IS THERE A 'GAMBLING PERSONALITY'?


One of the more interesting research avenues in the psychology of gambling


IT COULD PERHAPS be argued that psychologists and those in the marketing business differ only in what they do with the information they collect about people's behaviour. 'Marketeers' segment their target populations as a way of creating bespoke marketing strategies based on the needs and experiences of their potential customers in an attempt to increase revenue. Psychologists segment their target populations as a way of trying to predict what individuals might do in any number of given situations. One of the more interesting research avenues in the psychology of gambling is whether there might be a unique 'gambling personality'; that is, a cluster of specific traits that marks out an individual as a gambler or a specific type of gambler (such as a sports bettor).

One of the problems with this whole area of research is that 'personality' is a hypothetical construct that isn't easy to define. However, most psychologists would probably agree that a person's personality centres on the distinctive and characteristic patterns of thought, emotion and behaviour that define their personal stvle. and influence their interactions with the emironment (including, for instance, the capacity or desire to have a punt on who will win next year's English Premier League). The use of psychometric tests in research on gamblers has not been particularly promising. Most research has been carried out on three particular personality dimensions : sensation-seeking', 'extroversion' and locus of control'.

The American psychologist, Dr Marvin Zuckerman. defined 'sensation-seeking' as the "need for varied, novel and complex sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical and social risks for the sake of such experience." Such a definition should mean that gamblers are more likely than non-gamblers to be sensation-seekers. However, studies in this area have provided contrasting results, with some supporting the theory, some showing no difference between gamblers and non-gamblers, and others showing gamblers to be lower on sensation-seeking than non-gamblers! In studies on extraversiуn, the findings have again proved contradictory. Since extraverts are highly sociable, crave excitement, and enjoy noisy and active environments, the theory is that gamblers are more likely to be extraverted. Although some studies have indeed found gamblers to be more extraverted than control groups, other studies have found gamblers to have lower extraversiуn scores, or have found no difference.

One personality trait that has received more consistent findings is that of 'locus of control' (LoC). This personality trait refers to a person's perception of how their own efforts affect events. For instance, 'internal' LoC individuals attribute their experiences to their own actions whereas 'external' LoC individuals attribute their experiences to chance. Research has shown that 'internal' individuals gamble more persistently when chasing losses because they believe all that is required is an increase in concentration and an overall improved effort in order to win. However, one of the problems with LoC research is that we do not know the direction of causality; that is, whether their particular LoC preceded the gambling, or whether the gambling preceded their LoC.

So why are there so few consistent results surrounding personality and gambling?

One of the most obvious answers is that gambling is multi-faceted and not a unitary phenomenon. Treating all forms of gambling as equivalent in terms of underlying psychology, personality and/ or motivation may cloud the issue rather than clarify it. For instance, can we really say that a regular sports bettor has similar underlying psychology to a regular slot machine player? Is an online poker player similar to a roulette gambler? Of course not! And that is one of the reasons for inconsistent findings. Psychologists have tended to clump gamblers together as if they were a unified and homogenous group of people. Maybe the affiliate marketing industry can learn from the mistakes made by psychologists in trying to segment people's behaviour. Invariably, one size does not fit all.

In addition, demographic differences - such as age, gender, and culture - may produce very different findings in people's motivation to gamble. This is one area where affiliates may have the edge on psychologists. For instance, an adult horserace bettor cannot easily be compared to an adolescent slot machine player; a male sports gambler cannot easily be compared to a female bingo player; and slot machine players in the UK cannot necessarily be compared to slot machine players in the US. Affiliates seem to be well aware of this, but researchers in the gambling studies field seem to make the same methodological mistakes over and over again.

All forms of gambling lie on a luck/skill dimension. Games of pure chance are not attractive to sports bettors. While games of skill provide a significant edge for the gambler, sports bettors need more than an edge - they need an opponent who they think can be exploited. This is one of the reasons why sportsbetting -and particularly horserace betting - is so popular for gamblers. The edge available in horserace gambling can be sufficient to fully support professional gamblers as they bring their wide range of knowledge to the activity. There is the complex interplay of factors that contributes to the final outcome of the race. There is the form of the horse, the length of the race, the reputation of the jockey, trainer and stable, breeding, weight, the conditions of the racetrack and much else. From this mix of information, the punter will, broadly speaking, do one of two things: either they try to select a winner, or they try to select a horse that offers the best odds in terms of its true chances.

Assessing these odds (i.e., handicapping) is done by developing ratings based on the available information. Precisely how all these factors can be combined to select a horse is a matter about which most gamblers disagree, but it is reasonable to assume that many punters believe that their knowledge of these factors gives them an edge over the punters they are competing against.

Higher intelligence?

Gamblers clearly differ in how they use complex information to select horses. There has been some interesting research on the psychology of handicapping, particularly in whether good handicappers are more intelligent. An American psychologist, Dr Steve Ceci, studied a group of experienced horserace gamblers, all of whom had been serious gamblers for over eight years and who attended racetracks most days. He split the gamblers into experts and non-experts on the basis of predicting the favourite and the rank order according to the odds of the three most favoured horses. Expert gamblers were those who correctly picked the favourite in at least nine out of ten races and correctly picked the top three horses in rank order in at least five out of ten races. In contrast, the best of the non-experts correctly identified the favourite in only five out of ten races, and selected the top three in only two of the ten races. The two groups were then given a number of intelligence quotient (IQ) tests.

Ceci predicted that the experts would have higher IQs on the basis of their handicapping ability, but was very surprised to find no difference at all between the two groups' intelligence levels. One of the things Ceci concluded was that there is probably more than one type of intelligence and that the IQ test that was used may not have measured the types of skill needed in the handicapping of horses. At least Ceci's findings give some hope to us all!

Market research

It would appear from this brief overview that the usefulness and the value of psychometric-based personality studies remain doubtful. This is something for affiliates to bear in mind when carrying out their own market research. The notion that gamblers possess a unique set of variables or traits is a naive over¬simplification and appears to be a fruitless direction for research. We all need to remember that gambling is complex and multidimensional, and personality factors are too 'global' to serve as the single cause. Research into gambling is still at a relatively early stage, and it is clear that a person's gambling behaviour results from an interaction between many different variables including environmental, social, psychological and biological.
 
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