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To err is to be human: A brief look at mistakes in poker playing

One of the most psychologically interesting questions concerning poker is ‘Why do so many people play so badly?’ It’s clear that most players know better, but they appear to make the same mistakes repeatedly. Given the hundreds of thousands of poker strategy books that are sold every year, we can only reach the conclusion that just a small percentage of poker players apply the skills they have read about. My hunch is that most people understand what they have read but when it comes to playing a competitive hand it’s simply more ‘fun’ to play badly than to play well. I’m not saying losing is more fun than winning (because quite clearly it isn’t), but the pursuit of profit maximization forces players to do things they don’t like doing. On a psychological level, maximizing profit makes extreme demands. Therefore, only a few, extraordinarily disciplined people play their best game most of the time – and nobody always plays it.

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 situations.

One of the basic mistakes is playing too many hands. All the self-help books warn players against it but it is a common behaviour. In general, poker players find it boring to fold hand after hand. Players become more reckless and instead of folding, risk all in an attempt to get themselves out of a boredom rut. Even after losing, the poker player may ‘congratulate’ their play by defining it as ‘courageous’ when in the cold light of day, it was stupid. This type of adaptive thinking is common amongst gamblers who lose and should be avoided. Poker players often chase with weak hands for the same reason. Players will throw good money after bad in an effort to get even. Occasionally the strategy will pay off, but most of the time it won’t. In these situations, gamblers will invariably focus on the few times that chasing has got them out of a hole – but conveniently forget the many times that it didn’t.

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Another common mistake is to playing too aggressively. Not only is this a male characteristic but is often the strategy of the game’s very top players. Again, such tactics occasionally pay off for the player in very tight games. However, in most gambling situations, playing aggressively is simply not called for yet players continue to do it. On the other hand, gamblers can sometimes play too passively. Gamblers constantly find good excuses to justify their playing styles. In these situations, gamblers simply remember the times they saved money by not betting or raising, ignoring the pots they lost by giving away free or cheap cards.

It’s also tempting to show your cards and most players will do it occasionally. If players make a successful bluff, 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 playing poker, some people view losses as the price of entry. To these players, 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 (and wrote about this experience back in 1990 in an article on the dangers of doing observational research in amusement arcades). 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

Additional input from the writings of Alan Schoonmaker

Further reading

Biolcati, R., Passini, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). All-in and bad beat: Professional poker players and pathological gambling. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 13, 19-32.

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

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.

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. (2018). Identifying risk and mitigating gambling related harm in online poker. Journal of Risk Research, 21, 269-289.

Parke, A., Griffiths, M., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.

Recher, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory qualitative study of online poker professional players. Social Psychological Review, 14(2), 13-25.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008). Why Swedish people play online poker and factors that can increase or decrease trust in poker websites: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 80-97.

Aid and a bet: Can personalised feedback help online gamblers play more responsibly?

In recent years, online gambling has become a more common leisure time activity. Research around the world suggests around 8-16% of adults have gambled online during the past year. Research has also demonstrated that there are a number of situational and structural characteristics that make online gambling potentially risky for susceptible and vulnerable individuals. Such factors include increased accessibility, affordability, anonymity and specific structural features of online games such as high event frequency. In addition, some forms of online gambling may be more problematic than others (e.g., online poker, online casino games).

A number of scientific studies have also shown that there are typically more problematic gamblers among those that gamble on the internet compared to those that only gamble in land-based venues. However, problem gambling severity is associated with overall engagement and that when the volume of gambling is controlled for, Internet gambling is not predictive of problems. Furthermore, most online gamblers are also offline gamblers and gamble on many different activities and across different gambling platforms.

Given the increasing number of people gambling online and issues surrounding problem gambling, many of the more socially responsible gambling companies around the world have started to use responsible gambling tools to help their clientele gamble more safely (such as the option to set time and money spending limits or to temporarily self-exclude from gambling for a day, week, month, or longer). In fact, one of our own studies recently demonstrated that the use of both time and money spending limits are most effective among gamblers that play most frequently, and that the effects are differential. For instance, time spending limits were most useful for online poker players and monetary spending limits were most useful for online casino players.

In addition, gamblers can now access and/or are given general advice on healthy and responsible gambling, as well as information about common misbeliefs and erroneous perceptions concerning gambling. However, findings on the effectiveness of providing gamblers with information in correcting or changing erroneous beliefs have been mixed. Some outcomes support the display of information, while other studies have reported non-significant results.

Studies have also shown that the way information is presented can significantly influence behaviour and thinking. Several studies have investigated the effects of interactive versus static pop-up messages during gambling sessions. Static messages do not appear to be effective, whereas interactive pop-up messages and animated information have been shown to change both irrational belief patterns and behaviour of gamblers. It has also been suggested that informational warning signs should promote the application of self-appraisal and self-regulation skills rather than the simple provision of information.

