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“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

The prize and lows: What is the effect of winning large jackpots on human behaviour?

Over the last two decades I have written a lot of research papers about the structural characteristics of gambling and their effect on subsequent human behaviour. One of the most basic structural characteristics that may determine whether someone gambles on a particular type of game in the first place is the size of the jackpot that a game has to offer. Most of the research in this area has been carried out on lottery gambling as this form of gambling tends to have the largest jackpots. However, there is no reason to assume that these general findings should not be any different in other types of gambling such as winning a million dollars on a slot machine.

As I have noted in some of my previous blogs, structural characteristics in gambling are typically those features of a game that are responsible for reinforcement, may satisfy gamblers’ needs and may (for some ‘vulnerable’ players) facilitate excessive gambling. Such features include the event frequency of the game, jackpot size, stake size, the probability of winning, and the use of ‘near misses’ and other ‘illusion of control’ elements. By identifying particular structural characteristics it is possible for researchers (and the gaming industry) to see how needs are identified, to see how information about gambling is perceived, and to see how thoughts about gambling are influenced.

Showing the existence of such relationships has great practical importance as potentially ‘risky’ forms of gambling can be identified. Furthermore, by identifying particular structural characteristics it may be possible to understand more about gambling motivations and behaviour, which can have useful clinical, academic and commercial implications. It has been widely accepted that structural characteristics have a role in the acquisition, development, and maintenance of gambling behaviour. However, it would appear that the role of structural characteristics has become even more significant within the past decade and has led to increased empirical research on structural gaming features.

One of the main reasons that people gamble is that it provides the chance of winning money. But does winning large amounts of money actually make people happy? People often dream about winning large life changing amounts of money on games like a national lottery. The winners hopefully look forward to a long life of everlasting happiness although studies have found that lottery winners are euphoric very briefly before they settle back to their normal level of happiness or unhappiness. This is because happiness is relative. There is a popular belief by some psychologists that in the long run, winning large amounts of money on gambling activities will not make someone happy. Researchers who study happiness say that everyone has a certain level of happiness that stays relatively constant but can be changed by particular events that make the person happy or sad.

Thankfully, this change only lasts for a short period of time. For instance, if someone is a generally happy person and a close relative dies, research shows that after a few months or so, the person will go back to the same happiness level that they were previously. However, this works the other way too. If a person is not very happy in their day-to-day life, they could win a large amount of money gambling and they would probably be happy for a couple months but then they would ‘level out’ and go back to life at their normal unhappiness level.

Back in 1978, research by Dr. Phillip Brickman and his colleagues in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology compared a sample of 22 major lottery winners with 22 controls and also with a group of 29 paralysed accident victims. They found that major lottery winners were no happier than control groups. Another 1994 study by Dr. G. Eckblad and Dr. A. von der Lippe (in the Journal of Gambling Studies) investigated 261 Norwegian lottery winners who had won more than one million Norwegian Krone (approximately £100,000). There were few typical emotional reactions to winning apart from moderate happiness and relief. Their gambling was modest both before and after winning the lottery and their experiences with winning were almost all positive. The researchers reported that their quality of life was stable or had improved. They concluded that their results support earlier research by Dr. Roy Kaplan (also published in the Journal of Gambling Studies) who found that that lottery winners are not gamblers, but self-controlled realists.

One of the infamous questions in social science is whether money makes people happy. In 2001, Dr. Jonathan Gardner and Dr. Andrew Oswald carried out a longitudinal study on the psychologicalhealth and reported happiness of approximately 9,000 randomly chosen people. Their research reported that those whoreceived financial windfalls (i.e., by large gambling wins or receiving an inheritance) hadhigher mental wellbeing in the following year. In another longitudinal data study on a random sample of Britons who received medium-sized lottery wins of between £1000 and £120,000, the same authors compared lottery winners with two control groups (one with no gambling wins and the other with small gambling wins). They reported that big lottery winners went on to exhibit significantly better psychological health. Two years after a lottery win there was an improvement in mental wellbeing using the General Health Questionnaire. Other data (published in 2009) have also been analysed by Dr. Benedict Apouey and Dr. Andrew Clark who also found increased health benefits among lottery winners when compared to non-lottery winners. However, they also showed that lottery winners also drank and smoked more socially than non-lottery winners. Similar findings that lottery winners have better health indicators have also been reported by other researchers (such as Dr. Mikael Lindahl in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Human Resources).

