Explanations for gambling addiction
Learning theory, as applied to gambling addiction, focuses on the role of operant conditioning. Gambling behaviour is positively reinforced through the winning of bets, but there are more subtle reinforcements too, such as the pleasurable thrill experienced at the possibility of a win. With partial and variable reinforcement, gambling behaviour is reinforced only some of the time, such as: fixed ratio reinforcement (reinforcement comes after a set number of responses), variable ratio reinforcement (reinforcement comes after a set number of responses on average), fixed interval reinforcement (reinforcement comes after a set amount of time), and variable interval reinforcement (reinforcement comes after a set amount of time on average). These produce different response rates, with variable ratio reinforcement producing gambling behaviour the most resistant to extinction. Classical conditioning can have an influence through positive associations being made to gambling behaviour and social learning theory explains the initiation of gambling through observation and imitation of role models. Cognitive theory sees addiction occurring through maladaptive thought processes, with cognitive bias playing an important role through gamblers focusing on the positive aspects of gambling, like winning, and downplaying the negative aspects, like losing. Cognitive biases often produce an ’illusion of control’ that gamblers can positively influence the outcomes of betting.
Fig 17.3 How can we best explain gambling behaviour?
Griffiths (1994) tested the idea that gamblers think differently to non-gamblers due to cognitive bias. 30 regular and 30 occasional gamblers were given 30 ten-pence bets on a fruit machine with the target being to stay on the machine for 60 gambles and win back the initial £3. If successful, they kept the money and could carry on playing if they wanted. Participants spoke their thoughts out aloud as they played. Comments from regular gamblers indicated they thought they were more skilful than they actually were. Regular gamblers also had irrational beliefs, like believing the machine had moods that influenced pay-outs. They also saw losses as ’near wins’. 44 per cent of regular gamblers achieved 60 gambles, with one-third continuing until all money was lost. 22 per cent of the occasional gamblers achieved 60 plays; only two continued until all money was lost. It was concluded until that regular gamblers misperceive their gambling skills and are affected by cognitive bias.
• Parke & Griffiths (2004) found that gambling is positively reinforcing due to the money, thrill and excitement it produces, but the sensation of ’near misses’ produced by losing is also reinforcing. This means that gambling is reinforced whether winning or losing, making it highly addictive.
• Blaszczynski & Nower (2002) found that that gamblers fell into three categories: behaviourally conditioned gamblers, emotionally vulnerable gamblers and antisocial impulsivist gamblers. The first group became addicted due to conditioning experiences, giving supporting to learning theory. However, as not all gamblers are classed this way, it may only serve as an explanation for some addicts.
• Rogers (1998) found there was cognitive bias in the reasoning behind individuals regularly buying lottery tickets, such as a belief in luck, an illusion of control and unreasonable optimism. This illustrates that cognitive biases are a key feature in the maintenance of gambling behaviour into addiction.
The best way to apply learning theory to an understanding of gambling addiction, is to see initiation of gambling behaviour as explicable through social learning theory, through observation and imitation of role models, and maintenance of behaviour through operant conditioning via reinforcements.
Also well supported by research evidence, the cognitive explanation is improved if social aspects of gambling are considered alongside it. For example, someone may be initially attracted to gambling because they have financial problems which a quick win would solve. The maladaptive thinking that might then occur would fit the cognitive explanation.
Use of self-reported introspection (like Griffiths getting participants to say their thoughts out aloud) is difficult to test in an empirical way, and as such lowers the validity of explanations based on cognitive bias.
Learning theory cannot explain why one person may have a big win and not become addicted to gambling, whereas another individual might. If learning theory was correct then all individuals would be affected equally. This reduces support for the explanation.
Explaining gambling addiction through operant conditioning alone is an example of stimulus—response reductionism. Research suggests many other factors are also involved.
Cognitive therapies centre on the idea of distorted thinking being responsible for gambling addiction. Making addicts aware of their irrational cognitive biases is an important first step in addressing gambling addictions.