In one of our more recent studies, we investigated the effect of a pop-up message that appeared after 1,000 consecutive online slot machine games had been played during a single gambling session using behavioural tracking data. Our study analysed 400,000 gambling sessions (200,000 sessions before the pop-up had been introduced and 200,000 after the pop-up had been introduced). We found that the pop-up message had a limited effect on a small percentage of players. Although the study reported nine times as many gamblers stopped after 1000 consecutive plays compared to those gamblers before the introduction of the pop-up message, the number of gamblers that actually stopped after viewing the pop-up message was less than 1%.

In a follow-up study, we investigated the effects of normative and self-appraisal feedback in a slot machine pop-up message compared to a simple (non-enhanced) pop-up message. The study compared two representative random samples of 800,000 gambling sessions (i.e., 1.6 million sessions in total) across two conditions (i.e., simple pop-up message versus an enhanced pop-up message). The results indicated that the additional normative and self-appraisal content doubled the number of gamblers who stopped playing after they received the enhanced pop-up message (1.39%) compared to the simple pop-up message (0.67%). Like our previous study, the findings suggested that pop-up messages influence only a small number of gamblers to cease long playing sessions but that enhanced messages are slightly more effective in helping gamblers to stop playing within-session. Our two studies evaluating pop-up messages are the only published studies that examine the impact of messaging on actual gamblers in a real world online gambling environment.

In order to make individuals gamble more responsibly using behavioural tracking data, we believe that player feedback should also be presented in a motivational way. In practical terms, this means presenting messages in a non-judgmental way alongside normative data so that gamblers can evaluate their actions compared to other like-minded individuals. One of our most recent studies examined personalised feedback and information given to players during real world gambling sessions. We hypothesized that gamblers receiving tailored feedback about their online gambling behaviour would be more likely to change their behaviour (as measured by the amount of time and money spent) compared to those who did not receive tailored feedback.

We were given access to the behavioural tracking data of 1,358 gamblers at a European online gambling website that had voluntarily signed up to a behavioural feedback system that we developed (called mentor) that is offered to all customers on the website. The system is an opt-in system (i.e., gamblers can voluntarily choose to use it and the system is not mandatory). Once gamblers have enrolled to use the system, they can retrieve detailed visual and numerical feedback about their gambling behaviour via a button on the website. Player feedback is displayed in a number of ways (numerical, graphical, and textual) and provides information about wins and losses, playing duration, number of playing days, and games played. The system can also display personal gambling behaviour over time. For instance, Figure 1 shows the playing time information for a hypothetical player in the form of a graph over time.

At the top of the screen, players receive information about playing time over the previous 4-week and 24-week period. The white line in Figure 1 indicates that the player shows an upward trend and is steadily increasing the amount of time spent gambling. During the previous 4-week period, the player spent 25.75 hours gambling online. The upper line in Figure 1 is the average playing time for all other comparable online players (depending upon what types of game are typically played) and provides the gambler both normative and comparative feedback. Such feedback has been emphasized as an important aspect in facilitating behavioural change. Players are either assigned to ‘lottery’ type players or ‘casino’ type players based on their playing patterns.

Of the daily active players, 10% (n=1,358) opted into the system. Players could opt-in via a clearly visible button on the post-login website page which appeared immediately after they logged into their account. The personalised information appeared in a new pop-up window. This typically led to a break in play, as gamblers who viewed the information are unlikely to play and view information simultaneously. The system tracks those players who sign up and therefore the opt-in date is known and can also be used for analytical purposes.

All the visual, numerical, and textual information can be accessed by the gambler via a user-friendly on-screen dashboard. Responsiveness means that interactive content automatically adapts to technical environments. The player front end thus looks similar on different devices such as desktops, laptops, mobile phones, or tablets and also across different browsers and operating systems such as Windows, Android or iOS.

We investigated whether players’ behaviour changed after they have registered for the mentor system and saw the personalised feedback for the first time. We then compared their gambling behaviour with over 15,000 online gamblers displaying the same types of gambling behaviour (i.e., matched controls). Our results indicated that the personalised feedback system achieved the hypothesised effect and that the time and money spent gambling was significantly reduced compared to the online gambler control group that did not utilize the mentor system. The results suggest that responsible gambling tools such as mentor may help the clientele of gambling companies gamble more responsibly, and may be of help those who gamble excessively.

To our knowledge, this study was the first real world study investigating the effects of behavioural feedback on actual gambling behaviour within a real online gambling website. However, there were a number of limitations. For instance, all of the players in the target population had voluntarily registered to use the mentor system and were therefore not selected randomly from the population of players (but we tried to overcome this by using a control group of matched pairs). In addition, the reliability of our findings is limited because our data were only collected from one online gambling environment. It may also the case that players who voluntarily signed up to receive personalised messages about their gambling were different in other ways from controls (i.e., gamblers who voluntarily signed up to receive personalised messages may have already been interested in reducing their gambling and would be likely to gamble less).

