these concern the effect of video game violence on aggressive behaviour but I have also published papers examining sexual orientation and aggression, mindfulness and aggression, and gambling and aggression (see ‘Further Reading’ below for a selection of these).

Back when I was doing my PhD on slot machine addiction (1987-1990) I spent a lot of my time in amusement arcades watching fruit machine players. One thing that I noticed during my observational studies is how physically aggressive players could be when they lost (such as kicking or punching the machine if they lost a lot of money or being verbally aggressive towards staff and other players when things weren’t going the way they wanted). A number of studies have reported a link between gambling and aggressive behaviour although most of the research has concentrated on domestic violence between gamblers and their partners (i.e., problem gamblers taking out the frustration of losing lots of money on their partners).

In a paper in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, Dr. Adrian Parke and I speculated that there are two main types of aggressive act which are prevalent in slot machine gambling based on environmental and structural design factors – instrumental aggression and emotional aggression. Instrumental aggression differs from emotional aggression because there is an ulterior motive behind the act whereas emotional aggression is a result of being unpleasantly aroused. The Frustration-Aggression theory states that a barrier to expected goal attainment generates emotional aggression. Furthermore, the level of aggression is directly proportional to the (i) level of satisfaction they had expected, (ii) more they are prevented from achieving any of their goals and (iii) more often their attempts are resisted. Psychologists such as Dr. Leonard Berkowitz maintains that it is not the frustration that causes the aggressive urges, but the negative affect elicited by the frustration.

Dr. Parke and I also published some other papers on slot machine aggression during 2004 and 2005 in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction and Psychological Reports. We carried out a non-participant observation study and monitored the incidence of aggressive behaviour in 303 slot machine players over four 6-hour observation periods in a UK amusement arcade. We concluded that aggression was prevalent in the UK gambling arcade environment with an average of seven aggressive incidents per hour.

We also reported that the majority of aggressive incidents were verbal. Verbal aggression was directed towards members of staff, other gamblers and also the slot machines themselves. Verbal aggression towards members of staff, from an objective point of view, appeared to be caused by a misinterpretation of staff reactions towards incurred losses. With cues available to determine which slot machine will be profitable to play, selecting a machine with which the gambler incurs a loss can be interpreted as poor slot machine gambling skill. The psychologists Dr. Brad Bushman and Dr. Roy Baumeister argue that threatened egotism (an explicit dispute against one’s self value) is a strong risk factor for aggression reprisal. It is probable that in this situation the gamblers were motivated to rebuke such evaluations through an affrontive reprimand. For example:

“After losing all of the money he entered the premises with, participant 6 becomes verbally aggressive to an arcade staff member: ‘I should bring a bat into this place and break the fucking machine…What would you do? You wouldn’t have the balls to call the police.” (Parke & Griffiths, 2005; p. 53)

Given the apparent disproportionate aggressive reaction to minor provocation from staff members, there is scope to propose that rather than being a primary source of frustration and aggression, the phenomenon is evidence of Triggered Displaced Aggression. Displaced Aggression theory contends that individuals who are provoked but who are constrained against retaliating directly to the primary source may displace such anger onto unaccountable individuals. Triggered Displaced Aggression theory extends this position, by stating that after a preclusion of direct retaliation against the provocateur, minor triggers will produce an incommensurate level of aggression. Applying this theory to the phenomenon of verbal aggression towards staff members, it is probable that the gambler while frustrated and negatively aroused may be motivated to displace disproportionately high aggressive reactions onto staff members based on minor triggers such as amusement at incurred losses.

