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Totally hooked: Angling, gambling, and ‘fishing addiction’

A few days ago, I published a short paper with Dr. Michael Auer examining the concept of ‘fishing addiction’ and the similarities with gambling addiction in the Archives of Behavioral Addiction. Fishing and gambling are two activities that on the surface do not appear to have much in common with each other. For many people, they are both simply leisure activities and this is where the similarities stop.

So in what ways are fishing and gambling similar? In the broadest of senses, gambling and fishing are not too dissimilar. As Dr. Gary Smith and his colleagues noted in a 2003 report, the word ‘gambling’ in day-to-day language has broad currency and can describe a number of activities such as farming, fishing, searching for oil, marriage or even crossing a busy street”. More specifically, in a 2011 chapter on stress among fisherman, Dr. Richard Pollnac and colleagues noted that “a fisher is basically gambling every time he/she goes out fishing” and that like gambling “production per fishing trip is highly variable and relatively unpredictable”. An earlier 2008 paper by Pollnac and John Poggie highlighted that marine fishing as an occupation is of a relative risky nature and state that it attracts and holds individuals manifesting an active, adventurous, aggressive and courageous personality – attributes that arguably apply to some types of competitive gamblers, such as poker players.

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According to a 2013 online article by Dr. Per Binde (2013), who describes himself as a gambling researcher that enjoys fishing in his spare time, gambling and fishing have many similarities “especially if you consider bait casting (spinning) in relation to repetitive forms of gambling, such as slot machines. A 2013 online article by Whitney James (2013) has also made a similar observation that “pulling a penny slot is like casting your line. It doesn’t take a lot of effort but the payout is sometimes sweet”. In fact, both Binde and James have noted a number of distinct similarities and the list below combines these along with some of our own observations:

  • In both activities, the participant repeats the same behaviour over and over again in the hope that they will attain something of material value.
  • Both activities lead to mood modifying experiences and can be both relaxing and exciting.
  • Both activities can result in the person forgetting about time and engaging in the activity for much longer than the person originally intended (because of the escape-like qualities of engaging in the activity).
  • Both activities involve ‘near misses’ that reinforce the behaviour (or as Dr. Binde says “one reel symbol slightly out of place for a jackpot; bites and nibbles of fish that does not get hooked”).
  • Success in either activity may be a combination of skill and chance, and winning or catching a fish give the individuals concerned a sense of achievement and mastery. Furthermore, the person engaging in these activities may not be able to differentiate between what was skill and what was chance (or as Dr. Binde says: “was my choice of bait successful or was it just luck that I caught a big fish?”).
  • In both activities, the ‘availability bias’ comes into play. More specifically, the few big successes (i.e., catching a really big fish or winning a large amount of money) are highly memorable while all the many other occasions when the person lost all their money or caught nothing are easily forgotten.
  • In both activities, superstitious rituals are commonplace (wearing a ‘lucky’ cap, spitting on the lure, etc.). As I noted in a 2005 paper I co-wrote with Carolyn Bingham in the Journal of Gambling Issues, there are certain groups within society who tend to hold more superstitious beliefs than what may be considered the norm including sportsmen, actors, miners, fishermen, and gamblers.
  • In both activities, when things are not going right (i.e., not winning, not catching any fish), the person then tries the same thing somewhere else (a gambler changes table or slot machines, or goes to a new gaming venue; a fisherman changes his bait or tries another place in the river or a new river entirely).
  • In both activities, one win or one fish caught is never enough.
  • Both activities are potentially addictive (“ask either addict’s wife and they will confirm” said Whitney James).
  • In both activities, families forgive the person if they bring something home with them (i.e., winnings or fresh fish).
  • Finally, (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) both activities (according to Whitney James) “are better with a drink in hand.

Another similarity is that both activities can prove an expensive pastime. While this could be said comparing any two leisure activities, in a 2004 qualitative interview study of seven male high frequency betting shop gamblers published in the journal Addiction Research and Theory, Dr. Tom Ricketts and Ann Macaskill, the gamblers justified the amount spent on gambling by contrasting the amount they spent on other leisure pursuits like fishing. As one gambler said: “Like some people go fishing…and that costs a lot more than what it does with gambling. So that’s the way I see it, really, you pay for your hobbies”.

