How does an amusing pastime turn into an obsession?

Playing for money can be exciting and fun - but it is estimated that for around 451 000 people in the UK alone, playful activity turns into an all-absorbing obsession with harmful consequences (see the recent UK Gambling Comission Prevalence Survey 2010). Despite the sheer numbers, the problem is best illustrated by various accounts of first-hand stories of ordinary people who, in retrospect, feel that they have gambled their life away (e.g. read this case study).

What makes players become obsessed to the point of engaging into a dull fight against the odds of an electronic gaming machine? What makes people at casino tables bet amounts they cannot afford?

Obviously, no player starts off a playing career envisioning this. But during play there are subtle but powerful mechanisms at work (for an example, read this). They certainly have a different effect on different people. Some players remain happy and responsible, whereas others engage in a vicious circle of compulsive playing and chasing of their losses.

The gaming industry, luckily, is realising that excessive gamblers are harmful to the reputation of gambling, despite them being an easy source of income (until they go broke!). Statistically, it can be shown that particular groups of the population are at greater risk than others to develop harmful gambling habits. However, even those differences and post-hoc explanations are transient. For example, whereas gambling and gambling problems were mainly seen as predominantly pertaining to males, a growing number of females are at risk, too. Even though these studies significantly extend the knowledge about problem gambling, they do not explain how exactly the problem develops. And how can this process be stopped, avoided or reversed? What fundamental mechanisms of human nature interact with the game in such a way that they pave the way for obsession?

Research

The unique approach taken in this project is to simulate the effect of playing via an established computer model of human cognition, CHREST. This allows us to investigate theories of problem gambling with great scrutiny. We consider the important role of learning theory and implicit memory in our model, as well as the role of emotions. This will provide valuable insights into the development (etiology) of problem gambling, and further the understanding of the interplay between gambling activity, cognitive processes and emotions at a fine-grained level.

So far, the project has developed models for gambing behaviour in the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), the effect of near wins in fruit machine playing, and strategy acquisition in blackjack. CHREST has been extended with a mechanism for association learning and emotional memory. The motivations and methods for this research are presented in our slides of our talk presented at our recent workshop 2011 London Workshop on Problem Gambling.

Browse our recent recent talks and publications.