Another limitation is that we did not know whether any of the gamblers who voluntarily opted to use the mentor system were problem gamblers. Therefore we do not know whether the system captures gamblers most in need of such interventions. Based on the findings, one explanation may be that the tool may simply be curtailing gambling in those who already play responsibly. Although our study was performed in a real world setting utilising objective behavioural data, it is limited because the motivations and thoughts of the players were unknown and can only be inferred.

Online gambling operators have the technical capabilities to introduce behavioural feedback systems such as the one we described in our paper, and our findings suggest that a system like mentor can help players limit the amount of time and money spent gambling can be achieved. However, the findings are preliminary and future research should focus on investigating at which point in time players should receive personalised messages to optimize behavioural change.

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

Further reading

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Voluntary limit setting and player choice in most intense online gamblers: An empirical study of gambling behaviour. Journal of Gambling Studies, 29, 647-660.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Personalised feedback in the promotion of responsible gambling: A brief overview. Responsible Gambling Review, 1, 27-36.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Testing normative and self-appraisal feedback in an online slot-machine pop-up message in a real-world setting. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 339. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00339.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). The use of personalized behavioral feedback for problematic online gamblers: An empirical study. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1406. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01406.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Personalized behavioral feedback for online gamblers: A real world empirical study. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1875. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01875. 

Auer, M., Littler, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Legal aspects of responsible gaming pre-commitment and personal feedback initiatives. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 6, 444-456.

Auer, M., Malischnig, D. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Is ‘pop-up’ messaging in online slot machine gambling effective? An empirical research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 29, 1-10.

Net advantage: Another brief look at the psychology of online poker

From everything that I’ve observed over the last decade in the gambling world, the one thing that has caught my eye more than anything else is the number of online gambling stories – particularly about the rise of online poker. Clearly, online poker and traditional poker are not synonymous. As I outlined in one of my previous blogs, a very useful psychological tool in poker is to ‘read’ a player through their body language and their verbalisations. When playing online poker, a gambler is denied this advantage. Poker players must therefore seek to manipulate their poker-playing opponents by using the psychological tools at their disposal. One of my colleagues who has researched this area (Dr. Adrian Parke), believes that in a ‘SunTzu’-type way, an online poker player must take their weakness (in this case, not being able to physically see other players) and turn it into a positive strength. Put simply, a player must use the non-transparency inherent in the situation to their advantage.

Online poker permits players to create a false identity. As a player you could portray the façade of being a young attractive novice female player when in fact you are actually a very experienced recognised pro. On a psychological level, the key to a ‘hustle’ or manipulating other players in poker is by projecting a character and hiding your identity. Essentially it is about representing a façade, whether it is for one hand or the whole of the game. While playing poker online, a player can adapt any ‘character’ they wish to suit any game in which they engage in. For instance, if you are playing with novices it may be profitable to portray an experienced professional in order to intimidate players into submission.

Using the messaging systems provided, it is easier for online poker players to develop their persona(s). The tone and pitch of what a player “says” is not revealed in the text on the screen. At a fundamental level all players are acting with their most unemotional ‘poker face’. In these situations, players can exude confidence as they go all in on a psychological bluff, when in reality they may have shaking hands and be sweating like a pig. The key to winning on a psychological level is by inducing emotional reactions from other players, so with knowledge of the opponent, it is possible to ‘tailor’ interactions to induce the desired response.

Social interaction at the online poker table is not confined to adversarial chastising. It is also possible to develop amiable relationships between players. Online poker – particularly at low stakes tables – is often more about entertainment than making profits. In poker it is not necessary to reveal your hand if nobody calls (i.e., pays to see it). Without seeing cards it is more difficult to understand player behaviour. However, at more sociable tables, players will reveal what they had to opposing players, if nothing else but to indulge the observers. Creating false ‘alliances’ is a way of ascertaining more information about your opponents and improving your ability to ‘read’ them.

From a psychological perspective, there are also some things to be aware of in the online gambling world. At a basic level, what separates professional gamblers and novice (or problem) gamblers is the factor of self-control. The rule of thumb is to avoid becoming emotionally involved in the game. Inducing emotional rather than logical reactions from gamblers is what makes the gambling industry so profitable. By remaining unemotional gamblers can protect themselves from recklessly chasing losses and avoid going on ‘tilt’. People gambling online are particularly at risk from engaging in chasing losses for the simple reason that they have 24-hour convenient access from their home or workplace and have the potential to be constantly subjected to temptation. What’s more, in this asocial world, they often lack friends acting as a “social safety net” to give objective appraisals of the player’s behaviour.

The best ways of avoiding becoming emotionally engaged online is to have (i) reflective time outs and (ii) an objective attribution of outcomes. Having reflective time-outs simply refers to playing slowly, making gambling decisions with accrued knowledge (for example, knowledge of probability and of opponents). It is advisable after a ‘bad beat’ to be disciplined enough sit out one or two hands to regain composure before playing again. Determining objective attributions of outcomes occurs at a psychological level and concerns the gambler’s locus of control. For the gambler, this means having an external locus of control when assessing the cards they have and an internal locus of control regarding what they do with the cards available.

