Literature reviews carried out by myself and others in the gambling studies field have concluded that electronic gaming machines (EGMs such as slot machines, pokie machines, video lottery terminals [VLTs], etc.) tend to have a higher association with problem gambling than other forms of gambling. Although any form of gambling can be potentially problematic, there is surprisingly little in the academically peer-reviewed gambling literature showing that horse race betting has a high association with problem gambling, particularly in comparison to activities such as EGM gambling.
Along with individual susceptibility and risk factors of the individual gambler, the most important determinants in the development and maintenance of problem gambling are structural characteristics, particularly those relating to the speed and frequency of the game (and more specifically event frequency, bet frequency, event duration and payout interval). More specifically, I have argued that researchers in the gambling studies field need to think about game parameters rather than specific game type when it comes to any association with problem and pathological gambling and that event frequency is the single most important determinant.
A study by Dr. Debi LaPlante and colleagues in the European Journal of Public Health examining types of gambling and level of gambling involvement (using data from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey of which I was one of the co-authors) indicated that when level of gambling is accounted, no specific type of gambling was associated anymore with disordered gambling, and that level of involvement in gambling better characterizes problem gambling than individual forms of gambling. In fact, this paper also concluded that:
“Two games, private betting and betting on horses, had a reversal of association. After controlling for involvement, individuals who engaged in private betting or betting on horses were significantly less likely to have gambling-related problems than people who did not…One interesting, and perhaps unanticipated, finding was that the nature of the relationships between private betting and betting on horses and gambling problems changed when we considered the influence of involvement: engaging in these types of gambling, but not other types, seemed to protect players against developing gambling problems. This finding suggests that the apparent risk between gambling activities and developing gambling-related problems resides, perhaps primarily or even entirely, among individuals who have high rates of involvement. For others who do not have high rates of involvement, playing these types of games might reflect social setting characteristics (e.g. norms) that encourage control and preclude excessive gambling”.
Similar results were also found in an Australian study by Dr. James Phillips and his colleagues in a 2013 issues of the Journal of Gambling Studies. A 2009 study by Dr. Thomas Holtgraves in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors analysed all data from population-based surveys conducted in Canada between 2001 and 2005 comprising 21,374 participants (including 12,229 who had gambled in the past year). Using the Problem Gambling Severity Index to assess problem gambling, the study found that horse race gamblers had the lowest prevalence rates of problem gambling along with those that played bingo and bought raffle tickets (3%). Some types of gambling activity such as sports betting (25%) and playing video lottery terminals (18%) were much higher.
The most recent British Gambling Prevalence Survey [BGPS] published in 2011 reported that the most popular British gambling activity was playing the National Lottery (59%), a slight increase in participation from 2007 (57%). The prevalence of past-year betting on horse races was 16%. Among past year gamblers, problem gambling prevalence rates were highest among those who had played poker at a pub/club (12.8%), online slot machine games (9.1%) and fixed odds betting terminals (8.8%). The lowest problem gambling rates were among those that played the National Lottery (1.3%) and scratchcards (2.5%). Horse race gamblers also had one of the lower prevalence rates for problem gambling (2.7%). However, problem gamblers also gamble on many different activities and problem gambling prevalence was highest among those that gambled on nine or more different activities on a regular basis (28%).
More recently in 2014, Carla Seabury and Heather Wardle published an overview of gambling behaviour in England and Scotland by combining the data from the Health Survey for England and Scottish Health Survey (n=11,774 participants). It was reported that two-thirds of the sample (65%) had gambled in the past year, with men (68%) gambling more than women (62%). The findings were similar to the previous BGPS reports and showed that in terms of past-year gambling, the most popular forms of gambling were playing the National Lottery (52%; 56% males and 49% females) and scratchcards (19%; 19% males and 20% females). One in ten people (10%) had a engaged in horse race betting (12% males and 8% females).
Again, problem gambling rates were also examined by type of gambling activity. Results showed that among past year gamblers, problem gambling was highest among spread betting (20.9%), playing poker in pubs or clubs (13.2%), bet on events other than horse racing with a bookmaker (12.9%), gambling at a betting exchange (10.6%) and playing machines in bookmakers (7.2%). The activities with the lowest rates of problem gambling were playing the National Lottery (0.9%) and scratchcards (1.7%). Problem gambling among horse race gamblers were also among the lowest (2.3%). Problem gambling rates were highest among individuals that had participated in seven or more activities in the past year (8.6%) and lowest among those that had participated in a single activity (0.1%).
