Back in 1987 I began my PhD on the psychology of excessive slot machine use and one of the methods I used extensively over a three-year period was participant and non-participant observation in British amusement arcades up and down the country. One of the things I often noticed (and made passing reference to in some of my early 1990s papers) was how gamblers’ behaviour would often change once they realised they were being watched. It wasn’t until 2003 that I (along with Dr Jonathan Parke) wrote about social facilitation more formally in a book chapter on the environmental psychology of gambling.

Our research (up to the writing of that book chapter) had indicated that social facilitation and bystanders’ effects on gamblers’ behaviour was complex. We also speculated that gamblers’ behaviour might be different depending on whether the person watching was a friend (and whether the friend was a gambler or not) or a stranger. Based on our initial observations, we noted that the presence of gambling friends when gambling appeared to have three main effects:

• Increased risk-taking: This occurred because there was a need to impress fellow gamblers through “risky but exciting” play (i.e., increased risk-taking). Friends who gamble are used to risk-taking and in addition to the ability to win, players respected a certain “fearless” element in another person’s play. Furthermore, they encouraged riskier play since they enjoyed a secondary high from the gambling themselves and therefore, there was a selfish element to their encouragement.

• Improved skill level: This occurred because gamblers wanted to demonstrate the highest skill levels to fellow gamblers. As a result, the gambler was usually very alert and aware and maximized any opportunity to win, not only for a profit motive but to ensure a positive evaluation from the fellow gamblers.

• Increased play duration:

This occurred because a group of friends gambling on slot machines would watch each other and enjoy the “secondary high” thereby staying longer in that environment. However, this dynamic was more complicated than it first appeared. For example, take the case of three friends who gamble. Friend A begins playing the first slot machine while his two friends observe and encourage. After a short while, Friend B gets bored as the secondary high is no longer enough, so he begins to play another machine. Meanwhile, Friend A is ready to leave the arcade but Friend B does not want to leave yet as he not finished playing on his slot machine as he continues to chase his losses. The effect is a vicious circle where each of the three friends remain in the arcade until all of them are ready and willing to leave. The implications of this dynamic for prolonged gambling are clear – the longer they observe each other in the gambling environment, the more environmental cues they will experience which have the likely effect of eventually inducing fruit machine gambling.

In the case of friends who didn’t gamble, our research indicated that their presence was primarily inhibitory. Reasons included:

• Non-gambling friends giving negative appraisals for unnecessary risk taking: This is because friends who do not gamble, did not understand the motivations for gambling, particularly when the individual was losing. As a result, it was common for non-gambling friends to make negative judgements regarding the gambler’s character (e.g., they were unwise, impulsive, and weak). For this reason, many gamblers would take less risks, played lower stake machines, and stayed in the gambling environment for shorter periods of time.

• Non-gambling friends wanting to do something else: Impatient non-gambling friends who found gambling “boring” would encourage the gambler to leave the environment to pursue other more “sensible” or “fun” activities with them.

One of the most interesting observations of our research relates to the effect younger more susceptible onlookers had on gamblers. Essentially, gamblers admitted to showing off by (i) increased concentration on skilful tasks, (ii) taking higher risks, and (iii) general reckless play. Gamblers who were watched by “inexperienced” onlookers gained both self-esteem and social approval. These can be reinforcing motivations for continued gambling.

Although we identified social facilitation as a potentially important factor in the maintenance of gambling behaviour, it has been the focus of very few empirical studies. However, Dr Matthew Rockloff (Central Queensland University, Australia) published an experimental study in the Journal of Gambling Studies suggesting that players’ may increasingly engage in risky gambling as a way of impressing other players. In their experiment, participants (n=116) gambled on a slot machine simulation featuring a pre-programmed winning sequence that was then followed by an indefinite losing one. During the experiment, various data were collected from each player including the gambling speed, their average size of bet, the number of games played, and the final loss amount. During the experimental trials, some players were given computer-generated false feedback suggesting that other players nearby were playing the same game and winning. The study’s findings indicated that players bet more and lost more money when receiving information about other players’ winning compared to those players in similar experimental trials but receiving much less information. Therefore, study appeared to suggest that even just the (implied) presence of other slot machine players increased gambling intensity (i.e., they played and gambled more than those players gambling alone).