The mantra of poker players is that ‘You can only play the hand you were dealt’. All players will experience streaks of both desirable and poor hands, and it is how a player responds to these streaks that will determine their success. It is very easy to become frustrated while in a negative streak. Likewise, it is easy in a positive streak to become narcissistic and complacent. It is the knowledgeable player that understands probability and who realises that over a continuous playing period, positive and negative streaks are inevitable and transient.

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

Further reading

Biolcati, R., Passini, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). All-in and bad beat: Professional poker players and pathological gambling. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.

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., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.

Recher, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory qualitative study of online poker professional players. Social Psychological Review, 14(2), 13-25.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008). Why Swedish people play online poker and factors that can increase or decrease trust in poker websites: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 80-97.

Gamblers anonymous: The psychology of live online casino gambling

Over the last decade, my research unit has carried out an increasing amount of research into the psychology of online gambling. In some of our recent research interviewing online gamblers, offline gamblers and non-gamblers, we found that people who gambled online did so because of its (i) convenience, (ii) greater value for money, (iii) the greater variety of games, and (iv) anonymity. Perhaps more interestingly, were the inhibiting reasons that stopped people from wanting to gamble online in the first place. The main inhibiting reason that stopped people gambling online was that offline gamblers and non-gamblers said the authenticity of gambling was significantly reduced when gambling online. We also found a number of other inhibitors of online gambling including (i) the reduced realism, (ii) the asocial nature of the internet, (iii) the use of electronic money, and (iv) concerns about the safety of online gambling websites. The reduced authenticity and realism may help to explain why online live action casino games are seen as increasingly popular among some types of gamblers.

This empirical research also chimes with my own personal psychology of online gambling. One of the main reasons I don’t like gambling at Internet casinos is that I believe the majority of game outcome are likely to be pre-programmed and/or predetermined. To me, this is somewhat akin to playing with imaginary dice! Our empirical research findings also help explain the rise of live online casino gambling. Players not only want increased realism and authenticity, but still have the added advantages of online anonymity while playing.

In online live casino gaming, the anonymity of the Internet allows players to privately engage in gambling without the fear of stigma. This anonymity may also provide the gambler with a greater sense of perceived control over the content, tone, and nature of the online experience. Anonymity may also increase feelings of comfort since there is a decreased ability to look for, and thus detect, signs of insincerity, disapproval, or judgment in facial expression, as would be typical in face-to-face interactions. For activities such as gambling, this may be a positive benefit particularly when losing as no-one will actually see the face of the loser. Anonymity may reduce social barriers to engaging in gambling, particularly those activities thought to be more skill-based gambling activities (such as poker or blackjack) that are relatively complex and often possess tacit social etiquette. The potential discomfort of committing a structural or social faux-pas in the gambling environment because of inexperience is minimized because the player’s identity remains concealed.

Furthermore, one of the main reasons why behaviour online is very different from offline is because it provides a ‘disinhibiting’ experience. One of the main consequences of disinhibition is that on the internet people lower their emotional guard and become much less restricted and inhibited in their actions.

The increase in online live casino gambling has happened alongside the rise of online betting exchanges – the type of online gambling where it could be argued that skill can – to some extent – be exercised. For gamblers, having a punt on live sporting events via betting exchanges is a psychologically safer option because punters know (or can check) who won a particular football or horse race. The playing of live action casino games via the Internet shares some of the psychological similarities of online betting exchanges.

The rise of live online gambling has been coupled with increasingly sophisticated gaming software, integrated e-cash systems, and increased realism (in the shape of “real” gambling via webcams, live remote wagering, and/or player and dealer avatars). These are all inter-linked facilitating factors. Another factor that I feel is really important in the rise of online gambling (including online live action casino games) is the inter-gambler competition. Obviously there is an overlap between competitiveness and skill but they are certainly not the same. What’s more recent research has suggested that being highly competitive may not necessarily be good for the gambler. For instance, Professor Howard Shaffer, a psychologist at Harvard University, claims that men are more likely to develop problematic gambling behaviour because of their conventionally high levels of aggression, impulsivity and competitiveness. Clearly, the idea of the competitiveness of the activity being one of the primary motivations to gamble is well supported.

Based on the fact that so little research has systematically examined the links between gambling and competitiveness, our research unit did some research into this area. We speculated that a gambler who is highly competitive will experience more arousal and stimulation, and be drawn to gambling as an outlet to release competitive instincts and drives. This is likely to occur more in activities like online poker and online live action casino games. Our research did indeed show that problem gamblers were significantly more likely than non-problem gamblers to be competitive.

Being highly competitive may help in explaining why in the face of sometimes negative and damaging financial consequences, gamblers persist in their habit. Psychological research in other areas has consistently shown that highly competitive individuals are more sensitive to social comparison with peers regarding their task performance. Applying this to a gambling situation, it is reasonable to suggest that competitive gamblers may be reluctant to stop gambling until they are in a positive state in relation to opposing gamblers, perhaps explaining why excessive gambling can sometimes occur.

