Revolutions In The Study Of Gambling Disorders: Howard Shaffer At The Ncpg Conference, Part 2

Part two of the series recapping Dr. Howard Shaffer’s keynote address at the 25thNational Conference on Problem Gambling in Boston, Mass. To read part one of the Gambling Disorders 360° series,click here.

After laying the foundation for his presentation by outlining the theoretical revolutions that have defined our understanding of gambling disorders, Dr. Howard Shaffer then proposed that the next revolution in understanding gambling disorders will come from the way online gambling behavior can now be studied. Until recently, information about people’s gambling behavior has come almost exclusively from self-report (asking a person questions about their past gambling behaviors). Self-report is considered to be acceptably accurate by the scientific community, but it relies on recollections of individuals that may be influenced by a variety of factors such as desire to please interviewers or to downplay losses. For years these problems with self-reported data have presented a challenge to researchers studying gambling disorders. However, Dr. Shaffer suggested that new innovations in research methods will decrease the role of self-report and allow researchers to look directly at the gambling behavior of online gamblers.

To examine gambling behavior directly, researchers need to have access to all of the games played, bets made, wins and losses and other behaviors of those who gamble. In the online environment, those actions and more are being automatically stored by the online casino operator, as was the case in Dr. Shaffer’s study. Dr. Shaffer and his colleagues at the Division on Addictions partnered with European online casino operatorbwin(owned by digital entertainment plc)and were given access to a record of the actual gambling activities of more than 40,000 people over a six-year period. (We have discussed this partnership in more detail in previous blog posts, including theSeptember 2010 edition of Issues & Insights).

This partnership has allowed the researchers to focus their efforts on groups that they would not otherwise be able to study, such as people who have closed their accounts because they have said they personally feel that they have “gambling problems”. This group consists of only 215 people out of the 47,000 who used the website during this period (LaBrie & H. J. Shaffer, 2011). The ability see the actual behaviors of this desired population (even when they make up only 1 out of every 218 users, as in this case) is, according to Dr. Shaffer, a revolution in gambling disorder research.

Dr. Shaffer suggested that access to data on the actual behaviors of gamblers creates the opportunity for several potential breakthroughs. For example, it may someday be possible for online casinos to use betting patterns to identify gamblers who are at risk for developing gambling problems before the problems manifest. (We discussed this possibilityin an interviewwith Division on Addictions researcher Dr. Sarah Nelson last year.)

It may also be possible to give firm answers to long standing questions, like “Are people who play certain games more likely to develop problems than others?” by examining the actual betting behavior of groups of gamblers. Only time will tell whether the research being done by groups like the Division on Addictions will be the next great leap forward in gambling disorder research, or just another small step towards some future revolution that is not yet kown.

What do you think the next revolution in gambling disorder research will be? Let us know in the comments section below!


LaBrie, R., & Shaffer, H. J. (2011). Identifying behavioral markers of disordered Internet sports gambling.Addiction Research & Theory,19(1), 56 – 65.

Shaffer, H. (2011, July 1).Scientific Revolutions: Understanding Gambling Disorders. Presented at the National Conference on Problem Gambling, Park Plaza Hotel, Boston MA.

NCRG staffResearch Updateaddictionbehavioral addictionBostonCambridge Health Alliancedisordered gamblingDivision on Addictionsgamblinggambling researchHarvardHarvard Medical SchoolHarvard UniversityHoward J. ShafferHoward ShafferInternet gamblingkeynote speakerpsychologyscience