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One particular method adopted in psychological research into gambling of real players in realistic settings has also contributed to a possible over-emphasis of the significance of cognitive variables such as beliefs and expectations in the generation of persistence. Originating in Canada (Garboury & Ladoucer, 1989), the method requires gaming machine players to say aloud their Sthoughts while gambling; 70% of these statements when categorized were rated as irrational. Walker (1992b) extended this finding demonstrating that greater levels of such irrational thinking while playing was to be fSound among regular gamblers for whom egms were their preferred form, compared with other regular gamblers preferring different types of gambling products. These findings have been interpreted in terms of the gambler's fallacy (Cohen, 1972) and the illusion of control (Langer, 1975) and taken as evidence of the importance of cognitive factors in the evolution of high levels of involvement in gambling (Walker, 1992b).
It is perhaps not surprising that this method has seen limited application and the significance of the results have been challenged (Griffiths, 1994). Without recourse to any psychological theory, that the well-springs of irrational explanations of gaming machine outcomes are more readily tapped than the rational, especially by those with many hundreds of hours practice, seems unsurprising. There is a limited number of ways of saying that the results of each game played on a gaming machine are independent of all previous results and determined at random by a microchip.
In this type of research method, although the authors have focused appropriately on real players in real gaming venues, the "cognitive" question appears trivial and the method makes little attempt at integration with the ongoing contingencies as experienced by the player. These contingencies and machine characteristics (e.g. number of winning lines, machine denomination, bet option, bill acceptor, linked jackpots, etc.) are sufficiently complex to make their translation into psychological constructs exceedingly difficult. These machines are the end result of very careful research and development by manufacturers seeking to maintain player persistence (Daley, 1985, 1986), none of which focuses on the player's thoughts. The extent to which persistence, particularly in regard to continuous periods of gambling, contributes to impaired control requires close examination. The most recent self-report data on players showed average duration of play at any one location of problem players was 189 minutes compared to 85 minutes for regular players despite each group having a similar frequency of sessions per week (Schellink & Schrans, 1998).
Given that the gambling behavior can be a simple motor response (e.g. pressing a button or pulling a lever), a response shaped up over thousands of repetitions in regular players to occur faster and with rhythmic associations with the size of pay-outs (Dickerson et al., 1992), the question arises as to why there is not sustained interest in clarifying Skinner's (1953) original claim that the partial schedules of reinforcement of gaming machine play resulted in pathological levels of gambling
Irrational statements, inasmuch as they are not merely an outcome of experimental demand, may be no more and no less than an indication that the respondent is attending to the leisure activity they have purchased (Lynch, 1985; Chantal, Vallerand and Vallieres, 1995). Even from the limited existing evidence it can be suggested that it is the valence of these thoughts interacting with the machine contingencies that may contribute to session length; i.e. the game-related irrational thoughts when representing an escape from an ongoing negative mood will, in regular players, contribute to longer sessions, greater losses and self-reported greater difficulties in control (Dickerson and Adcock, 1987; Corless & Dickerson, 1989; Griffiths, 1995; Schellink & Schrans, 1998). It can be speculated that should such an escape come to represent a regularly used method of coping with dysphoria this might prove to be maladaptive, leading to impaired control (Quirk, 1996) possible harmful losses and subsequent depressed mood (Castellani et al., 1996).
Cognitive contributions to impaired control of forms of gambling that involve a skill component have been somewhat more persuasively argued (Walker, 1985, 1992a). Betting on horse racing (e.g. Rosecrance, 1986), blackjack (e.g. Wagenaar, 1988) and poker (e.g. Browne, 1989) have been the focus of thorough cognitive analysis with skillful gambling strategies typical of most regular gamblers, but only when subjectively in control. All three authors devote considerable attention to speculating about the reasons for player violations of these strategies. Both
Browne (1989) and Rosecrance (1986) emphasize that negative emotions may be the key factor that disrupts skillful strategies, thereby impairing the player's control over the gambling process. Most recently this has been explored in terms of regret theory (Baron, 1994), i.e. anticipated regret or elation at potential gambling outcomes eroding self-control (O'Connor & Dickerson, 1997) and in the latest theory of risky choice called subjective expected emotions (Mellers, Schwartz & Ritoy, 1999).
If research can reveal the processes that impair self-control over highly practiced sequences of both a simple motor response (e.g. in gaming machine play) and complex cognitive strategies (e.g. in betting, blackjack and poker) the theoretical implications have the potential to enrich our understanding of human behavior well beyond the realms of gambling. Such a question, arises from a research focus on real players in actual gambling venues. It illustrates both the value and challenge of such an approach and the possible redundancy of concepts involving pathology or mental disorder.
- Dickerson, Mark, Baron, Ellen; Contemporary issues and future directions for research into pathological gambling; Addiction, Aug2000, Vol. 95, Issue 8
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