Dr. Karen Hardoon and Dr Jeff Derevensky (McGill University, Canada) published a study in the Journal of Gambling Studies on children gambling in groups. They found that girls had increased mean wagers when they gambled in groups. No increases in mean wagers were found among the boys. Their results also indicated that children were more susceptible to peer influences than adults. Other factors, such as the medium of playing, may affect social facilitation. For instance, Jonathan Parke and I speculated (comparing case study data from internet and non-Internet gamblers) that the one positive aspect of Internet gambling is that it may reduce the social facilitation risk.

More recently, I (along with my colleagues Tom Cole and Dr Doug Barrett) carried out an experimental study which we published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Using the game of roulette, we experimentally examined (amongst other things) the role social facilitation in gambling behaviour between online and offline gamblers. A total of 38 participants played online and offline roulette either alone or alongside another gambling participant, and the players’ chip placement and amount bet was recorded. We found that those who gambled in online roulette placed more chips per bet and made riskier bets than those who gambled on roulette offline. We also found that those who gambled alongside another gambler placed more chips and made riskier bets than those who gambled alone. Those who gambled online and in the presence of others, placed the highest number of chips per bet and made the riskiest bets.

Overall, these findings on social facilitation are consistent with the limited previous research in the area. The results suggest that gambling online may be facilitating participants to place higher stakes per roulette spin and that gambling alongside others led players to stake more than when playing alone. There are a number of reasons that could perhaps help explain why online players staked higher bets and made riskier bets. For instance, it was clear that in the experiment, participants were able to gamble at much quicker rates in the online condition than the offline condition (i.e., the event frequency was a lot higher). This was because withdrawing and handing out chips won and lost was instantaneous online (whereas offline the process was much slower). Such an observation supports the wealth of literature that tends to show that certain types of gambling with high event frequencies tend to be more problematic to individuals.

Another noticeable difference between the online and offline gambling in the experiment was in relation to the differing sound effects during play. By winning chips, the online casino used in this experiment played a ‘jovial’ or congratulatory noise. This could be argued as an effective way in which online casinos can facilitate gamblers’ playing behaviour by encouraging future play by rewarding past behaviour. Another potential explanation for gambling with higher stakes and making riskier bets could be the psychological value that the chips hold. The online condition obviously did not involve the participants holding the chips, whereas the offline condition required the participants to place chips themselves. Although there is little research into the difference in psychological value of online chips and offline chips, it could perhaps be argued that the value of placing chips in an offline table game is higher than placing virtual chips in an online game. There is little empirical research suggesting this to be the case, but the participants in this experiment often said they felt it was easier to gamble with online chips compared to chips offline. Further research on how players value chips online versus offline may prove useful.

With past research suggesting that both social facilitation and medium (i.e., online or offline) may increase players’ risk-taking behaviour, a priori it would suggest there should be a significant interaction between the two. Results of our study tended to support this hypothesis.

References and further reading

Cole, T., Barrett, D.K.R., Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Social facilitation in online and offline gambling: A pilot study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 240-247.

Griffiths, M.D. (1991). The observational study of adolescent gambling in UK amusement arcades. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 1, 309-320.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). A typology of UK slot machine gamblers: A longitudinal observational and interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 606-626.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed.), Gambling: Who wins? Who Loses? pp. 277-292. New York: Prometheus Books.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). Betting on the couch: A thematic analysis of Internet gambling using case studies. Social Psychological Review, 9(2), 29-36.

Hardoon, K.K. & Derevensky, J.L. (2001). Social influences involved in children’s gambling behavior. Journal of Gambling Studies, 17, 191-196.

Parke, J. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008). Participant and non-participant observation in gambling environments. ENQUIRE, 1, 1-18. 

Rockloff, M.J. & Dyer, V. (2007). An experiment on the social facilitation of gambling behavior. Journal of Gambling Studies, 23, 1-12.

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