Along with Filipa Calado, I recently co-authored two reviews of problem gambling worldwide (one on adult gambling and one of adolescent gambling). None of the studies we reviewed highlighted horse racing to be of particular concern in relation to problem gambling and only two countries (France and Sweden) was horse race betting one of the most preferred and prevalent forms of gambling. Analysis of a 2011 French national prevalence survey by Dr. Jean-Michel Costes reported that horse race betting was fourth in a list of six gambling activities that were most associated with problem gambling (with Rapido [a high event frequency lottery game], sports betting, and poker being the most problematic gambling forms). There is also evidence from gambling treatment service providers that horse race betting is much less of an issue than other forms of gambling. In Finland, the national helpline for problem gamblers, [Peluuri] only 1% of the telephone calls received concern horse betting. In Germany, two studies surveying therapists that treat problem gambling found that the vast majority of treatment was for slot machine gamblers (approximately 75%-80% of clients) whereas treatment for horse race gamblers was 0.6%-1.7% of clients. Unfortunately, the UK problem gambling helpline run by GamCare does not separate horse race betting from any other sports betting in its’ annual helpline statistics. The most recent (2016) GamCare report noted that 11% of their callers concerned betting in a bookmaker’s but this figure included all betting not just horse race betting.
In 2008, I was invited to write a report for the Gambling Commission and reported that internationally, the vast majority of problem gamblers that contact helplines or seek treatment report machine gambling as their primary form of gambling. In Europe many countries report that it is problem EGM gamblers that are most likely to seek treatment and/or contact national gambling helplines (rather than other forms of gambling including horse race betting) including 60% of gamblers seeking help in Belgium, 72% in Denmark, 93% in Estonia, 66% in Finland, 49.5% in France, 83% in Germany, 75% in Spain, and 35% in Sweden.
All data collected in Great Britain and elsewhere in the world demonstrate that horse race betting has a relatively low past-year participation rate. All major literature reviews have concluded that electronic gaming machines tend to have a higher association with problem gambling than other forms of gambling including horse race betting. Although no form of gambling is immune from problem gambling, horse race betting has one of the lowest associations with problem gambling. Furthermore, some analysis of the most recent BGPS data has demonstrated that after controlling for gambling involvement, individuals who engage in horse race betting are significantly less likely to have gambling-related problems than people who did not.
For the vast majority of horse gamblers, the activity is a discontinuous form of gambling in that they make one or a few bets in a small time period but then not bet again for days or weeks. Therefore, the event frequencies for betting on horse racing are much lower than other gambling activities and helps explain why there is a low association with problem gambling compared to activities that have much higher event frequencies (e.g., slot machines, roulette, blackjack, etc.).
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Abbott, M.W. (2007). Situational factors that affect gambling behavior. In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies. pp.251-278. New York: Elsevier.
Calado, F., Alexandre, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Prevalence of adolescent problem gambling: A systematic review of recent research. Journal of Gambling Studies. doi: 10.1007/s10899-016-9627-5
Calado, F. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Problem gambling worldwide: An update of empirical research (2000-2015). Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5, 592–613.
Costes, J. M., Pousset, M., Eroukmanoff, V., Le Nezet, O., Richard, J. B., Guignard, R., … & Arwidson, P. (2011). Les niveaux et pratiques des jeux de hasard et d’argent en 2010. Tendances, 77(1), 8
Costes, J. M, Eroukmanoff V., Richard, J.B, Tovar, M. L. (2015). Les jeux de hasard et d’argent en France en 2014. Les Notes de l’Observatoire des Jeux, 6, 1-9.
Delfabbro, P.H., King, D.L & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Behavioural profiling of problem gamblers: A critical review. International Gambling Studies, 12, 349-366.
EMPA Pari Mutuel Europe (2012). Common Position On Responsible Gambling. Brussels: EMPA.
GamCare (2016). Annual Statistics 2015/2016. London: GamCare.
Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Betting your life on it: Problem gambling has clear health related consequences. British Medical Journal, 329, 1055-1056.
Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Gambling Addiction and its Treatment Within the NHS. London: British Medical Association.
Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Impact of high stake, high prize gaming machines on problem gaming. Birmingham: Gambling Commission.
Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Problem gambling and gambling addiction are not the same. Journal of Addiction and Dependence, 2(1), 1-3.
Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2013). The irrelevancy of game-type in the acquisition, development and maintenance of problem gambling. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 621. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00621.
Holtgraves, T. (2009). Gambling, gambling activities, and problem gambling. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 23(2), 295-302.
LaPlante, D.A., Nelson, S.E., LaBrie, R.A., & Shaffer, H.J. (2009). Disordered gambling, type of gambling and gambling involvement in the British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2007. The European Journal of Public Health, 21, 532–537
Meyer, G., Hayer, T. & Griffiths, M.D. (Eds.), Problem Gaming in Europe: Challenges, Prevention, and Interventions. New York: Springer.
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.
Phillips, J.G., Ogeil, R., Chow, Y.W., & Blaszczynski, A. (2013). Gambling involvement and increased risk of gambling problems. Journal of Gambling Studies, 29(4), 601-611.
Seabury, C. & Wardle, H. (2014). Gambling behaviour in England and Scotland. Birmingham: Gambling Commission.
Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.
Wardle, H., Moody. A., Spence, S., Orford, J., Volberg, R., Jotangia, D., Griffiths, M.D., Hussey, D. & Dobbie, F. (2011). British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. London: The Stationery Office.