Another qualitative interview study of seven male online poker players by myself and Dr. Adrian Parke in a 2012 issue of Addiction Research and Theory highlighted that some of the players use fishing analogies to describe their card play. It emerged clearly from one interview that a player could profit in both offline and online forms of gambling by manipulating various forms of information technology. As the authors noted:

“The significance of this belief was moderated in the sense that although participants professed that such profitable control was indeed possible, they indicated that there were also negative consequences of gambling in a controlled and profitable manner. This profitable, yet restricted form of gambling was described by one participant as ‘trawling’, highlighting the demanding and onerous nature of the activity… The use of the term ‘trawling’ for such forms of controlled gambling conveys an impression that is similar to commercial sea fishing (i.e. not only is it an arduous task but also several external factors influence profitability such as luck)”.

Dr. Binde also claimed that it is unsurprising that individuals that want to cease their excessive gambling often find sport fishing a suitable ‘substitution’ leisure activity. He then goes on to argue that fisherman only risk losing time rather than money but then adds:

“Sport fishing gear may cost a bit and fishermen may get the idea that better gear would make fishing more successful. There are people, however, who have problems controlling the extent of their sport fishing and who perceive it as a kind of addiction.

A 2009 online article by R. Pendleton draws similarities between fishing tournaments in Hawaii and poker tournaments. He cites Dr. Marc Miller, a cultural anthropologist and professor at the University of Washington, who theorized that there are four phases of tournament fishing that correspond to those found in gambling.

The first phase is ‘squaring off’, which begins when the anglers board their boat, choose their tackle and the area they intend to fish, and go steaming off to the grounds. It is rather like the gambler with a handful of chips checking out the gaming tables, he noted, but it abruptly ends when the lines hit the water. The second is the determination phase, Miller said. Like the gambler’s blackjack table, this is where the action is. The angler is fishing and fate is in charge. It only ends when the ‘stop fishing’ signal is given. The angler enters the third phase – ‘the disclosure’ – when the fishing is over. Again like the gambler’s hand of cards, it is time for the fisherman to put his catch up for weighing and judging – to finally show what he’s got. Finally comes the ‘settlement phase’ of tournament fishing when the angler’s score is posted and the results are compared with the other fishermen in the contest, rather like when the gambler must settle up with the dealer”.

As far as I am aware, there has never been a study of ‘fishing addiction’ in the psychological literature although there are a few references to it and/or compulsive fishing. Similar to Whitney James’ observation above about wives knowing if their husbands are addicted to fishing or gambling, the 2008 paper by Pollnac and Poggie noted that:

“A commercial crabber from Alaska said, ‘As any fisherman’s wife will tell you, fishing is an addiction. And for commercial fishermen, consider it a gambling addiction’ (Arnold 2006). This is an insightful observation, fishing is like an addiction, and most fishermen would do anything to avoid the potentially painful withdrawal symptoms”.

Bill Glasser, author of the 1976 book Positive Addiction, noted that fishing was one of many ‘positive addictions’ in a later (2012) paper on the topic (in the Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy). More specifically, he claimed that he had heard numerous stories from many different individuals claiming they were ‘positively addicted “to a variety of activities such as swimming, hiking, bike riding, yoga, Zen, knitting, crocheting, hunting, fishing, skiing, rowing, playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, and many more”. Glasser argued that activities such as jogging and transcendental meditation were positive addictions and were the kinds of activity that could be deliberately cultivated to wean addicts away from more harmful and sinister preoccupations. He also asserted that positive addictions must be new rewarding activities that produce increased feelings of self-efficacy.

Glasser’s (1976) own criteria for positive addictions are that the activities must (i) be non-competitive and needing about an hour a day, (ii) be easy, so no mental effort is required, (iii) be easy to be done alone, not dependent on 
people, (iv) be believed to be having some value (physical, 
mental, spiritual), (v) be believed that if persisted in, some improvement will result, and (iv) involve no self-criticism. Although ‘fishing addiction’ arguably meets these criteria, I argued in a 1996 paper in the Journal of Workplace Learning that Glasser’s criteria have little to with accepted criteria for addictive behaviour such as salience, mood modification, tolerance, conflict, withdrawal, loss of control, and relapse. Therefore, although Glasser believes that addiction to fishing is a positive addiction, I would argue that ‘fishing addiction’ using Glasser’s criteria is not really an addiction.