On a more practical day-to-day level, most of the research on big winners has shown that their lives are much better as a result of their life changing wins but there are always a few winners who find other problems occur as a result of their instant wealth. They may give up their jobs and move to a more luxurious house in another area. This can lead to a loss of close friends from both the local neighbourhood and from their workplace. There can also be family tensions and arguments over the money and there is always the chance that winners will be bombarded with requests for money from every kind of cause or charity. There are also case reports in the literature of people become depressed after winning life-changing amounts of money (such as a 2002 study by Dr. S. Nissle and Dr. T. Bschor in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice), although these are presumably the exception as no researcher(s) would get case reports published showing people were happier after winning a large amount of money! However, despite potential problems, most of the psychological research (perhaps unsurprisingly) indicates that winners are glad they won.

Interestingly, one large study by Dr. Richard Arvey and his colleagues (published in a 2004 issue of the Journal of Psychology) of 1,163 lottery winners in the USA showed that the vast majority of lottery winners (63%) carried on working in the same job after their big win, with a further 11% carrying on working part-time in the same job after their big win. The mean average amount won by those who carried on working was 2.59 million US dollars. This appears to show that winning the lottery does not necessarily lead to a changing of lifestyle for the vast majority of winners although smaller scale studies have tended to show that the majority of lottery winners give up work following a big win of over $1 million US dollars.

There are also those groups of people who will view the acquisition of instant wealth as ‘undeserved’. Basically, when people win large amounts of money through gambling, other people around treat them differently even if the winners do not move neighbourhood or carry on in their job. This can lead to envy and resentment not just from people who know the winners but also from those in the locality of where the winners may move to. However, most gaming operators have an experienced team of people to help winners adjust to their new life and to minimize potential problems.

Research into the effects of high jackpots on human behaviour has been relatively sparse. The research that has been carried out suggests that huge jackpot winners do not suffer negatively as a result of winning. There is little research that indicates that high jackpot cause people to develop problems unless the large jackpot is combined with other structural features such as high event frequencies.

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

Further reading

Apouey, B. & Clark, A.E. (2009). Winning Big but Feeling no Better? TheEffect of Lottery Prizes on Physical andMental Health. Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei Working Papers (Paper 357). Berkeley Electronic Press.

Arvey, R.D., Harpaz, I. & Liao, H. (2004). Work centrality and post-award work behavior of lottery winners. Journal of Psychology, 138, 404-420.

Brickman, P., Coates, D. & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917-927.

Eckblad, G.F. & von der Lippe, A.L. (1994). Norwegian lottery winners: Cautious realists. Journal of Gambling Studies, 10, 305-322.

Gardner, J. & Oswald, A.J. (2001). Does money buy happiness? A longitudinal study using data on windfalls. Warwick University Mimeograph.

Gardner, J. & Oswald, A.J. (2007). Money and mental well-being: A longitudinal study of medium-sized lottery wins. Journal of Health Economics, 26, 49-60.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). The lottery of life after a jackpot win. Western Mail, November 11, p.16.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The effect of winning large jackpots on human behaviour. Casino and Gaming International, 6(4), 77-80.

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

Imbens, G. W., Rubin, D. B., & Sacerdote, B. I. (2001). Estimating the effect of unearnedincome on labor earnings, savings, and consumption: Evidence from a survey of lotteryplayers. American Economic Review, 91,778-794.

Kaplan, H. R. (1985). Lottery winners and work commitment: A behavioral test of theAmerican work ethic. Journal of the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies, 10,82-94

Kaplan, H.R. (1987). Lottery winners: The myth and reality. Journal of Gambling Studies, 3, 168-178.

Lindahl, M. (2005). Estimating the effect of income on health and mortality using lottery prizes as an exogenous source of variation in income. Journal of Human Resources, 40, 144-168.

Nissle, S. & Bschor, T. (2002). Winning the jackpot and depression: Money cannot buy happiness. International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice, 6, 181-186.

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.