Wardle, H., Sproston, K., Orford, J., Erens, B., Griffiths, M. D., Constantine, R., & Pigott, S. (2007). The British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2007. London: National Centre for Social Research.
Over the past year I have been carrying out research with my Spanish colleague – Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez – into problematic sports betting and sports betting advertising which has already produced a number of papers (see ‘Further reading’ below) and with many more to come. One of the issues we have faced in contextualising our work is that there is no such concept as sport-related problem gambling in prevalence surveys because problem gambling is assessed on the totality of gambling experiences rather than a single activity. For instance, in the three British Gambling Prevalence Surveys (BGPSs) conducted since 1999, sport-related gambling is subsumed within a number of different gambling forms: ‘football pools and fixed odds coupons’, ‘private betting’, and ‘other events with a bookmaker’. The 2010 BGPS (which I co-authored) included ‘sports betting’ as a category, along with ‘football pools’ (no coupons), ‘private betting’, ‘spread betting’ (which can include both sports or financial trading). In addition, the 2010 BGPS added a new category under online gambling activities to include ‘any online betting’. More recently, the Health Survey for England also introduced a new category: ‘gambling on sports events (not online)’.
Despite these limitations, some evidence can be inferred from gambling activity by gambling type. In 2014, Heather Wardle and her colleagues combined the gambling data from the Health Survey for England and the Scottish Health Survey. They reported that among adult males aged 16 years and over during a 12-month period, 5% participated in offline football pools, 8% engaged in online betting (although no indication was made about whether this only involved sport), and 8% engaged in sports events (not online). The categories were not mutually exclusive so an overlapping of respondents across categories was very likely. A similar rate was found in South Australia in a 2013 report the Social Research Centre with those betting on sports over the past year accounting for 6.1% of the adult population, an increase from the 4.2% reported in 2005.
In Spain, the Spanish Gambling Commission (Direccion General de Ordenacion del Juego [DGOJ] reported that 1.5% of the adult (male and female) population had gambled online on sports in 2015. This is a significantly lower proportion compared with the British data, although the methodological variations cannot be underestimated. Spanish data also shows that, among those who have gambled online on a single gambling type only, betting on sports is the more prevalent form with up to 66% of those adults.
In France, the data on the topic only focuses on those who gamble rather than examining the general population of gamblers and non-gamblers. Among online gamblers, Dr. Jean-Michel Costes and colleagues reported in a 2011 issue of the journal Tendances that 35.1% had bet on sports during the last 12 months. In another French study by Costes and colleagues published in a 2016 issue of the Journal of Gambling Studies, sports betting represented 16.4% of the gambling cohort, although again, the representativeness of sports betting behaviour among the general gambling and non-gambling population could not be determined.
Due to the aforementioned shortcomings in the definition of sport-related gambling, there is only fragmented empirical evidence concerning the impact of sports-related problem gambling behaviour. For instance, in 2014, Dr. Nerilee Hing noted that clinical reports indicate that treatment seeking for sports-related problem gambling had grown in Australia. In British Columbia (Canada), a 2014 survey by Malatests & Associates for the Ministry of Finance reported that 23.6% of at-risk or problem gamblers had gambled on sports either offline or online. A smaller proportion (16.2%) was found in the Spanish population screened in the national gambling DGOJ survey, except this subgroup was entirely composed of online bettors.
In a 2011 study published in International Gambling Studies with patients from a pathological gambling unit within a community hospital in Barcelona, Dr. Susana Jiménez-Murcia and her colleagues found that among those who had developed the disorder gambling online only (as opposed to those who gamble both online/offline or offline only), just over half (50.8%) were sport bettors. Those who gambled online only (on any activity) and those that only gambled online on sports events represented a small minority of the total number of problem gamblers. Overall, there is relatively little research on this sub-group of gamblers therefore I and others will be monitoring the evolution of this trend as the online gambling population grows.
(Note: This blog was co-written with input from Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez).
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Costes, J-M, Kairouz, S., Eroukmanoff, V., et al. (2016) Gambling patterns and problems of gamblers on licensed and unlicensed sites in France. Journal of Gambling Studies 32(1), 79–91.
Costes, J., Pousset, M., Eroukmanoff, V., et al. (2010). Gambling prevalence and practices in France in 2010. Tendances, 77, 1–8.
DGOJ (2016a) Análisis del perfil del jugador online. Madrid: Ministerio de Hacienda y Administraciones Públicas.
DGOJ (2016b) Estudio sobre prevalencia, comportamiento y características de los usuarios de juegos de azar en España 2015. Madrid: Ministerio de Hacienda y Administraciones Públicas.
Hing, N. (2014) Sports betting and advertising (AGRC Discussion Paper No. 4). Melbourne: Australian Gambling Research Centre.