In an online article on ‘The psychology of fishing addiction’ (In The Bite, 2014), addiction psychotherapist Alexandria Stark asserted that although fishing addiction was not recognized in the psychiatric community, the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria of Gambling Disorder in the DSM-5 could be adapted to screen for whether someone is a fishing addict. Additionally, a 2007 paper in the journal Parkinsonism and Related Disorders by Dr. Andrew McKeon and colleagues reported seven case studies of “unusual compulsive behaviors following treatment for Parkinson’s disease with dopamine agonist therapy. One of the seven cases was a 48-year-old man who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 43 years and was taking daily doses of levodopa [300mg], ropinirole [24mg] and selegeline [5mg]. It was reported that the man suddenly “developed an intense interest and fascination with fishing” even though he had little prior interest in the activity. His wife reported that her husband was fishing incessantly for day after day, and that even though he caught nothing his interest in fishing did not diminish.

Pollnac and Poggie who have carried out lots of research into professional fisherman have speculated that professional fisherman and gamblers may have similar personality types and similar biological pre-dispositions. They speculated that if professional fisherman had not had gone into the fishing profession, they may have ended up as drug addicts or gambling addicts. More specifically, they noted that:

The possible existence of a genetic component related to an active, adventurous, aggressive, and courageous personality type should not be surprising. Fishermen manifesting this personality type are more successful as would be the hunters and gatherers who provided sustenance for human populations through most of the time humans have been on earth. This genetic component, which would have been advantageous for early humans, served us well, but when it was no longer needed, its frequency in human populations probably started a slow decline. It still exists, however, and those lucky (or unfortunate) to have it have to find other outlets for their need for novelty and adventure – risky sports and high stakes gambling, recreational hunting, marine sport fishing, and risky jobs like firefighting, policing, futures trading in the stock market, etc. Those who do not find other outlets or who may be misguided turn to self destructive behavior such as addictive gambling, crime (high risk) and substance abuse (LeGrand et al. 2005). Fortunately for fishermen, the occupation of fishing, a risky occupation, can provide a certain level of adventure accompanied by various risks and hence, serve as a socially acceptable outlet for their need for action and adventure while increasing their levels of satisfaction and happiness”.

In our just published paper, we visited various online discussion forums dedicated to fishing (e.g., Big Fish Tackle [www.bigfishtackle.com] and Angling Addicts [http://www.anglingaddicts.co.uk]) and located a number of fishermen that claimed their fishing was an addiction and/or had addiction-like properties (a selection of self-reports that we found are published in the paper). We argued that these self-reports have existential value and provide informal data that could be more formally investigated in future studies. In one of our cases, the individual was totally preoccupied by fishing even though he was not fishing every day (in fact, twice a week maximum). He thought about fishing all the time and it appeared to be the single most important thing in his life. If he couldn’t actually fish he was watching online fishing videos, watching fishing television programmes, playing fishing videogames, or on online fishing forums. Here, the individual appeared to display cross-tolerance (i.e., when unable to fish he engaged in other fish-related activities such as playing a fishing videogame). The only activity that made him want to get out of bed was fishing. The description of his behaviour is arguably one of the best working definitions of salience that you could find. For want of a better word, he was totally obsessed with fishing.

In another case, fishing was actually described by the individual as an addiction and that his wife made him cut back on his fishing. The way he overcame his urge to fish was to get a job that involved fishing which not only met his fishing needs but resolved the conflict in his relationship as his wife no longer cared that he was fishing every day when it became his full-time job. In another case, the individual described withdrawal symptoms if he was unable to fish and that he got “the shakes” if he was unable to fish, similar to an alcoholic who gets the shakes (i.e., delirium tremens) when unable to drink. Another case specifically described fishing in extreme cases as an addiction and something that has been with him (and will be with him) for life.

A further case described fishing as an addiction and how he first got involved with fishing (i.e., being in Florida near water meant that fishing excursions were readily and easily available). He provided an example of relapse in that he had been able to give up fishing for a period in his life (because there was no opportunity for his to fish), only for it to return at a later point. Another case likened fishing to drug use and that once someone had tried fishing they have to go back for more. For want of a better word they become ‘hooked’ (no pun intended but another linguistic example of the association between fishing and addiction).

One individual described how he was given an ultimatum by his wife, and as a consequence, he chose fishing over the relationship. Obviously his fishing was causing relationship problems and when it came to make a decision, he decided he loved fishing more than his wife and can now fish whenever he wants without his ex-wife interfering or passing negative comment on his desire to fish. By removing his wife from his day-to-day activity, the fishing presumably became a non-problematic behaviour. Another individual described fishing as an activity that has become constant in his life and was not just a phase that they are going through.

