Winning over gambling

19 May 2008

Putting down a bet, having a flutter on the pokies or buying a lotto ticket are all accepted recreational activities in our culture. But gambling can get out of hand for some people costing them not only money, but their relationships, jobs and psychological well-being.

The federal government Productivity Commission in 1999 estimated 2.1% of Australian adults have gambling problems that are related to depression (50% of problem gamblers suffer from major depression), suicide (40% of problem gamblers report suicidal thoughts and 1.7% of Australian suicides are purported to be gambling-related), and substance abuse (30-40%).

Winning over gambling
Winning over gambling

Problem gambling is a serious issue, estimated to cost between $1.4 to $4.3 million per year in Australia due to related social costs such as health care, lost work time, increased crime, bankruptcies and financial hardships faced by families.

Scientists at the University of Sydney are investigating the most effective way to put a stop to problem gambling on electronic gaming machines, such as pokies, which are the most common form of game for gamblers in treatment. Electronic gaming machines account for 60% of government gambling revenue in Australia.

Sally Monaghan, a PhD student in the School of Psychology, has been awarded a prestigious Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Research Scholarship for Allied Health Sciences for 2008-2009 to carry out research investigating how effective pop up messages are at putting a stop to continuous gambling on electronic gaming machines.

"We've found that dynamic warning messages that scroll across the screen while people are gambling on electronic gaming machines have more of an impact on gamblers in terms of being remembered better than static warning messages," said Sally. "The NSW government have supported the introduction of dynamic pop up messages warning gamblers of the risks associated with gambling, but there needs to be more research into how best to deliver the messages and which content is most effective."

Conducting her research with supervisor Professor Alex Blaszczynski, the next step is to build on the success of their findings to evaluate the effect of pop up messages that contain information designed to reduce irrational beliefs, such as superstitions and illusions of control.

"It's unclear whether problem gambling is due to irrational cognitions in the gambler, such as feeling they control the outcome of each game rather than recognising random outcomes," said Sally. "Current warning signs on pokies assume that irrational thoughts underlie continuous gambling, but there is evidence that this may not be the case. So our research will provide important data to clarify the conceptual model of problem gambling and how best to overcome it.

"We really want to work out what makes people continue to play on these machines despite their lives falling apart around them as a result of their gambling. Our first study with 127 regular electronic gaming machine users playing games in the laboratory, found that pop up messages are recalled significantly more than static messages. But more importantly, we found that the content of the messages is really important messages that made the gambler realise how long they had been playing and how much money they'd spent had the biggest impact on their thoughts and behaviour.

"The effects of these self appraisal pop up messages were still significant two weeks later, compared to informative messages and unrelated messages. Our next step will be to take this study to a normal gambling venue, such as a pub, to see what effect the environment has on the effectiveness of the pop up message content.

"It's really important research which we hope will not only help problem gamblers take control of their gambling, but also provide important psychological information on how this obsessive behaviour occurs," concluded Sally.

The research is supported by the Australian Gaming Machines Manufacturers Association, as well as the NSW government. Sally will present the results of the research at the 8th Annual National Centre for Responsible Gaming Conference on Gambling and Addiction, held in Las Vegas, USA, in November 2007.