Jiménez-Murcia S, Stinchfield R, Fernández-Aranda F, et al. (2011) Are online pathological gamblers different from non-online pathological gamblers on demographics, gambling problem severity, psychopathology and personality characteristics? International Gambling Studies 11(3), 325–337.
Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Estevez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Marketing and advertising online sports betting: A problem gambling perspective. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, in press.
Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Is European online gambling regulation adequately addressing in-play betting advertising? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 20, 495-503.
Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Understanding the convergence of online sports betting markets. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, in press.
Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). ‘Cashing out’ in sports betting: Implications for problem gambling and regulation. Gaming Law Review and Economics, in press.
Malatests & Associates Ltd (2014). 2014 British Columbia Problem Gambling Prevalence Study. Victoria, Canada: Gaming policy and enforcement branch, Ministry of Finance.
The Social Research Centre (2013) Gambling prevalence in South Australia. Adelaide, Australia: Office for problem gambling. Available from: http://phys.org/news/2012-03-lung-doctors-respiratory-diseases-worsen.html.
Wardle, H., Moody. A., Spence, S., Orford, J., Volberg, R., Jotangia, D., Griffiths, M.D., Hussey, D. & Dobbie, F. (2011). British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. London: The Stationery Office.
Wardle H, Seabury C, Ahmed H, et al. (2014) Gambling behaviour in England & Scotland. Findings from the health survey for England 2012 and Scottish health survey 2012. London: NatCen Social Research.
Wardle, H., Sproston, K., Orford, J., Erens, B., Griffiths, M.D., Constantine, R. & Pigott, S. (2007). The British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2007. London: The Stationery Office.
Fantasy sports games have been popular for many years and involves individuals assuming the role of a professional sports team manager (typically football) and assembling a virtual team of sportsmen to compete against other players within a private or public league. For decades, the game was played out across the whole season with the winners being those that had accumulated the most points (with the points gained being based on the real-life statistics of individual sportsmen using a predetermined scoring system).
However, fantasy sports have changed dramatically over the last few years. Although the game can still be played over a whole season, the playing of daily fantasy sports (DFS) has become increasing popular (particularly in countries such as the USA, Canada, and Australia) and can operate over much shorter time periods. In DFS, players can pay to play and this has led to the blurring of lines of whether the activity is a game or whether it is gambling. As Dr. Dylan Pickering and his colleagues noted in a 2016 issue of Current Addiction Reports:
“Daily fantasy sports (DFS) is the most recent and controversial of FS games…It is an accelerated version of FS conducted over much shorter time periods: generally a single game (per day) or weekly round of competition. Users pay entry fees ranging from US 25 cents to US $5000 per league, which is deposited into a prize pool typically paid out to the highest ranked users in the contest. A portion of the entry fees also goes to the operator as commission. Accordingly, DFS, as such, is most associated with wagering. Currently, the US DFS market is dominated by ‘FanDuel’ and ‘DraftKings’ (combined with about 95 % of the market)”.
According to figures in the same paper, in the USA, the fantasy sports (FS) market is currently estimated to be between $3 billion and $4 billion. In 2015, approximately 57 million Americans played FS. Research suggests that the prevalence rates are higher in North America than elsewhere with 19% of Canadian adults and 16% of American adults engaging in FS compared to 10% of British adults and 6% of Australian adults (Pickering et al., 2016). However, these figures relate to FS rather than DFS and many FS players do not pay money to participate in the game and simply play for fun. Some research by Dr. Joris Drayer and colleagues in a 2013 issue of the European Sport Management Quarterly also suggests that those who engage in playing DFS do not typically engage in other forms of gambling. Furthermore, in a 2011 issue of Journal of Sport Management, Dr. Brendan Dwyer and Dr. Yongjae Kim reported that compared to more traditional forms of gambling, the elements of fun, excitement, competition play a bigger role than winning money in the playing of DFS games.
A study carried out by Dr. Ryan Martin and Dr. Sarah Nelson published in a 2014 issue of Addictive Behaviors found that college students who were FS users (free and fee-based) were five times more likely to incur gambling problems than non-FS users, and students who played FS for money had significantly higher rates of gambling problems than those who played in free leagues. A more recent 2016 study by Loredana Marchica and Dr. Jeff Derevensky in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction examined data from national surveys of collegiate athletes and reported a steady rise in FS participation among college students between 2004 and 2012. They reported that approximately half of the male and a quarter of the female college athletes who qualified as at-risk or problem gamblers also reported wagering on FS.
There has been much debate (particularly by US legislators) as to whether playing DFS for money is classed as a legitimate form of gambling. If gambling is defined as “an agreement between two or more parties to deliberately stake something of value (typically money) with intent to profit on the outcome of an event that is determined wholly, or partially by chance” (by Pickering and colleagues), then DFS could well be a form of gambling as they argue:
“DFS can be construed as representing a form of gambling: (a) DFS includes an agreement between an individual and others, (b) money is staked on the relative performances of athletes across a certain number of sporting events with the outcome determined by both chance and skill, and (c) chance is involved given that multiple unknown factors can influence outcomes. In this regard, similarities are found in horse and sports wagering where some skill in selecting horse/sports outcomes is present, but unpredictable variables influence results (i.e., chance)…Literature from the legal field asserts that gambling must contain three elements: (a) consideration (staking something of value in order to participate), (b) chance (luck is a substantial factor in determining results), and (c) prizes (cash, merchandise, services, or points) are redeemable…While the first and third elements are clearly present in DFS, the second element, chance, is the source of current disagreement”.