In a nutshell, our paper attempted to examine whether – in extreme cases – fishing could be characterised as an addiction, and also attempted to argue that there are many commonalities between excessive fishing and another behavioural addiction (i.e., gambling addiction). It does appear to have addiction-like properties and that some fishers describe their fixation on fishing as an addiction akin to problematic drug use and/or gambling. However, our paper didn’t argue that fishing addiction exists, just that some people (including fishers themselves) conceptualise their excessive behaviour as an addiction and that a few scholars have asserted that in extreme cases, fishing may be a behaviour that can be potentially addictive.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Arnold, C. 2006. A crabbers’ life. National Fisherman 87, 6, 22-25.

Binde, P. (2013). Fishing and gambling. The Anthropology of Gambling, August 31. Retrieved August 1, 2016, from: http://ongambling.org/fishing-and-gambling (last accessed May 15, 2015)

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Glasser, W. (2012). Promoting client strength through positive addiction. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 11(4), 173-175.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2019). Becoming hooked? Angling, gambling, and ‘fishing addiction’. Archives of Behavioral Addiction, 1(1), .

Griffiths, M.D. & Bingham, C. (2005). A study of superstitious beliefs among bingo players. Journal of Gambling Issues, 13. Retrieved August 1, 2016, from http://jgi.camh.net/doi/full/10.4309/jgi.2005.13.7 (last accessed May 15, 2015)

In The Bite (2014). The psychology of fishing addiction. July 15. Retrieved August 1, 2016, from: http://www.inthebite.com/2014/07/the-psychology-of-fishing-addiction/ (last accessed May 15, 2015)

James, W. (2013). 8 reasons fishing is like gambling. Handwritten [Personal Blog]. Retrieved August 1, 2016, from http://whitneyljames.tumblr.com/post/52146316443/8-reasons-fishing-is-like-gambling (last accessed May 15, 2015)

McKeon, A., Josephs, K. A., Klos, K. J., Hecksel, K., Bower, J. H., Michael Bostwick, J., & Eric Ahlskog, J. (2007). Unusual compulsive behaviors primarily related to dopamine agonist therapy in Parkinson’s disease and multiple system atrophy. Parkinsonism and Related Disorders, 13(8), 516-519.

Parke, A., & Griffiths, M. (2012). Beyond illusion of control: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of gambling in the context of information technology. Addiction Research and Theory, 20(3), 250-260

Pendleton, R. (2009). Fishing is Hawaii’s legalized gambling. The Examiner, April 29. Retrieved August 1, 2016, from http://www.examiner.com/article/fishing-is-hawaii-s-legalized-gambling

Pollnac, R. B., Monnereau, I., Poggie, J. J., Ruiz, V., & Westwood, A. D. (2011). Stress and the occupation of fishing. In Langan-Fox, J. & Cooper, C.L. Handbook of Stress in the Occupations, 309-321. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.

Pollnac, R. B., & Poggie, J. J. (2008). Happiness, well-being, and psychocultural adaptation to the stresses associated with marine fishing. Human Ecology Review, 15(2), 194

Prattis, J. I. (1973). Gambling, fishing and innovation – a cross situational study of decision making. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 14(1-2), 76-88.

Ricketts, T., & Macaskill, A. (2004). Differentiating normal and problem gambling: A grounded theory approach. Addiction Research & Theory, 12(1), 77-87.

Smith, G. J., Wynne, H. J., & Hartnagel, T. F. (2003). Examining police records to assess gambling impacts: A study of gambling-related crime in the City of Edmonton. Edmonton: Alberta Gaming Research Institute

Method factors: The cognitive psychology of gambling (revisited)

One of the proudest moments of my academic career was when my 1994 study on the role of cognitive bias in slot machine gambling published in the British Journal of Psychology was introduced as a compulsory study that all ‘A’ Level students on the OCR syllabus have to learn about here in the UK. Today’s blog looks at that 1994 study in context.