We also reported that verbal aggression directed towards other slot machine gamblers was probably a response to predatory play from opposing slot machine gamblers. With structural design factors enabling identification of slot machines that are profitable to play, naturally the environment becomes competitive. Gamblers become callous in their machine selection because the most effective way to make profits is to target machines that other gamblers have lost considerably on. Again, for the individual, self-esteem is likely to be diminished by permitting opponents to profit from experiencing loss. As a result it is probable that attempts are made to deflect such predatory behaviour with aggressive reprimands. For example:

“Participant 3 had gambled a considerable amount of money on one machine, and had no funds to continue playing. Participant 4 immediately began to play the same machine and win. Participant 3 retorted in an aggressive tone: ‘You watching me lose my money before. Wait till I lose everything and then play mate?’” (Parke & Griffiths, 2005; p.54)

Verbal aggression towards other slot machine gamblers could be understood from perspective of the Cognitive Neo-associationistic Model. (Fundamentally, this model suggests that aversive events produce negative affect, which transforms all associated stimuli into potential triggers of aggression). Applying this theory to the verbal aggression phenomenon, it is reasonable to propose that the experience of losing transforms environmental factors, such as opposing gamblers, into sources of aggression. Berkowitz has advocated two tiers of aggression activation. The first stage is simultaneous emotions of rudimentary fear and anger. The second stage is a second order evaluative phase where the individual considers the actual liability of environmental factors in anger creation. Naturally, as Berkowitz states, the individual’s attributional processes dictate whether they will actualise aggressive emotions. Put simply, an acknowledgement of the ability to isolate slot machines that are profitable to play based on identifying losing gamblers, is potentially a risk factor for acting aggressively towards other gamblers.

Finally, verbal aggression towards the slot machine is considered to be an emotionally aggressive act as a means to vent frustration rather than instrumentally preserve status as suggested above. Invariably, verbal emotional aggression was expressed through vilification and attribution of negative human characteristics to the machine such as sadism. Interestingly, such vilification was primarily sexually aggressive and constituted a feminisation of the slot machine. For example:

“This bitch is fucking me around…Are you going to fuck me around again this week?” (Parke & Griffiths, 2005; p.54)

We argued that the physical aggression towards the slot machine was believed to be an extension of tension release that was previously observed with verbal aggression towards the slot machine. For example:

“After considerable losses, Participant 8 began to slam the glass of the machine. After experiencing a near miss Participant 8 subsequently kicked the base of the machine.” (Parke & Griffiths, 2005; p.55)

Physical aggression was not directed towards opposing gamblers – perhaps identifying a boundary of conduct in order to remain within the gambling environment, as it was probable that such behaviour would result in getting thrown out of the premises. Essentially this does not equate to gamblers not be motivated to act physically aggressive to other slot machine gamblers, rather it only represents a reluctance to actualise such behaviour in the gambling environment.

It is probable that aggressive behaviour observed in the slot machine gambling environment is not solely based on structural and environmental factors. Individual differences of the gamblers are likely to affect the prevalence of aggressive behaviour, based on propositions of the General Aggression Model that suggests that trait hostility can develop through life experiences. It is possible that the participants in our observational study held aggression-related biases. For example, Dr. Karen Dill and her colleagues argue that trait hostility precipitates a hostile expectation bias (the expectation that aggressive behaviour will be used by others instrumentally) and a hostile perception bias (the propensity of interpreting interpersonal interactions as aggressive). For gamblers, it is probable that trait hostility is exacerbating aggressive reactions towards provocation from environmental and structural game design factors. Overall, our research concluded that gambling-induced aggression is a manifestation of the underlying conflict of engaging in dysfunctional behaviour while consciously acknowledging its detrimental effects.

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

Additional input: Dr. Adrian Parke (University of Lincoln, UK)

Further reading

Anderson, C.A. & Bushman, B.J. (2002). Human Aggression. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 27-51.

Berkowitz, L. (1993). Aggression: Its causes, consequences, and control. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Berkowitz, L. (1989). The frustration-aggression hypothesis: Examination and reformulation. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 59-73.

Berkowitz, L. (1990). On the formation and regulation of anger and aggression: A cognitive-neoassociationistic analysis. American Psychologist, 45, 494-505.

