Blog Archives

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.

Bitter sweet? A brief look at ‘addiction’ to Candy Crush

Earlier this week, the ‘addictiveness’ of the game Candy Crush made the national newspapers when the Daily Mail published the story with the headline ‘How women blow £400,000 a day playing Candy Crush, the most addictive online game ever’. The Mail article said:

“Look around any busy train or bus and it seems every other person with a smartphone or tablet is hooked on Candy Crush Saga, the latest online game to have taken the world by storm. With its twinkly lights, hypnotic music and comic sound effects, it has millions of people in its grip – and, like 2010’s Angry Birds, which even numbered [British Prime Minister] David Cameron among its fans, it has become an online sensation…An astonishing 700million games of Candy Crush are played every day on mobile devices alone, according to AppData, a leading authority on social media trends. But, unlike so many video games, it appears that instead of teenage boys and men, it’s mostly women who are in thrall to Candy Crush. According to the game’s creators, King.com, women aged 25-55 are the demographic most loyal to the game…According to ThinkGaming, Candy Crush makes an estimated £400,000 a day for King. That’s £146m a year, figures which have prompted the Office of Fair Trading to voice concern that guidelines are needed to stop firms exploiting young users.King claims that 90 per cent of its players are over 21, but maturity doesn’t seem to prevent women…from falling under Candy Crush’s spell”.

I was interviewed by the journalist that wrote the article [Jill Foster] who wanted to know why it was such an ‘addictive’ game and why so many women played it. I told her that Candy Crush is a gender-neutral games that has a ‘moreish’ quality (a bit like chocolate – although this analogy didn’t end up in the article) and can fit in flexibly around what women do in their day-to-day life. The game takes up all the player’s cognitive ability because anyone playing on it has to totally concentrate on it. By being totally absorbed players can forget about everything else for a few minutes. I speculated that this may be particularly appealing to many women whether they are a stay-at-home mother who has ten minutes to play it in between childcare, or a business executive on her commute. It’s deceptively simple and fun. I also noted that unlike many online games, Candy Crush doesn’t involve killing or fighting, and it doesn’t feature strong male characters or highly sexualized female characters. For those of you reading this that have yet to play Candy Crush, the Mail report provided a good description of the game:

“The rules of Candy Crush are indeed simple. Players move a variety of brightly coloured sweets – or candies – around a grid and line up at least three of the same sweet in a row. Every time a row is completed, the line explodes, making way for more sweets to drop in. With more than 400 different stages, each more difficult than the last, and more being added all the time, players never need run out of challenges. As a so-called ‘freemium’ product, basic access to the game is free, but users must pay for ‘premium’ services. Players aren’t charged to advance through the first 35 levels but after that, it costs 69p for another 20 levels, although it is possible to avoid paying by asking your Facebook friends to send you extra lives. However, the cost can rise as players are encouraged to buy ‘boosters’ such as virtual ‘candy hammers’ for around £1”.

In typical tabloid style, the Mail article had interviewed a number of women that were used as examples to demonstrate the existence of Candy Crush ‘addiction’. For instance, Lucy Berkley, a 44-year old company director from Ashford in Kent told of how she came into her office on a Monday morning with severe back pain. All of her work colleagues could clearly see she was in much discomfort. The cause of her back pain was Candy Crush that she had played for ten hours over the weekend hunched over her iPad. She claimed I couldn’t help it, it was so addictive. The extraordinary thing was that almost everyone else in the room admitted they too were addicted. Now we’re all competing”. Another woman, Steph, a mother-of-one interviewed for the Mail article said:

“I’m thinking about it all the time. I call it “crack candy” because I imagine giving up is like trying to break a crack habit. I hadn’t heard of it until I saw that many friends – all intelligent, creative women – were playing it on Facebook. I’ve never played any other game on my phone. But I don’t like going a day without my ‘fix’. I play it whenever I have a free moment. In the morning I play on my commute and when I look around the train, nearly every other person seems to be doing the same. I’ll have a sneaky game or two at lunchtime. When I get home, I’ll leave the ironing or the housework and have half an hour – or more – on the iPad. [At the weekend when] I’ve got up and read the papers, I’ll start playing and that’s me sorted for the next three to four hours. In fact, I only usually stop when my iPad runs out of battery. My boyfriend thinks I’m mad. My son Ben, who is at boarding school, can’t understand my obsession. I’ve been known to meet him off a train and rather than give him a hug I’ve said ‘Just a minute Ben, I’m just getting on to the next level!”