The US legislation on gambling rests on whether an activity is more skill than chance determined. If DFS is predominantly a game of skill it is not deemed to be a form of gambling. The DFS operators claim that DFS games are not gambling because of the “substantial” amount of skill involved in the selection and management of FS teams. But is this any different for the professional gambler who bets on horse racing given the many factors that the person gambling has to take into account (the form of the horse, the skill of the jockey, the weather conditions, the state of the track, the number of other horses involved in the race, etc.). Similarly, poker and blackjack are both games that players can win big if they are skilful. Personally, I believe that playing DFS games for money is definitely a form of gambling, and even if it isn’t legally classed as a form of gambling, the games contain structural elements (including high event frequencies, low entry fee per game, lots of games, etc.) that can facilitate excessive use and expose vulnerable players to harm. DFS operators also allow team line-ups from a previous sporting event to populate other events which increases the speed of play, another factor that can facilitate habitual use. Furthermore, as Dr. Samantha Thomas and her colleagues argued in a recent 2015 report, the enhanced participatory role that fantasy games introduce could facilitate the illusion of control as they perform actions, making bettors overestimate the importance of skills and knowledge for the outcome of the competitions.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Drayer, J., Dwyer, B., & Shapiro, S. L. (2013). Examining the impact of league entry fees on online fantasy sport participation and league consumption. European Sport Management Quarterly, 13(3), 339-335.
Dwyer, B., & Kim, Y. (2011). For love or money: Developing and validating a motivational scale for fantasy football participation. Journal of Sport Management, 25(1), 70-83.
Marchica, L., & Derevensky, J. (2016). Fantasy sports: A growing concern among college student-athletes. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1-15. Epub ahead of print.
Martin, R. J., & Nelson, S. (2014). Fantasy sports, real money: Exploration of the relationship between fantasy sports participation and gambling-related problems. Addictive Behaviors, 39(10), 1377-138.
Pickering, D., Blaszczynski, A., Hartmann, M., & Keen, B. (2016). Fantasy sports: Skill, gambling, or are these irrelevant issues? Current Addiction Reports, 3(3), 307-313.
Thomas, S., Bestman, A., Pitt, H., Deans, E., Randle, M., Stoneham, M., & Daube, M. (2015). The marketing of wagering on social media: An analysis of promotional content on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Victoria, Australia: Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation.
My favourite TV detective has always been Columbo (played by Peter Falk). I have watched every single one of the 69 episodes (as my family will attest) many times. While I am working, I will often have Columbo on in the background in the way that other people have music on in the background (although I do the latter as well). For those reading this that have not come across Columbo, here is a brief synopsis from Wikiquote:
“Columbo (1968, 1971-1978, 1989-2003) was an American crime fiction television show about Lieutenant Columbo, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. He uses his deferential and absent-minded persona to lull criminal suspects into a false sense of security, by harassing and pestering suspects non-stop – without letting them know that they’re suspects – under the pretense that he’s simply being a pesky detective, in order to spy on them and agitate them into giving up clues”.
I have asked myself many times why I love the iconic show so much and it’s hard to put my finger on any single reason. One of the things I love about the show is that almost all the episodes are a ‘reverse whodunit’ (often referred to as an ‘open mystery’) in which the viewer knows the identity of the murderer(s) and we watch to see how Lt. Columbo uncovers who the killer or killers are. (I say “almost all” because there are actually a few episodes that are more typical ‘whodunits’ such as 1976’s ‘Last Salute To The Commodore’, 1992’s ‘No Time To Die’ [involving a kidnapping rather than a murder] and 1994’s ‘Undercover’). Another aspect I love is the inherent contradictions in Lt. Columbo’s day-to-day behaviour. His dishevelled clothing (the infamous beaten-up raincoat), his apparently bumbling absent-minded nature, and his habit of going off-topic in conversations, but knowing that he is actually one of the most astute and clever detectives that you are ever likely to meet (he would no-doubt fit the description of the stereotypical ‘absent-minded professor’). As a psychologist I find him fascinating. As an article about Columbo on the Cult TV Lounge rightly notes:
“The emphasis is on the psychological duel between detective and suspect, with (mercifully) no interest in social commentary and few concessions to the ‘realism’ that would become more and more of a fetish in TV cop shows during the course of the 70s. This is pure entertainment and it’s all the better for it”.