Bushman, B. J. & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: Does self-love or self-hate lead to violence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 219-229.

Dill, K.E., Anderson, C.A., Anderson, K.B. & Deuser, W.E. (1997). Effects of personality on social expectations and social perceptions. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 272-292.

Dollard, J., Doob, L.W., Miller, N.E., Mowrer, O.H. & Sears, R.R. (1939). Frustration and Aggression. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Video games and aggression. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 10, 397-401.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Video games and aggression: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 4, 203-212.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, A. & Parke, J. (2003). Violence in gambling environments: A cause for concern? Justice of the Peace, 167, 424-426.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, A. & Parke, J. (2005). Gambling-related violence: An issue for the police? Police Journal, 78, 223-227.

Grüsser, S.M., Thalemann, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Excessive computer game playing: Evidence for addiction and aggression? CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 290-292.

Mehroof, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online gaming addiction: The role of sensation seeking, self-control, neuroticism, aggression, state anxiety and trait anxiety. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13, 313-316.

Miller, N. Pederson, W.C., Earleywine, M. & Pollock, V.E. (2003). A theoretical model of triggered displaced aggression, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7, 75-97.

Miller, N.E. (1941). The frustration-aggression hypothesis. Psychological Review, 48, 337-342.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Aggressive behavior in slot machine gamblers : A preliminary observational study. Psychological Reports, 95, 109-114.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Aggressive behaviour in adult slot machine gamblers: A qualitative observational study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 2, 50-58.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Aggressive behaviour in adult slot machine gamblers: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 15, 255-272.

Sergeant, M.J.T., Dickins, T.E., Davies, M.N.O., & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Aggression, empathy and sexual orientation in males. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 475-486.

Shonin, E.S., van Gordon, W., Slade, K. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 365-372.

Back to the ‘why’ fronts: A brief look at gambling motivation

In the three decades that I have been studying gambling, the question that I am most asked is ‘Why do people gamble?’ and variations on it, such as ‘Why do people gamble when most people consistently lose?’ All surveys of gambling have shown that there are a broad range motivational factors that are central to gambling, and that attitudes towards gambling are positively related to availability and cultural acceptability. However, this perspective fails to take into account many key findings and observations in gambling research. Surveys have also shown that not everyone gambles and some people gamble more than others (e.g., professional gamblers, problem gamblers). Research has consistently shown that people often gamble for reasons other than broad social and economic reasons. These other motivations may vary according to personal characteristics of the gambler and the type of gambling activity. Additionally, broad social and economic theories fail to explain why certain gambling activities are more popular or ‘addictive’ than others.

Variations in gambling preferences are thought to result from both differences in accessibility and motivation. Older people tend to choose activities that minimise the need for complex decision-making or concentration (e.g., bingo, slot machines), whereas gender differences have been attributed to a number of factors, including variations in sex-role socialisation, cultural differences and theories of motivation. Stereotypically, women tend to prefer chance-based games and men tend to prefer skill-based games. Even some games that are predominantly chance-based, men attempt to impose some level of skill. For instance, poker – which people regard as skill-based – has a massive amount of chance involved. Similarly, men often, in their own minds, change playing a slot machine from a chance-based event into a more skill-based activity via cognitive processes such as the illusion of control. The other factor to consider is that (in general) women don’t like it when other people see them losing. On a slot machine, no-one sees the player is losing so it’s very often a very guilt-free, private experience. Men, on the other hand, even when they lose big, there’s a machismo attached to it that says: “Yes, I’ve lost £500 but I can afford it.”

Variations in motivation are also frequently observed among people who participate in the same gambling activity. For example, slot machine players may gamble to win money, for enjoyment and excitement, to socialise and to escape negative feelings. Some people gamble for one reason only, whereas others gamble for a variety of reasons. A further complexity is that people’s motivations for gambling have a strong temporal dimension; that is, they do not remain stable over time. As people progress from social to regular and finally to excessive gambling, there are often significant changes in their reasons for gambling. Whereas a person might have initially gambled to obtain enjoyment, excitement and socialisation, the progression to problem gambling is almost always accompanied by an increased preoccupation with winning money and chasing losses.