Sociologists have speculated that factors of the human instinctual expressive needs, such as competition, can be temporarily satisfied when engaging in gambling activities. Evidence exists supporting gambling as an instrumental outlet for expressing competitive instinctual urges. The US sociologist Erving Goffman developed what he called the ‘deprivation-compensation’ theory to explain the relationship between gambling and competitiveness. He suggested that the stability of modern society no longer creates situations where competitive instincts are tested. Therefore, gambling is an artificial, self-imposed situation of instability that can be instrumental in creating an opportunity to test competitive capabilities. Again, online live action casino gambling is another gambling form that can facilitate such instinctive needs.

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

Further reading

Goffman, I. (1972). Where the action is. In: Interaction Ritual (pp. 149–270). Allen Lane, London.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction on the Internet. In K. Young & C. Nabuco de Abreu (Eds.), Internet Addiction: A Handbook for Evaluation and Treatment. pp. 91-111. New York: Wiley.

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.

Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2009). Socio-demographic correlates of internet gambling: findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 12, 199-202.

Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2011). Internet gambling, health. Smoking and alcohol use: Findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 1-11.

Kuss, D. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012).  Internet gambling behavior. In Z. Yan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior (pp.735-753). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Motivating and inhibiting factors in online gambling behaviour: A grounded theory study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 39-53.

McCormack, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). A scoping study of the structural and situational characteristics of internet gambling. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 3(1), 29-49.

McCormack, A., Shorter, G. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). An examination of participation in online gambling activities and the relationship with problem gambling. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(1), 31-41.

McCormack, A., Shorter, G. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Characteristics and predictors of problem gambling on the internet. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 11, 634-657.

Wardle, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Defining the ‘online gambler’: The British perspective. World Online Gambling Law Report, 10(2), 12-13.

Wardle, H., Moody, A., Griffiths, M.D., Orford, J. & and Volberg, R. (2011). Defining the online gambler and patterns of behaviour integration: Evidence from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. International Gambling Studies, 11, 339-356.

Punter gatherer: What is the role of competitiveness in gambling and problem gambling?

Over the last decade, I have been asked by the mass media on countless occasions about the increasing popularity of online gambling. The two biggest successes appear to be the use of betting exchanges and online poker. Gamblers clearly feel these types of gambling provide value and an opportunity to exercise their skill. This is coupled with increasingly sophisticated gaming software, integrated e-cash systems, increased realism (in the shape of “real” gambling via webcams, or player and dealer avatars) are all inter-linked facilitating factors. However, another factor that I feel is really important in the rise of online gambling is the inter-gambler competition. Obviously there is an overlap between competitiveness and skill but they are certainly not the same. What’s more recent research has suggested that being highly competitive may not necessarily be good for the gambler.

I’m sure many people’s view of psychology is that it is little more than common sense (and to be honest, some of it is). For instance, psychologists claim that male gamblers are attracted to sports betting because they love competitiveness. There has also been North American research examining the high participation in US college basketball. The researchers found that above anything else, males were attracted to the competitiveness of betting on teams and games. Professor Howard Shaffer, a psychologist at Harvard University, claims that men are more likely to develop problematic gambling behaviour because of their conventionally high levels of aggression, impulsivity and competitiveness. Clearly, the idea of the competitiveness of the activity being one of the primary motivations to gamble is well supported.

Based on the fact that so little research has systematically examined the links between gambling and competitiveness, my own research unit published some research into this area in the journal Addiction Research and Theory. Dr. Adrian Parke and myself speculated that a gambler who is highly competitive would experience more arousal and stimulation, and be drawn to gambling as an outlet to release competitive instincts and drives. We also speculated that competitiveness may be linked to problem gambling. For instance, being highly competitive may help in explaining why in the face of negative and damaging consequences, problem gamblers persist in their potentially self-destructive habit. Psychological research in other areas has consistently shown that highly competitive individuals are more sensitive to social comparison with peers regarding their task performance. Applying this to a gambling situation, it is reasonable to suggest that competitive gamblers may be reluctant to stop gambling until they are in a positive state in relation to opposing gamblers, perhaps explaining why excessive gambling can sometimes occur.

Psychology is not the only discipline to suggest that competitiveness levels can be associated with problem gambling. Sociologists have speculated that factors of the human instinctual expressive needs, such as competition, can be temporarily satisfied when engaging in gambling activities. Evidence exists supporting gambling as an instrumental outlet for expressing competitive instinctual urges. The US sociologist Erving Goffman developed what he called the ‘deprivation-compensation’ theory to explain the relationship between gambling and competitiveness. He suggested that the stability of modern society no longer creates situations where competitive instincts are tested. Therefore, gambling is an artificial, self-imposed situation of instability that can be instrumental in creating an opportunity to test competitive capabilities.