I began a PhD on the psychology of slot machines back in 1987 and spent the first three or four months reading everything I could about how psychological research methods had been used to study this relatively new area of research. As a PhD student, the paper that really inspired me was a pioneering study by George Anderson and Iain Brown (also published in the British Journal of Psychology in 1984). Up until the mid-1980s almost all of the experimental work on the psychology of gambling had been done in laboratory settings and the question of ecological validity was something that I had great concerns about. I didn’t want to study gamblers in a psychology laboratory, I wanted to examine them in the gambling environments themselves. Anderson and Brown studied the role of arousal in gambling and used heart rate measures as an indicator of arousal. They found that regular gamblers’ heart rates increased significantly by around 23 beats per minute (compared to baseline resting levels) when they were gambling in a casino but when doing the same activity in a laboratory setting there was no significant increase in heart rate. To me, this perhaps explained why previous studies on arousal during laboratory gambling had failed to find significant heart rate increases above baseline levels.

Anderson and Brown claimed that Skinnerian reinforcement theory couldn’t account for the phenomenology of addictive gambling (especially relapse after abstinence). As a result of their ecologically valid experimental study, Anderson and Brown postulated a theoretical model centred upon individual differences in cortical and autonomic arousal in combination with irregular reinforcement schedules. They argued for a neo-Pavlovian model in which arousal played a central role in the addiction process. According to Anderson and Brown this model accounts for reinstatement after abstinence and allows for the maintenance of the behaviour by internal mood/state/arousal cues in addition to external situation cues. I found this theoretical perspective too restrictive and believed that gambling addiction was a more complex process and was the consequence of a combination of a person’s biological/genetic predisposition, their psychological make-up (personality, attitudes, beliefs, expectations, etc.), and the environment they were brought up in. This is what most people would now recognize as a biopsychosocial perspective that runs through much of my subsequent writing and research. Added to this, I passionately believed there were other important factors at play including the situational factors of where the activity took place such as the design of the gambling environment, and the structural features of the activity itself such as the speed of play and ambient factors like lights, colour, noise and music.

My 1994 study found that regular gamblers produced significantly more irrational verbalisations that non-regular gamblers. (The ethics committee wouldn’t let me use non-gamblers as they didn’t want participants to be introduced to gambling via a university research study!). One of the most observations in my study was that regular gamblers personified the machine and often treated the machine as if it was a person. They attributed thought processes to it and would talk to it as if it could actually hear them. Another of the more interesting observations concerned ‘the psychology of the near miss’ (or more accurately. ‘the near win’). I noticed that when I used the ‘thinking aloud method’ as a way of gaining direct cognitive access to what gamblers were thinking as they played a slot machine, regular gamblers often explained away their losses and changed clear losing situations into near winning ones. On a cognitive level gamblers weren’t constantly losing, they were constantly nearly winning, and this, I argued, was both psychologically and physiologically rewarding for them. (I also did a study where I measured gamblers’ heart rates in an amusement arcade where, like Anderson and Brown I found regular gamblers had significantly increased heart rates when compared to baseline resting levels).

Anyone reading my 1994 paper will instantly spot what appears to be a major limitation of the study – the fact that there was no inter-rater reliability in the coding of the verbalisations that I transcribed. Could this be (as some have argued) the Achilles Heel of the study? I have argued that in the context of this study having a second rater might have added a confounding variable in itself. Another rater wouldn’t have had the time with the data that I had and wouldn’t have been there at the time of the experiment. In short, ‘not being there’ would have been a great disadvantage to a second coder as they would not have understood the context in which various verbalizations were made. I transcribed each tape straight after each trial so that I could remember the context of everything that was said by each player. I would also add that this was one study that was done in conjunction with lots of others simultaneously (the details of which are provided below).

The work of Dr. Paul Delfabbro in Australia built on my idea of analysing gamblers within session and postulated that gambling is maintained by winning and losing sequences within the operant conditioning paradigm (i.e., that the only rewards and reinforcers in gambling are purely monetary). I then argued in response to that paper (in a 1999 issue of the British Journal of Psychology) that Delfabbro’s contribution was too narrow in its focus in that they had taken no account of the ‘near miss’ in relation to operant conditioning theory and that there may be other reinforcers that play a role in the maintenance process (such as physiological rewards, psychological rewards, and social rewards). I also argued that gambling was biopsychosocial behaviour and should therefore be explained by a biopsychosocial account.

