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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.

Inter-bet gambling: The psychology of online sports betting

Until the early 2000s, there appeared to be a commonly held perception that consumers viewed the Internet as an information gathering tool rather than a place to spend money. The explosive growth in online gambling and betting shows this is no longer true. For me, one of the interesting questions is how gaming companies use the psychology of people who like to gamble on sports events to get them to access sports betting sites (especially if it is done in a socially responsible way that enhances the punter’s experience rather than exploits them).

Trust and reliability: Let’s look at sports betting from an individual level. A sports fan has logged on to the Internet and is in the process of deciding which online sports betting website to make a beeline for. What kinds of things influence their decision? A recommendation from one of their friends? Advice from a gambling portal? An advert they saw in a magazine? From a psychological perspective, research on how and why people access particular commercial websites indicates that one of the most important factors is trust. If people know and trust the name, they are more likely to use that service. Reliability is also a related key factor. Research shows that many people (including sports bettors) still have concerns about Internet security and may not be happy about putting their personal details online. But if there is a reliable offline branch nearby, it gives them an added sense of security (i.e., a psychological safety net). For some people, trust and security issues will continue to be important inhibitors of online gambling. Punters need assurance and compelling value propositions from trusted gaming operators and operators to overcome these concerns.

Personalization: One of the growth areas in e-commerce has been personalization and most online commercial organisations now have a personalization strategy as part of its business plan. However, this practice is a double-edged sword that can prove to be a large logistical problem for companies who use such a strategy. Tracking every move for marketing purposes is one thing. Using these data for personalization purposes can sometimes prove troublesome. The amount of data is potentially enormous. Producing personalized pages for everyone is also logistically difficult and may even turn potential punters away. The key is knowing what to ask the punter. Those in the gaming industry have to think intelligently and creatively about what to ask their customers in a way that the information gained can be used effectively. Attracting customers and providing recommendations relies on the those in the gaming industry putting punters first. Integration can also be a factor here. The industry has to think of creative ways to make the website experience more personal.

Imprinting: One of the most important marketing strategies that companies engage in is “imprinting” new customers. Online punters quickly adopt predictable Internet usage patterns and evidence suggests that they don’t switch online allegiances easily. Smart gaming operators will work at becoming a starting point for the novice gambler and capitalize on this opportunity for capturing player loyalty. The emerging post-teenage market is a key consideration although from a social responsibility perspective thought needs to be given so that teenagers are not exploited. There is a whole Internet generation of people coming through who have a positive outlook on online commercial activities. They may be happier to enter credit card details online and/or meet others online. This has the potential to lead to major clientele changes as the profiles of these people may be radically different from previous punters. The problem is that the young don’t tend to have much disposable income and are less likely to own credit cards. Therefore, another market segment that operators need to target to are the over-50s who are starting to use the Internet for shopping and entertainment use. Early retirees have both time and money. This is why gaming operators need to strategically target the ‘grey pound.’

Contextual commerce: So what can operators do next? Contextual commerce may be one avenue that gaming operators will need to go down. In most retail outlets, shoppers notice what other people are buying and this may influence the purchaser’s choice. Companies are now using software that allows customers to do this online including interacting with other like-minded people. Seeing what everyone else is betting on may influence the decision process. There is also the potential to bring in techniques used on home television shopping channels. Presenters tell viewers how much of a product has been sold with viewers to instil a sense of urgency into the buying process, along with an element of peer review. This could be applied by gaming operators if people are gambling as part of a sports betting community.

Getting the balance right on the chance-skill dimension: All forms of gambling lie on a chance-skill dimension. Neither games of pure skill nor games of pure chance are particularly attractive to sports gamblers. Games of chance (like lotteries) offer no significant edge to sports gamblers and are unlikely to be gambled upon. While games of skill provide a significant edge for the gambler, serious gamblers need more than an edge – they often need an opponent who can be exploited (which helps explain the popularity of online poker). Serious gamblers gravitate towards types of gambling that provide an appropriate mix of chance and skill. This is one of the reasons why sports betting – and in particular activities like horse race betting – is so popular for gamblers. The edge available in horse race gambling can be sufficient to fully support professional gamblers as they bring their wide range of knowledge to the activity. There is the complex interplay of factors that contributes to the final outcome of the race.

Inter-gambler competition and the exercise of skill: Over the last few years I have often been asked by the media about the increasing popularity of online sports betting, particularly in relation to betting exchanges. Psychologists claim that male gamblers are attracted to sports betting because they love competitiveness. Sports bettors clearly feel that gambling via betting exchanges provides value for money and an opportunity to exercise their skill. Another important factor that I feel is really important in the rise of sports betting is not just the inherent competiveness but also the inter-gambler competition. Obviously there is an overlap between competitiveness and skill but they are certainly not the same and operators need to show how the sites they recommend feed into the psychological needs and desires of the sports bettor.

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). However, I hope that some of what I had to offer in the rest of this blog was more than just common sense.

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

Further reading

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Behavioral tracking tools, regulation and corporate social responsibility in online gambling. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 17, 579-583.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Online betting exchanges: A brief overview. Youth Gambling International, 5(2), 1-2.

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. (2009). Social responsibility in gambling: The implications of real-time behavioural tracking. Casino and Gaming International, 5(3), 99-104.

Griffiths, M.D. & Whitty, M.W. (2010). Online behavioural tracking in Internet gambling research: Ethical and methodological issues. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics, 3, 104-117.

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. & 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.

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.