In the published research study that we carried out, we hypothesised that problem gamblers would possess higher levels of competitiveness than non-problem gamblers. Using a competitiveness scale, gamblers were asked to rate statements about competitive reasons for gambling (such as ‘I like to gamble to show others how good I am at it’, ‘I like to gamble to beat the system’, ‘I like to gamble to see how good I am at it’) and general competitive tendencies (such as ‘I am competitive’, ‘I enjoy taking risks’, ‘I am abitious’). We found that problem gamblers scored significantly higher on the competitiveness scale. Put simply, we concluded that having a highly competitive streak may in fact be a potential risk factor for problem gambling.

It is not hard to see how a highly competitive person would be attracted to gambling by the competitive and challenging nature of the behaviour. However, why are competitive people at particular risk of developing pathological gambling behaviour? It could be the case that highly competitive gamblers are less inclined to ‘throw the towel in’ or accept a loss, and, as a result are more prone to chasing behaviour. Chasing behaviour – that is, increasing frequency and stake of bets in an attempt to recoup losses – is self-perpetuating. When gamblers chase losses it is highly probable they will lose more and the need to recoup losses increases as time passes. What’s more, chasing losses has been shown to be a major risk factor in the development of gambling problems. At the other end of spectrum, winning is potentially more rewarding for a competitive gambler as they are more inclined to perceive gambling as an internal and external challenge than a non-competitive gambler. In addition, winning will be much more rewarding after incurring losses. Put very simply, the competitive person feels greater triumph by defeating unlikely odds and emerging from what appeared a hopeless situation.

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

Further reading

Goffman, I. (1972). Where the action is. In: Interaction Ritual (pp.149–270). Allen Lane, London.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction on the Internet. In K. Young & C. Nabuco de Abreu (Eds.), Internet Addiction: A Handbook for Evaluation and Treatment (pp. 91-111). New York: Wiley.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012).  Internet gambling behavior. In Z. Yan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior (pp.735-753). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

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. & Irwing, P. (2004). Personality traits in pathological gambling: Sensation seeking, deferment of gratification and competitiveness as risk factors, Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 201-212.

Parke, A., Griffiths, M., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.

Recher, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory qualitative study of online poker professional players. Social Psychological Review, 14(2), 13-25.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008).Why Swedish people play online poker and factors that can increase or decrease trust in poker websites: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 80-97.

Altered states: The psychology of distraction in gambling

I’m sure that most of you are aware that nearly all casinos around the world do not have clocks or windows. Casino operators don’t want their customers to think about time or give them external cues such as whether it’s night or day. By doing this, a gambler’s temporal perception is altered and gamblers may lose track of time and reality (and hopefully spend more money!). Although this may not be good from a financial perspective, from a psychological perspective, losing track of time and reality may not necessarily be such a bad thing.

Psychologists believe that gambling is an excellent  ‘distractor task’. What we mean is that playing slot machines, roulette or poker, has the capacity to engage much of a gambler’s individual active attention because of the cognitive and motor activity that is needed. Continuous gambling also allows the possibility to sustain achievement because of the level of difficulty and skills involved in most games. In short, they provide a challenge that uses a lot of mental energy.

One positive benefit of gambling may be a temporarily higher pain threshold. Research studies have shown that cognitive and attentional distraction has the capacity to block the perception of pain. The reasoning behind this is that distractor tasks (such as gambling and videogame playing) consume some degree of the attentional capacity that would otherwise be devoted to pain perception. Although gambling has never been tested in this way experimentally, research into videogame playing and pain perception has shown that those who play videogames after treatment for things like chemotherapy need significantly less painkillers than those who don’t play videogames. However, one of the problems with this type of “snapshot” research is that there has been no long-term follow-up and it is unclear whether players eventually tire of such games. Therefore other factors need to be explored such as novelty of the activity, game preference, and relative level of challenge.

There has also been an increasing amount of research showing that gamblers who play for long periods of time can enter “dissociative states” of mind. Dissociation is a form of altered state of consciousness. These behaviours lie on a continuum and range from losing track of time, feeling like your someone else, blacking out, not recalling how you got somewhere or what you did, and being in a trance like state. In its most extreme form it can include multi-personality disorders.

Dissociation also needs to be differentiated from distraction although it could be the case that they are at opposite ends of the same continuum. For example, a person may use gambling as a distracting activity but over time may progress into a dissociative one. Distraction usually involves a person’s attention being pulled somewhere other than where he or she wants it to go although some people may deliberately engage in some activities (like drinking alcohol, gambling, smoking etc.) as a way of shifting their thoughts away from something they do not want to think about. Distraction can be born out of boredom, lack of interest, melancholy and creativity. More generally it can be viewed as a low-level state of avoidance. It may also be a symptom of depressive or mood disorders and high levels of stress. On the whole, losing track of time because of distraction is normal when you are having fun. Blacking or going into a dissociative trance like state is not!