And finally, it is Lt. Columbo’s brilliant trademark ‘false exits’ that wrongfoot all the murderers. After most informal interrogations with the murderer, Columbo leaves the scene, only to return a few seconds later with the opening gambit of “there’s just one more thing” (or a variant of the phrase) only for it to be the most important question that he “forgot to ask”. As an obituary at the In The Dark website on Peter Falk noted:
“The more trivial the “thing” is, the more damning it proves. As an application of psychology, it’s a superb tactic and it slowly but surely grinds down the criminal’s resistance. Often the murderer’s exasperation at Columbo’s relentless badgering leads to rash actions and errors; the second murder, if there is one, is never as carefully planned as the first”.
As the selected (emboldened) quotes above show, psychology is an integral part of Columbo’s appeal. I was also surprised to find that clinical psychologists and forensic psychologists have used Lt. Columbo’s modus operandi in their day-to-day work. (In fact, even some writers claim that if you want to be a better writer you should watch Columbo according to an article by Shahan Mufti in the New York Times; also, a number of marketing gurus claim that Lt. Columbo can teach marketers a thing or two – check out ‘10 things marketeers can learn from Columbo’). For instance, in an article on motivational interviewing (MI) via the Australian Mental Health Academy describe the ‘Columbo approach’:
“Proponents of motivational interviewing owe a debt of gratitude to the 1970s television series Columbo…[Columbo] was a master of the skill of ‘deploying discrepancies’, and MI therapists/practitioners can use the same skill to get clients to help them make sense of their (the clients’) discrepancies. With the Columbo approach, an interviewer makes a curious enquiry about discrepant behaviours without being judgmental or blaming. In a non-confrontational manner, information that is contradictory is juxtaposed, allowing the therapist to address discrepancies between what clients say and their behaviour without evoking defensiveness or resistance. Wherever possible when deploying discrepancies, practitioners are encouraged to end the reflection on the side of change, as clients are more likely to elaborate on the last part of the statements”
The article then goes on to explicitly describe specific MI interventions using the ‘Columbo approach’. Another online article by Greg Lhamon (‘A simple trick to make a powerful last impression’) describes the ‘Columbo Technique’. Here is an abridged version:
“One way in which you can leave someone with a powerful last impression is to use…“the Columbo Technique”…named after the lovable yet shrewd TV detective from the 1970s…He was unassuming and appeared almost absent-minded as he questioned a murder suspect. Yet his seemingly random line of questioning was the process by which he built an airtight case against the suspect. At the conclusion of every interview, he did something unique: he’d thank the suspect profusely, step toward the door, stop, and then turn back, and say, “Oh, just one more thing.” Then he’d ask one last question, a particularly damning question that let the suspect know that Lieutenant Columbo was onto him. Like every form of good communication, sincerity is critical. It cannot be contrived. The goal is simply to make a strong, memorable point, not to manipulate someone. The process is simple: (1) hold back a critical piece of information and reserve it for the end of the meeting, (2) right before you part company, share the information or ask a question, and (3) enjoy the response you receive”.
A 2009 article in the American Bar Association Journal reported that the best way to interrogate a suspect is to ‘Think Columbo’. The advice given was that police should focus on what suspects say rather than their behaviour (such as fidgeting, sweating, and averting eyes during an interview). After reviewing interrogation tapes, Professor Ray Bull, a British forensic psychologist told the Times newspaper that British police use an investigative interviewing technique:
“These interviews sound much more like a chat in a bar. It’s a lot like the old Columbo show, you know, where he pretends to be an idiot but he’s gathered a lot of evidence.”
The ABA article also included comments from American psychologist Kevin Colwell, who said that suspects that lie in police interviews “often prepare a script that doesn’t have much detail”. Colwell recommended using interview techniques where the individual undergoing questioning should talk about the event in question more than once “adding details in retelling the event about things such as sounds and smells” and asking the person “to recall the event in reverse” and that:
“Those who tell the truth tend to add 20% to 30% more external detail than do those who are lying. Those who are adept at lying may start to feel more strain if the interviewer introduces evidence throughout the questioning that has been previously uncovered. Detective Columbo, it turns out, was not just made for TV”.
Another reason I love Columbo because a number of episodes featured psychologists and/or psychiatrists as the killer, most of who used their psychological expertise to carry out an ingenious murder. This included the episodes ‘Prescription Murder’ (1968 – the first ever episode; Dr. Ray Flemming who uses his high intelligence rather than his psychiatric expertise to murder his wife), ‘Double Exposure’ (1973; Dr. Bart Kepple, a consumer psychologist who uses subliminal advertising to lure his victim to be killed), ‘A Deadly State Of Mind’ (1975; Dr. Marcus Collier, a psychiatrist who uses hypnosis to make his victim jump from a high rise apartment), ‘How To Dial A Murder’ (1978; Dr. Eric Mason, a behavioural psychologist who uses classical conditioning to train his dogs to kill his victim), and ‘Sex And The Married Detective’ (1998; Dr. Joan Allenby, a sex therapist who uses her knowledge of psychosexual roleplay to ensnare and kill her lover). In one episode (‘How To Dial A Murder’), Columbo and the psychologist Dr. Eric Mason have an interesting exchange:
Dr. Eric Mason: You’re a fascinating man, Lieutenant. Columbo: To a psychologist, sir? Dr. Eric Mason: You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat happily running around the yard digging holes all up in the garden, only you’re laying a mine field and wagging your tail.