Gambling is clearly a multifaceted rather than unitary phenomenon. Consequently, many factors may come into play in various ways and at different levels of analysis (e.g., biological, social, or psychological). Theories may be complementary rather than mutually exclusive, which suggests that limitations of individual theories might be overcome through the combination of ideas from different perspectives. This has often been discussed before in terms of recommendations for an ‘eclectic’ approach to gambling or a distinction between proximal and distal influences upon gambling. However, for the most part, such discussions have been descriptive rather than analytical, and so far, few attempts have been made to explain why an adherence to singular perspectives is untenable.

Gambling is one of those activities where people effectively can get something for nothing, which is why some people will take risks. The attraction of a lotter for example is that, for a very small stake, the individual can have a life-changing experience (and things are further complicated by the fact that most lottery players don’t see the activity as gambling). People who enjoy playing roulette or betting on a football match enjoy the betting or gaming experience itself. In short, each gambling activity has its own unique psychology (although there are undoubted overlaps).

Most economists claim that gamblers are primarily driven by the profit motive. However, the psychological evidence is overwhelming that other desires affect gambling actions. Put simply, for most gamblers, our actions contradict the desire to maximize profits. Whilst I am no Freudian, there appear to be a whole range of unconscious factors at play in gambling. For instance, if players make a successful bluff during a card game, it’s human nature to want to let people to know how smart they are. The golden rule in poker is never to give anything away but the human psyche works in such a way that we usually want to show off once in a while. Our psychological make-up also means that we let pride get in the way of minimizing losses. There are always games that should have been avoided but players end up staying in them long after they knew it was a mistake. None of us like to lose to who we think are weaker players, or admit that the game was too hard. How many times does a player continue playing because they want to try and get the better of a great player or show off because there is someone they are trying to impress? Although it’s a cliché, pride before a fall is commonplace. These short-term psychological satisfactions will almost always have a negative impact on long-term profits.

Because there are many non-financial types of rewards from many different sources while gambling, some people view losses as the price of entry. To these players (and I include myself as one of them), winning may be a bonus. However, most of us don’t like losing – and we especially don’t like persistent losing, regardless of whether there are other types of reinforcement. In the cold light of day, we are all rational human beings. In the height of action, rationality often goes out the window. I’ve done it myself at the roulette table and standing in front of a slot machine. While gambling I have felt omnipotent. It is only after I walk away penniless that the non-financial rewards are short-term and not worth it.

Understanding our own psychological motives is clearly important while gambling. Most players know the strategies they should be adopting but fail to apply them in real gambling situations. Players do not lack the information. It is far more profitable to learn why we don’t apply the lessons we have already learned, then ensure that we apply them. Until we understand and control our own motives — including the unconscious ones — we cannot possibly play to our best ability.

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

Further reading

Calado, F., Alexandre, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Mom, Dad it’s only a game! Perceived gambling and gaming behaviors among adolescents and young adults: An exploratory study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

Griffiths, M.D. (1990). The dangers of social psychology research. BPS Social Psychology Newsletter, 23, 20-23.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). The psychology of the near miss (revisited). British Journal of Psychology, 90, 441-445.

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). An overview of pathological gambling. In T. Plante (Ed.), Mental Disorders of the New Millennium. Vol. I: Behavioral Issues. pp. 73-98. New York: Greenwood.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Gambling psychology: Motivation, emotion and control, Casino and Gaming International, (3)4 (November), 71-76.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2001). The psychology of lottery gambling. International Gambling Studies, 1, 27-44.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). What differentiates professional poker players from recreational poker players? A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 243-257.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Beyond illusion of control: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of gambling in the context of information technology. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 250-260.