My 1994 study showed that gamblers could be studied in real-life contexts and that useful data could be collected. It also showed the complexity of gambling and that gamblers could turn apparently objective outcomes (i.e., losing) into ones that were highly subjective (i.e., near winning ones). I also showed that this had implications for treatment and that maybe these cognitive biases could be used by psychologists as a way of ‘re-educating’ gamblers through some kind of ‘cognitive correction’ technique. I should also point out that this one experimental study was one small part of a much bigger jigsaw. What I mean by this is that my 1994 shouldn’t be seen in isolation but read along with my simultaneous observational studies of arcade gamblers, my other experimental studies, my semi-structured interview studies, surveys, and my case studies. All of these studies as a whole were featured in my first book (Adolescent Gambling, published in1995).

My work into the role of cognitive bias in gambling and gambling addiction also led to me studying behavioural addictions more generally. Since I finished my PhD I have branched out and carried out research into videogame addiction, Internet addiction, sex addiction, work addiction, and exercise addiction. Many psychologists don’t view excessive behaviour as an addiction, but for me gambling is the ‘breakthrough’ addiction. I have argued that when gambling is taken to excess it can be comparable to other more recognised addictions like alcoholism. If you accept that gambling can be a genuine addiction, there is no theoretical reason why other behaviours when taken to excess cannot be considered potentially addictive if ‘gambling addiction’ exists.

A key difference between excessive use and addiction is the detrimental effects (or lack of) that arise as a result of that behaviour. When people are addicted to a behaviour that becomes the single most important thing in their life, they compromise everything else in their life to do it. A person’s job/work, personal relationships and hobbies are severely compromised. The basic difference between an excessive healthy enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life – addictions take away from it. This is very much a (non-psychological) lay view, but there is a lot of truth in it.

I am the first to admit that my 1994 study when taken in isolation is hardly up there with the ‘classic’ studies of Freud, Watson, Skinner or Milgram. However, as part of two decades of other research into gambling and other potentially excessive behaviours I would like to think I have had an influence in my field. Only time will tell.

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

Allegre, B., Souville, M., Therme, P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Definitions and measures of exercise dependence, Addiction Research and Theory,14, 631-646.

Anderson, G. and Brown, R.I.F. (1984). Real and laboratory gambling, sensation seeking and arousal. British Journal of Psychology, 75, 401-410.

Delfabbro, P. & Winefield, A.H. (1999). Poker machine gambling: An analysis of within-session characteristics. British Journal of Psychology, 90, 425-439.

Griffiths, M.D. (1990). The acquisition, development and maintenance of fruit machine gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 6, 193-204.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (1991b). Fruit machine addiction: Two brief case studies. British Journal of Addiction, 85, 465.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (1993b). Tolerance in gambling: An objective measure using the psychophysiological analysis of male fruit machine gamblers. Addictive Behaviors, 18, 365-372.

Griffiths, M.D. (1993c). Pathological gambling: Possible treatment using an audio playback technique. Journal of Gambling Studies, 9, 295-297.

Griffiths, M.D. (1993d). Factors in problem adolescent fruit machine gambling: Results of a small postal survey. Journal of Gambling Studies, 9, 31-45.

Griffiths, M.D. (1993e). Fruit machine addiction in adolescence: A case study. Journal of Gambling Studies, 9, 387-399.

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). The role of cognitive bias and skill in fruit machine gambling. British Journal of Psychology, 85, 351-369.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995a). The role of subjective mood states in the maintenence of gambling behaviour, Journal of Gambling Studies, 11, 123-135.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995b). Adolescent gambling. London: Routledge.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). The psychology of the near miss (revisited): A comment on Delfabbro and Winefield. British Journal of Psychology, 90, 441-445.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A “components” model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Diagnosis and management of video game addiction. New Directions in Addiction Treatment and Prevention, 12, 27-41.

Griffiths, M.D. & Delfabbro, P. (2001). The biopsychosocial approach to gambling: Contextual factors in research and clinical interventions. Journal of Gambling Issues, 5, 1-33.

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

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics (revisited). 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.

Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: A critical review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 31-51.

Save all your misses for me: The psychology of the near miss in gambling

One of the most frequent questions that I am asked is why gamblers continue to gamble despite the fact that (in the long run) they consistently lose. The simple answer is that they gamble because they get constant rewards from engaging in the behaviour. To a non-gambler, losing money doesn’t seem like a very rewarding activity. To a gambler, there can be many different kinds of rewards. For instance, they could be financially rewarded (by winning money), physiologically rewarded (through an adrenaline rush by the thrill and the ‘buzz’ of the gambling itself), psychologically rewarded (through an increase of self-esteem) and/or socially rewarded (by getting peer praise from their friends). There are also many other things that can be rewarding in specific gambling settings because they produce excitement, arousal and tension. Obvious examples are things like the pre-race and race sequence at the race track, the flashing lights of a slot machine, or the spinning roulette wheel, the placing of bets.