As an ex-Professor of Gambling Studies, another aspect that I have noticed is how many episodes of Columbo feature gamblers and gambling that are often integral to the storyline. Gambling is a key feature in the episodes ‘Double Shock’ (1973; the murderer Norman Paris, a banker, is featured at a Las Vegas casino running up gambling debts), ‘A Friend in Deed’ (1974; the murderer Mark Halperin, a deputy police commissioner, is shown in his opening scene to be a regular casino gambler), ‘Uneasy Lies The Crown’ (1990; the murderer, Dr. Wesley Corman is a dentist and a compulsive gambler), ‘Death Hits The Jackpot’ (1991; photographer and murder victim Freddy Brower wins a $30 million on the lottery and is killed by his uncle Leon Lamarr), ‘A Bird In The Hand’ (1992; would-be murderer Harold McCain, a compulsive gambler tries to murder his millionaire uncle, owner of a US football team), ‘All in The Game’ (1993; murder victim Nick Franco is a playboy and high stakes poker player killed by his lover Laura Staton), and ‘Strange Bedfellows’ (1995; Randy McVeigh the murder victim owes money for gambling debts to the Mafia and is killed by his brother Graham who has ‘inherited’ his brother’s debt).
In another episode (‘Troubled Waters’, 1975), it turns out that the killer (Hayden Danzinger, an autocar executive) is also a regular casino gambler but this only comes to light late in the episode when Lt. Columbo talks to his wife (Sylvia Danzinger). Here we learn that Lt. Columbo thinks about slot machines:
Columbo: You see that fellow over there playing the slot machines? Waste of money. I’ve played it 44 times. I won once right at the beginning and I never won again. Sylvia Danzinger: You can’t beat ‘em. I don’t even try. Columbo: You’re not a gambler? Sylvia Danzinger: No, I prefer more quiet activities. Columbo: That’s funny. I was under the impression you and your husband went to Las Vegas quite a few times. Sylvia Danzinger: Oh, no. Hayden goes often but without me. I wouldn’t be caught dead there.
I’ve often wondered if gambling was an important issue (positive or negative) for Peter Falk in his private life, because when he wasn’t playing Lt. Columbo, it wasn’t unusual for him to be in gambling-related acting roles. Most notably, he played an ageing bookmaker Vinnie in the 1988 film Money Kings (also known under the title Vig, a film about the illegal world of gambling), and the 1988 film Pronto he played Harry Arno, a sports bookmaker who stole money from the local mafia boss Jimmy Capatorto. He also played the poker player Waller in a 1960 episode of Have Gun – Will Travel (‘Poker Fiend‘), and in the 1970 film Husbands he played Archie Black, one of three men undergoing mid-life crises following the death of their friend who then who all go to Europe to gamble, drink, and womanise.
If you’ve got this far, I’ll just leave you with the answers to a couple of my favourite Columbo trivia questions. The most asked question concerning Lt. Columbo (like Inspector Morse) is what was his first name. (When asked the same question in the series itself, Columbo would answer ‘Lieutenant’!). Lt. Columbo never once revealed his first name verbally in the series but did once flash his police badge in an early episode (‘Dead Weight’; Episode 3, Series 1) and accidentally revealed his name was Frank. The second most asked question is how Peter Falk lost his eye. Falk had his eye removed at the age of three years (due to cancer) and had a glass eye for the rest of his life. Although Falk had a glass eye, fans debated for years whether Lt. Columbo had only one eye. The answer was revealed in the 25th anniversary episode (‘A Trace of Murder’) when Lt. Columbo asked the murderer (Patrick Kinsley, a forensic expert) to look at something with him because “three eyes are better than one”!
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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I’ve been working in the area of gambling for nearly 30 years and over the past 15 years I have carrying out research into both online gambling and responsible gambling. As I have outlined in previous blogs, one of the new methods I have been using in my published papers is online behavioural tracking. The chance to carry out innovative research in both areas using a new methodology was highly appealing – especially as I have used so many other methods in my gambling research (including online and offline surveys, experiments in laboratories and ecologically valid settings, offline focus groups, online and offline case study interviews, participant and non-participation observation, secondary analysis of survey data, and analysis of various forms of online data such as those found in online forums and online diary blogs).
Over the last decade there has been a big push by gambling regulators for gambling operators to be more socially responsible towards its clientele and this has led to the use of many different responsible gambling (RG) tools and initiatives such as voluntary self-exclusion schemes (where gamblers can ban themselves from gambling), limit setting (where gamblers can choose how much time and/or money they want to lose while gambling), personalized feedback (where gamblers can get personal feedback and advice based on their actual gambling behaviour) and pop-up messages (where gamblers receive a pop-up message during play that informs them how long they have been playing or how much money that have spent during the session).