There is also the possibility that the medium of gambling influences distraction capacity. For instance, some of my own research has suggested that the Internet may provide immersive and dissociative feelings for its users and may facilitate feelings of escape. I also believe that the anonymity of the Internet allows users to privately engage in activities like gambling without the fear of stigma. The anonymity may also provide the gambler with a greater sense of perceived control over the content, tone, and nature of the online experience.

Anonymity can also increase feelings of psychological comfort since there is a decreased ability to look for, and thus detect, signs of insincerity, disapproval, or judgement in facial expression, as would be typical in face-to-face interactions. For activities such as gambling, this may be a positive benefit particularly when losing as no-one can actually see your face. However, one of the consequences of technology and the Internet has been to reduce the fundamentally social nature of gambling to an activity that in many cases is asocial. Most problem gamblers report that at the height of their problem gambling, it is a solitary activity. Gambling in a social setting has the potential to provide a kind of “safety net” for over-spenders as friends will often notice excessive and  ‘out of character’ behaviour. This is lost when gambling alone on the Internet.

The interactivity of the Internet may also be psychologically rewarding and different from other more passive forms of entertainment (such as television). Psychological research has consistently shown the increased personal involvement on a gambling activity can increase the illusion of control that in turn may facilitate increased gambling. The interactive nature of the Internet may therefore provide a convenient way of increasing such personal involvement.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Internet gambling: Issues, concerns and recommendations. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 557-568.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005).  The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies. pp. 161-171. Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Casino design: Understanding gaming floor influences on player behaviour. Casino and Gaming International, 5(1), 21-26.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction on the Internet. In K. Young & C. Nabuco de Abreu (Eds.), Internet Addiction: A Handbook for Evaluation and Treatment. pp. 91-111. New York: Wiley.

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.

Griffiths, M.D., Wood, R.T.A., Parke, J. & Parke, A. (2006). Dissociative states in problem gambling. In C. Allcock (Ed.). Current Issues Related To Dissociation. pp.27-37. Melbourne: Australian Gaming Council.

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.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, A. (2007). Experiences of time loss among videogame players: An empirical study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 45-56.

Blame it on the fame? The role of celebrity endorsement in gambling advertising

Have any of you reading this ever visited an online poker site because of a celebrity endorsement? Would the presence of Ben Affleck or James Woods make you more likely to play poker? Commercial gambling has only relatively recently got in on the celebrity endorsement bandwagon mainly because gambling advertising has always been very restricted. When a poker company uses a celebrity endorser, they are signing up an image that is itself a gamble. At the very least, gaming companies should get what they pay for but it can all go horribly wrong. When a purple-bearded Billy Connolly was used to promote the National Lottery in 2002/2003, sales decreased. The adverts had high recall by the public but were hated by a large proportion of the British public who found Connolly highly irritating.

This is all goes to show that any gaming company wanting to use celebrity endorsement as part of its marketing drive has to carefully evaluate a celebrity’s image and reputation. Steps need to be taken to make sure the celebrity’s image and reputation matches the needs of the company. Sales can take a tumble especially if the celebrity used does something that compromises the company’s image. For instance, Vic Reeves drink-driving conviction wasn’t very good for the car insurance company he was promoting! However, in most situations, the relationship between the company and the celebrity will be mutually beneficial. The company receives all of the perks associated with the celebrity such as publicity, positive connotation, recognition, respect and trust. The celebrity – at the very least – benefits financially.

The advertising industry claims that brand recognition, recall and awareness are the most important outcomes of successful marketing campaigns. This, they believe, will result in greater sales and increased revenue. However, as with the Billy Connolly example above, this isn’t always the case. Celebrity endorsement is perhaps even more important in online commercial activities like playing Internet poker where identity, trust and reliability equate to potential punters. As a consequence, many online commercial enterprises appear to opt for short-term, high impact celebrity endorsement and ‘buzz marketing’ rather than investing for the long term. These types of marketing tend to create an instant image and reputation but may not necessarily be good for the company’s longevity. To be market leaders amid the competition, online gaming operators will need to couple strategic marketing with solid brand management.

Interestingly, a survey carried out by Marketing UK asked marketers from a sample of the top 1000 British companies which techniques they thought were the most successful in increasing sales and at building long-term relationships with customers. It found that celebrity endorsements ranked last, beneath things like loyalty schemes, sales promotions, and general display advertising. However, it doesn’t make sense to isolate celebrity endorsements, because they are just one of many marketing elements that are used in a successful campaign. What’s more, if marketers didn’t believe celebrities help in generating long-term sales and profits, they wouldn’t keep paying the large fees they command.

