A row of fruit machines

How do researchers study gamblers?

Studying gamblers has plenty of potential pitfalls. Jennifer Trent Staves spoke to Professor Mark Griffiths to find out more

For many scientific studies and medical trials, participants are found through adverts in newspapers, referrals from doctors or by recruiting at universities and colleges. But how do researchers find subjects to study when investigating something as potentially secretive and personal as gambling?

Someone with plenty of first-hand experience of recruiting gamblers is Professor Mark Griffiths, of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University. He has published a paper on ‘Why slot machine gamblers are so hard to study’, suggesting how researchers might improve their studies in future. We talked to him about his findings.

How do researchers recruit gamblers?

Researchers need people to study, but finding subjects isn't easy. A local casino or gaming shop may be full of potential, but “player-specific factors” can impede researchers getting results.

Gamblers don’t like being watched, says Griffiths: “Researchers who approach them may be viewed as infringing on their anonymity.” Gamblers may be too involved in the activity itself to agree, or may feel guilt or embarrassment at being “caught out”, with some protesting that they are only a “social player”.

Using the “search and seek” method to find potential subjects can work, says Griffiths, though only during opening hours. Online research methods, such as questionnaires, offer another route to understanding gambling.

Lack of incentive is a problem too: “To get participants involved, it may be useful to pay the participants, give them gifts or include them in prize draws,” he says, though of course this could skew the results, attracting a biased sample.

Do people tend to be addicted to one particular kind of gambling?

There are three aspects to how and why someone might gamble, explains Griffiths:

  • individual (the characteristics of the person, such as biological, psychological and sociological factors)
  • situational (the circumstances at the time, such as how much something is advertised, or whether a cashpoint is nearby)
  • structural (the features of the activity, such as high-frequency payout or attractive visuals).

Structural characteristics are the ones most linked to problem gambling, says Griffiths, as activities with high-frequency payout and low-cost entry tend to be problematic. “That’s why people sometimes refer to slot machines as the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’.”

In slot machines there are over 30 different structural characteristics at work, such as light, sound, colour, familiarity and the fact that they take tokens instead of cash, explains Griffiths. Those are the types of characteristics that attract problem gamblers: “I’ve never seen anyone addicted to the bi-weekly lottery.”

What are the ethical considerations?

Offering cash for involvement could fuel further gambling, Griffiths acknowledges, but insists that ethical implications can be “handled on a case-by-case basis”.

In cases of problem gambling, Griffiths and his team have offered links to self-help groups or therapists and in one study offered the participant audio playback of their reactions during the activity. “Sometimes the response from the gambler to the links is ‘they don’t work’, but if we’re aware of the problem, we’re duty bound to help them offer help,” he says.

Should researchers become gamblers themselves?

A common problem for researchers is blending in to their environment. If they look suspicious, gamblers might think they are “skimmers”, says Griffiths, “or people who try to win off of other people’s machines”.

One way to get around this is to get a job at the establishment, like the change counter, in order to observe behaviour. Another way, though potentially more controversial, is to become a gambler. “Lack of ‘street knowledge’ about slot machine gamblers and their environment can lead to misguided assumptions,” Griffiths says – and the subjectivity of the observer should be minimised as much as possible.

Does he gamble? “I do gamble now; it’s an excuse of the research,” he says, but it’s about buying entertainment (casinos often offer subsidised meals or live music) rather than playing to win: “That’s what differentiates you from a problem gambler.”

Why does he study gambling?

“It’s boring but true: for my PhD I was offered three possibilities: gynaecological psychology, face processing, and gambling. I thought gambling sounded the most interesting,” says Griffiths.

“But on a personal note, there was problem gambling in the family,” he continues. “I knew what it was like to have to lock the door from my brother so he wouldn’t steal to fund his gambling.”

Griffiths’s brother ended up in a young offenders institution. “My parents said ‘at least it wasn’t drugs’, but the fruit machines were something he had access to as a youth.”

He doesn’t consider gambling a gateway addiction (the idea that developing one addiction will make you more likely to participate in other addictive behaviours): “I don’t believe in ‘addictive personalities’. We can be cured; we just have to take responsibility. That’s the biggest predictor of whether you will beat an addiction or not.”


Lead image:

Stokpic/Pixabay CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Addiction’ in June 2010 and reviewed and updated in September 2015.

Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development