However, very little is known about whether these RG tools and initiatives actually work, and most of the research that has been published relies on laboratory methods and self-reports – both of which have problems as reliable methods when it comes to evaluating whether RG tools work. Laboratory experiments typically contain very few participants and are carried out in non-ecologically valid settings, and self-reports are prone to many biases (including social desirability and recall biases). Additionally, the sample sizes are also relatively small (although bigger than experiments).
The datasets to analyse player behaviour are huge and can include hundreds of thousands of online gamblers. Given that my first empirical paper on gambling published in the Journal of Gambling Studies in 1990 was a participant observational analysis of eight slot machine gamblers at one British amusement arcade, it is extraordinary to think that decades later I have access to datasets beyond anything I could have imagined back in the 1980s when I began my research career. The data analysis is carried with my research colleague Michael Auer who has a specific expertise in data mining and we use traditional statistical tests to analyse the data. However, the hardest part is always trying to work out which parameters to use in assessing whether the RG tool worked or not. The kind of data we have includes how much time and money that players are spending on the gambling website, and using that data we can assess to what extent the amount of time and money decreases as a result of using limit setting measures, or receiving personalized feedback or a pop-up message.
One of the biggest problems in doing this type of research in the gambling studies field is getting access to the data in the first place and the associated issue of whether academics should be working with the gambling industry in the first place. The bottom line is that we would never have been able to undertake this kind of innovative research with participant sizes of hundreds of thousands of real gamblers without working in co-operation with the gambling industry. (It should also be noted that the gambling companies in question did not fund the research but provided simply provided access to their databases and customers). In fact, I would go as far as to say the research would have been impossible without gambling industry co-operation. Data access provided by the gambling industry has to be one of the key ways forward if the field is to progress.
Unlike other consumptive and potentially addictive behaviours (smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, etc.), researchers can study real-time gambling (and other potentially addictive behaviours like video gaming and social networking) in a way that just cannot be done in other chemical and behavioural addictions (e.g., sex, exercise, work, etc.) because of online and/or card-based technologies (such as loyalty cards and player cards). There is no equivalent of this is the tobacco or alcohol industry, and is one of the reasons why researchers in the gambling field are beginning to liaise and/or collaborate with gambling operators. As researchers, we should always strive to improve our theories and models and it appears strange to neglect this purely objective information simply because it involves working together with the gambling industry. This is especially important given the recent research by Dr. Julia Braverman and colleagues published in the journal Psychological Assessment using data from gamblers on the bwin website showing that self-recollected information does not match with objective behavioural tracking data.
The great thing about online behavioural tracking data collected from gamblers is that it is totally objective (as it provides a true record of what every gambler does click-by-click), is collected from real world gambling websites (so is ecologically valid), and has large sample sizes (typically tens of thousands of online gamblers). There of course some disadvantages, the main ones being that the sample is unrepresentative of all online gamblers (as the data only comes from gamblers at one website) and nothing is known about the person’s gambling activity at other websites (research has shown that online gamblers typically gamble at a number of different websites and not just one). Despite these limitations, the analysis of behavioural tracking data (so-called ‘big data’) is a reliable and cutting-edge way to assess and evaluate online gambling behaviour and to assess whether RG tools actually work in real world gambling settings with real online gamblers in real time.
To get access to such data you have to cultivate a trusting relationship with the data providers. It took me years to build up trust with the gambling industry because researchers who study problem gambling are often perceived by the gambling industry to be ‘anti-gambling’ but in my case this wasn’t true. I am ‘pro-responsible gambling’ and gamble myself so it would be hypocritical to be anti-gambling. My main aim in my gambling research is to protect players and minimise harm. Problem gambling will never be totally eliminated but it can be minimised. If gambling companies share the same aim and philosophy of not wanting to make money from problem gamblers but to make money from non-problem gamblers, then I would be prepared to help and collaborate.
You also need to be thick-skinned. If you are analysing any behavioural tracking data provided by the gambling industry, then you need to be prepared for others in the field criticizing you for working in collaboration with the industry. Although none of this research is funded by the industry, the fact that you are collaborating is enough for some people to accuse you of not being independent and/or being in the pockets of the gambling industry. Neither of these are true but it won’t stop the criticism. Nor will it stop me from carrying on researching in this area using datasets provided by the gambling industry.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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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.
Auer, M., Schneeberger, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Theoretical loss and gambling intensity: A simulation study. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 16, 269-273.
Braverman, J., Tom, M., & Shaffer, H. J. (2014). Accuracy of self-reported versus actual online gambling wins and losses. Psychological Assessment, 26, 865-877.
Griffiths, M.D. (1990). Addiction to fruit machines: A preliminary study among males. Journal of Gambling Studies, 6, 113-126.
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