Gambling is an activity that is enjoyed all over the world since before recorded history. It can be a fun and enjoyable activity that many partake in without issue. But it can also lead to addiction if not managed carefully. Studying the psychology of addiction can help us better understand how addiction comes about in different people and how best to prevent gambling addiction before it begins.
In an effort to better understand the psychology of gambling we spoke with Mark Griffiths, Professor at Nottingham Trent University and Chartered Psychologist focusing in the field of behavioural addictions. During this in-depth conversation we explore the way in which addiction presents itself, the best course of action in promoting safer gambling, and the way in which psychology affects courses of treatment.
OB: How does addiction present itself? Is addiction a matter of nature or nurture?
Mark Griffiths: Addiction as a behaviour is incredibly complex and there are many different pathways into addiction. Three people might be displaying a gambling addiction but the reasons how and why they’ve ended up with this addiction might be completely different in all three of those cases.
There are three competing factors as to why someone may end up with any addiction. Those are the individual factors, those are the things that are within you yourself. There are situational factors, those which are in the environment, and there are structural factors, which are within the activity itself. So, in the example of gambling, on an individual level there might be some people with a biological or genetic predisposition. There will be some who on a psychological level are more predisposed based on their personality, attitudes, expectations, and beliefs. And you also have to take into account the environment they were brought up in, if both your parents were gamblers, neither were gamblers etc. These are all things that, on an individual level, will impact whether someone has a predisposition to addiction.
When it comes to structural factors, I’ve never met someone addicted to the National Lottery because there’s only two chances a week to get a result, whereas with slot games there’s the opportunity for a result 10 times a minute. What we call the event frequency has a huge bearing on whether someone might develop a problem or addiction. But that’s just one structural characteristic, there are up to 70 structural characteristics within gambling, it just happens that event frequency is the single most important one when it comes to problem gambling.
Then there are situational factors, of which there are two types. There are what we call the macro-situational factors like advertising, marketing, distribution of products in an area etc. Then you’ve got the micro-situational factors outside of the gambling environment, which is everything from lights to colours, whether there is music, alcohol, or a cash machine available.
Those three sets of characteristics, even within an individual, all play an enhancing role in whether you develop an addiction. So, anybody that ends up addicted to anything, it will be a mix of all of these competing and contributing factors. It is clear that there are many factors that underpin addiction and those factors are going to be very different across almost every single person.
OB: Given there are so many factors that can lead to addiction how can we effectively promote safer gambling and help prevent addiction?
Mark Griffiths: That has got to be done at lots of different levels. Obviously prevention is better than cure, but currently there isn’t enough education about gambling. Nowadays, schools are introducing talks about video games and social media, but education on gambling and its potentially harmful effects is still lacking. Then of course, it’s down to families to parent responsibly and make sure that they are educating their children too.
Then at a societal level, governments, policy makers, regulators, their job is to maximum fun for players enjoying the activity and minimise harm for those who have a problematic relationship with the activity. So you need good, strong regulation that is based on good research.
I work with gambling companies to help minimise the harm for players. Online now there are so many things we can do to protect players. If you make it mandatory for people to set money and time limits on the site, if you provide the option to exclude at lots of different levels, whether it be a day, week, month, or year, and if you use technology to produce personalised messaging based on an individual's gambling habits, you can harness technology to the players benefit.
Now, we can have access to every click stroke that a gambler does online. This helps with our research too, it is better data than surveys. This can help figure out to what extent personalised messaging, self-exclusion, mandatory breaks etc are effective. So, there are loads of things that can be done at prevention level and intervention level and you obviously want to be doing everything that stops gamblers from developing problems. Once a problem is developed it’s in the hands of psychologists and psychiatrists to help treat the problem.
OB: In your opinion is there ever a point when an addict is ‘cured,’ or is it a matter of always managing addiction?
Mark Griffiths: Unfortunately, that will come down to the individual. For some abstinence is going to be the only option, whereas in others, the relationship with whatever the individual is addicted to can return to a normal, controlled state. It’s the same when it comes to work addiction or exercise addiction. If you’re any type of addict, whether it be alcohol or gambling, if you have previously experienced long periods of being able to be in control of that behaviour, there is a good likelihood that, given you have worked on the underlying issues that led to your addiction, you will be able to interact with that activity again in a controlled manner because your reason for that problematic behaviour is not there anymore.
The other good news is that most addictions mature out over time. Most ‘traditional’ addictions peak between 16-25, while others might be at a later stage in life. But most addictions, such as gambling, mature out over time. There is also spontaneous remission, where people give up on the addiction overnight. There might be a catalyst like getting a job, partner, or leaving a relationship that will cause the individual to spontaneously remit and let go of the addiction. But of course this won’t happen for everyone and it will take a lot of intervention, treatment, and support to get through the addiction.
When it comes to treatment as well, there isn’t any which one that is the most effective because a lot of treatment comes down to a belief system. If you really want to stop and believe that treatment will be effective it is more likely to work. Even though CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) has become the go-to treatment, it is highly unlikely that you will be only receiving CBT. The individual is likely attending Gambler’s Anonymous meetings, potentially receiving medical treatment in the form of antidepressant medications too, or counselling or psychotherapy too. Most will receive multimodal treatment, where they engage in multiple forms of treatment that is tailored to the individual.
Similarly, another factor is monetary. If you are paying for your treatment personally, perhaps attending hourly sessions of psychotherapy weekly, the likelihood is you will find treatment more effective than someone who receives 8 sessions of CBT for free on the NHS.
OB: What kind of research can be done to help improve our understanding of addiction?
Mark Griffiths: Research has been going on for decades and will continue to go on for decades more. The short answer is that the research that will be done depends on the discipline you are working in. Biologists will be looking at things differently to psychologists. And psychologists will differ depending on whether they are developmental psychologists, cognitive psychologists, neuro psychologists etc. Everyone is working within their little xylomes which is very good because a lot of research is getting done.
Gambling is a universal language. It is something that is seen within every culture in one form or another, and will be an activity that we continue to engage in going forward, but there will be cultural differences and gender, race, age factors too. When it comes to treatment you are always trying to fit treatment to the individual taking into account these factors, how you treat a female slot player won’t necessarily be the same as a male sports gambler.
So, the research being done in these different xylomes is a good thing because it helps us to understand our differences and how that impacts the development and treatment of addiction. It can inform our decisions on prevention, intervention, education, or treatment, we can start to use those factors to target a particular subset.
Addiction is something that can affect anyone at any time, and it is important that we continue to take steps to reduce the stigma and improve our understanding of the issue. It is encouraging to see that addiction is something that can be managed and overcome with the right support and treatment. If you need further information on responsible gambling visit our Safer Gambling hub page to read our entire collection of Responsible Gambling guides.
A big thanks to Mark Griffiths for taking the time to speak to us. He has given us good insight into the psychology of addiction and how we can support those who might find themselves facing problematic gambling habits.
Hannah has written news articles and lifestyle blogs for three years. Venturing into the gambling industry Hannah is writing gambling content for Online Bingo and has written content for Lodgis Paris.
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