One of the most interesting psychological rewards is the “near miss”. In simple terms, near misses are failures that are close to being successful. In games of skill, near misses are very helpful as they give us useful feedback and encourages us to continue because we know that we were nearly successful in what we were trying to achieve. However, in activities of pure chance (such as buying a lottery ticket), such information is worthless as it gives absolutely no likelihood as to the chances of future success. Research as shown that gamblers experiencing near misses may view them as encouraging signs by confirming their strategy and by raising their hopes of winning. In gambling situations, near misses encourage and induce continued gambling, and some commercial gambling activities (particularly slot machines and scratchcards) are deliberately designed to ensure a higher than chance frequency of near misses. In some of my own research, I have shown that gamblers appear to get as physiologically excited when they are nearly winning as when they are winning. Therefore, a gambler is not constantly losing but constantly nearly winning! And the near misses are both psychologically and physiologically rewarding. What’s more, it costs the gaming industry nothing to incorporate them into their products.

Unfortunately, because of features like the near miss, some types of gamblers (such as slot machine players) can become very hooked on playing. Characteristics such as the near miss are capable of producing psychologically rewarding experiences even in financially losing situations. On slot machines, the most significant change in near miss design over the last decade involves the types of near misses incorporated by the manufacturers in their machines. On current slot machines, gamblers can win money through the machine’s ‘reel order’ or specialist ‘play features’. (In basic terms they can either win money through the order of symbols on the ‘win line’ such as three melons in a row, or win money via a specialist play feature by progressing up a feature board). The gaming industry appears to have adapted and strengthened the near miss by connecting it more to the ‘feature’ play rather than reel order.

The more features incorporated into the slot machine, the more opportunities for manufacturers to use different types of near miss. For instance, a player can often move their way up the ‘feature board’ without actually winning any money. They might even get themselves up to a point where they are just one spin away from the jackpot or the ultimate prize winning feature. On this final spin having moved right up the feature board, they lose. This is clearly an example of the near miss evolving but is extremely powerful for three reasons. Firstly, the gambler actually had access to several wins along the way but decided not to take them in order to pursue their goal of the jackpot prize. Secondly, the play leading up to the jackpot is extremely arousing and involves intensive gambler involvement that is itself highly rewarding. Thirdly, habitual slot machine players will often continue until they reach the jackpot or top feature no matter what the cost. These factors all give the impression that losing is the player’s fault since they did not collect the winnings when they had the chance.

As with traditional near misses, the gambler feels the excitement of “nearly” winning via ‘feature’ participation. Perhaps more importantly, it may cause frustration or regret that can perpetuate gambling. Often the only way a gambler can get rid of the feeling of frustration and regret is to gamble again. The main point is that the psychology of the near miss appears to be being used now more than ever and in different ways to that with which it was traditionally used. Before I go I ought to add one more thing. Near misses only work up to a point. To increase the proportion of near misses in relation to wins will in the long term be self-defeating. Put simply, it is like crying “Wolf!” – gamblers will very quickly start to realise that near wins don’t pay out. However, from a gaming industry perspective, even a very slight manipulation of near misses may reap huge commercial rewards for them in the very long run.

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

Further reading

Chase, H.W. & Clark, L. (2010). Gambling severity predicts midbrain response to near-miss outcomes. Journal of Neuroscience, 30, 6180-6187.

Clarke, L., Lawrence, A. J., Astley-Jones, F., & Gray, N. (2009). Gambling near-misses enhance motivation to gamble and recruit win-related brain circuitry. Neuron, 61, 481- 490.

Griffiths, M.D. (1991). The psychobiology of the near miss in fruit machine gambling. Journal of Psychology, 125, 347-357.

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

Harrigan, K. (2008). Slot machine structural characteristics: creating near misses using high award symbol ratios. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 6, 353-368.

Harrigan, K. (2009). Slot machines: Pursuing responsible gaming practices for virtual reels and near misses. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 7, 68-83.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Gambling addiction and the evolution of the ‘near miss’. Addiction Theory and Research, 12, 407-411.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics (revisited). 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.

Reid, R.L. (1986). The psychology of the near miss. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 2, 32–39.