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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.

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.