While the jury is out on whether celebrity endorsement is a sales winner, one question that has yet to be answered through research is, what type of gambler does a celebrity endorsement impress and/or influence in their decision play? Is it the novices, long-standing players, or both? Maybe different types of celebrities appeal to different clientele. For me, the most interesting development of the celebrity endorsement culture is how the big poker tournament winners have now become celebrities in their own right. For instance, the star after-dinner speaker at an academic gambling conference I was at in Lake Tahoe was World Series of Poker veteran Howard Lederer. This type of celebrity endorsement may be more appealing to players. The fact that someone has become a celebrity through skill and talent in an activity that gamblers are already positively predisposed towards suggests they will want to have more of a psychological association with these celebrities than those the celebrities who just happen to play poker as a hobby. Judging by the front covers of magazines like Inside Poker, the editors clearly believe that it is the big poker winners that sell the magazine rather than Hollywood A-listers or scantily dressed women.

Celebrity endorsements also tap into the psychology of ‘intrinsic association’. This is the degree to which the gambling activity is positively associated with other interests, people and/or attractions. Intrinsic association also taps into the psychology of familiarity and help explain why so may UK slot machines feature themes relating to television shows, films, popular board games, video games or celebrities. It makes punters feel they know something about the product before they have even played it.

Gaming companies have to ask themselves how much they are willing to gamble on celebrity endorsement in trying to carve out a niche in the market. Companies have got to be clear that they are targeting the right product with the right celebrity with the right message. It can be a long hard slog to shape an image or reputation but it can take just a few seconds of celebrity madness to destroy it.

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

Further reading

Binde, P. (2007). Selling dreams – causing nightmares? On gambling advertising and problem gambling. Journal of Gambling Issues, 20, 167-191.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005).  Does advertising of gambling increase gambling addiction? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 3(2), 15-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Brand psychology: Social acceptability and familiarity that breeds trust and loyalty. Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 69-72.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Celebrity endorsement and online gambling: Ten golden rules. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, June/July, p.64.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Media and advertising influences on adolescent risk behaviour. Education and Health, 28(1), 2-5.

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.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.

Zangeneh, M., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2008). The marketing of gambling. In Zangeneh, M., Blaszczynski, A., and Turner, N. (Eds.), In The Pursuit Of Winning.  pp. 135-153. New York: Springer.


Return to gender: Gender swapping and the convergence of gambling and video gaming

I’ve always found the gender differences in game playing of great psychological interest. For a number of years, my research unit has been examining various online gaming environments including both gambling (e.g., online poker sites) and video gaming (e.g., ‘meta-verses’ such as Everquest and World of Warcraft). One study we published specifically examined online video gaming found that the majority of gamers (57%) had gender-swapped their game character, and that females (68%) were more likely to gender swap than males (54%). We argued that gender swapping enabled gamers to play around and experiment with various aspects of their character or avatar that are not easy to do in real life. For others it was just fun to see if they felt any different playing a different gendered character.

Most of the press coverage that our research received on that particular study concentrated on the fact that females (as one of our participants said) were tired of the “annoying and ridiculous habit of creepy guys hitting on their female characters”. Other women reported that if they made their character a woman, men tended to treat them far better. This provided support for our earlier research suggesting that the female persona has a number of positive social attributes in a male-oriented environment. However, lots of other reasons for gender swapping didn’t make it into all the media reports. Other reasons included that female characters had better in-game statistics, specific in-game tools were only available with a female character, and/or the class of character was only available in one gender. What makes our findings interesting is that in most instances, the gamer had the opportunity to choose the gender of his or her character and to develop other aspects of their character before they began to play. Choosing to gender swap may have had an effect on the gamers’ styles of play and interaction with other gamers. This is certainly an area our research unit will be looking into further.

The idea that many men gender-swapped for strategic reasons mirrors our research into gender swapping in online poker. For instance, one of our studies into online poker, we found that one in five female players (20%) and one in eight players (12%) reported they gender-swapped playing online poker. For males, gender swapping was a tactical move to give them a strategic advantage, whereas for females it was much more about acceptance or privacy in what they perceived to be a male-dominated environment.

From my point of view, the most interesting development is the convergence between online gaming and gambling. Game developers are constantly looking for new ways to increase revenue. Conventional wisdom says that two things have the power to drive consumer technology – sex and gambling. Since 2006, a number of servers aimed at the adult gaming market have launched services that pay videogame players every time they kill within the game they are playing. On one level, this activity is akin to some types of online gambling like online poker. If gender swapping is done for strategic advantage then more and more players will engage in it – especially if it brings them financial rewards.

One of the legal implications of being paid to kill within the confines of a computer game is that the activity is defined as a skill-based (as apposed to a chance-based) activity and is therefore – in Great Britain at least – exempt from the regulations set down in the 2005 Gambling Act. However, it is likely that more and more gambling companies will start to utilise videogame technology within their products (and vice-versa) and this will then become an issue that the Gambling Commission will almost certainly have to re-examine in terms of the gambling legislation.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Digital impact, crossover technologies and gambling practices. Casino and Gaming International, 4(3), 37-42.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Gaming convergence: Further legal issues and psychosocial impact. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 14, 461-464.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.

Hussain, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Gender swapping and socialising in cyberspace: An exploratory study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11, 47-53.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.