She then went on to say:

“Over the past four months I’ve probably spent around £150 playing it. But it’s worth it…I’m thinking about it all the time. I wake up and the first thing I do is pick up my phone to have a game, then I’ll be playing if I get a spare second before work. I play it on my walk from the car to the office. When I come home, I play it while I’m cooking the evening meal or watching TV. [My partner] Martin thinks I’m bonkers. When the lights go out and we’re in bed he’ll say: ‘I know you’re playing it because I can see the light from your phone’ so I have to play it under the covers. My son asks: “Why are you playing that game again Mum?’ It’s as if our roles have been reversed. It’s taking over my life. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop”.

Although none of the cases covered in the piece appear to be genuinely addicted by the criteria I use to assess addiction, that doesn’t mean the cases are uninteresting psychologically or that games like Candy Crush are totally innocuous. I have noted in a number of my more general writings about games played via social networking sites that ‘freemium’ games are psychological ‘foot-in-the-door’ techniques that lead a small minority of people to pay for games and/or game accessories that they may never have originally planned to buy before playing the game (akin to ‘impulse buying’ in other commercial environments. I’ve also argued that many of the games played on social network sites share similarities with gambling. As I noted in my interview with the Mail:

‘On first look, games like Candy Crush may not seem to have much connection to gambling, but the psychology is very similar. Even when games do not involve money, they introduce players to the principles and excitement of gambling. Small unpredictable rewards lead to highly engaged, repetitive behaviour. In a minority, this may lead to addiction”

Basically, people keep responding in the absence of reinforcement hoping that another reward is just around the corner (a psychological principle rooted in operant conditioning and called the partial reinforcement extinction effect – something that is used to great effect in both slot machines and most video games). Another woman interviewed for the Mail story (Jenni Weaver, a 40-year-old mum of four from Bridlington) is worried that she’s addicted to Candy Crush (and based on her interview quotes, she certainly appears to display some signs of bona fide addictive behaviour) She told the Mail that her Candy Crush addiction was beginning to affect family life:

‘I’m playing it for eight hours a day now and it’s become a real problem. My daughter told me about it. I was hooked straight away. The longest I’ve played for is 12 hours with just a few short breaks in between. It’s worse than smoking…Housework has gone to pot. I’ve even been late picking my ten-year-old up from school because I’ve been stuck on a level. I’ve burnt countless dinners and let vegetables boil dry because I’ve been engrossed. I’m trying to limit myself, but I can still spend eight hours a day playing it. It’s ridiculous.’

Earlier this year, I was interviewed at length by Mike Rose (for Gamasutra, the online magazine about gaming issues), who wrote a really good set of articles about free-to-play games. In one of Rose’s articles I argued that even in games where no money is changing hands, players are learning the mechanics of gambling and that there are serious questions about whether gambling with virtual money encourages positive attitudes towards gambling. As I have noted in a number of my recent articles, the introduction of in-game virtual goods and accessories (that people pay real money for) was a psychological masterstroke. It becomes more akin to gambling, as social gamers know that they are spending money as they play with little or no financial return. The real difference between pure gambling games and some free-to-play games is the fact that gambling games allow you to win your money back, adding an extra dimension that can potentially drive revenues even further. The lines between social free-to-play games and gambling is beginning to blur, bringing along with them various moral, ethical, legal, and social issues. The psychosocial impact of free-to-play games is only just beginning to be investigated by people in the field of gaming studies. Empirically, we know almost nothing about the psychosocial impact of gambling or gaming via social networking sites, although research suggests the playing of free games among adolescents is one of the risk factors for both the uptake of real gambling and problem gambling.

Postscript: Following the Daily Mail story I was also interviewed at length for a story that appeared in Yahoo! News – you can read my in-depth comments here.

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

Further reading

Foster, J. (2013). How women blow £400,000 a day playing Candy Crush, the most addictive online game ever. Daily Mail, October 17. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2463636/How-women-blow-400-000-day-playing-Candy-Crush-addictive-online-game-ever.html

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online gambling, social responsibility and ‘foot-in-the-door techniques. i-Gaming Business, 62, 100-101.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gaming in social networking sites: A growing concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(5), 12-13.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The psychology of social gaming. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, August/September, 26-27.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Social gambling via Facebook: Further observations and concerns. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 17, 104-106.

Hall, C. (2013). Just how addictive are mobile games? Yahoo! News, October 18. Located at: http://uk.news.yahoo.com/how-addictive-are-mobile-games–143654713.html#P1M3U7a

Lagorio-Chaflkin, C. (2013). Candy Crush Saga’s intoxicating secret source. Inc.com, July 25. Located at: http://www.inc.com/christine-lagorio/candy-crush-secret-sauce.html

Pressman, A. (2013). Candy Crush: Insanely addictive today, but likely on borrowed time. The Exchange, July 11. Located at: http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/the-exchange/candy-crush-insanely-addictive-today-likely-borrowed-time-171103788.html

Rose, M. (2013). Chasing the Whales: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games. Gamasutra, July 9. Located at: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/195806/chasing_the_whale_examining_the_.php?page=7