Chris - Smoking and cocaine use cause chemical addictions. Are non-chemical addictions like gambling really addictions at all?
Mark - It depends on your definition of an addiction. Personally I think that all addictions consist of 6 components: the first one is salience, which means that it is the single most important thing in that person's life and that they will do it to the neglect of other things in their life. The second thing is mood modification, whereby addiction is used as a consistent method of shifting your mood state; whether to get high or to tranquilise your mood. Thirdly, addicts have withdrawal symptoms, including extreme moodiness, nausea, headaches, sweats and so on. Fourth is increased tolerance, where addicts need more and more over time to reach the same effects. This could involve betting higher sums of money or taking more of a drug. The fifth component is conflict. The addiction becomes so all-engrossing that it harms everything else the person does, including work, school and relationships. Number 6 is relapse. As soon as the person goes back to the activity they are addicted to, they quickly fall back into the cycle.
Some people don't realise they are addicted until the thing they are addicted to is taken away. For example, smoking is not necessarily all-consuming as people can do it at same time as other things. However, if you stick a smoker on a plane for 24 hours, you can often find that it is the only thing they can think about, thus becoming the most important thing in that person's life. The fact people can smoke and drink at the same time as doing something else means that such activities become a bit of a grey area with regards to spotting addiction. Only in the absence of cigarettes and drink does salience become apparent.
Kat - In recent years, there has become a massive explosion of gambling on the internet. Have you noticed this becoming a problem?
Mark - In 1995 when I started looking into the possibility of internet addiction, I passionately believed that I was going to find big problems. Now, although I still passionately believe there are some internet addicts out there, the actual number is very low. There are differences between people who are addicted to the internet and people who are addicted to things on the internet. What I mean by that is that there are gamblers, shoppers, gamers etc who use the internet but are gambling addicts, not internet addicts. However, there are a small group of people who are genuinely addicted to the internet. They like the technology, the anonymous environment and the disinhibited feeling it gives them. This is something you can't do anywhere else but on the internet. People become addicted to the way they can create new personas, meet people in chat rooms and say things they would not be able to say to people face to face. I have met internet users who fulfil my six criteria and genuinely find the internet conflicting with other aspects of their lives.
Chris - I go to the horses now and again, and sometimes use a one-armed bandit and yet never become addicted. What's going on in the brains of people with addiction?
Mark - Addiction is a very complex process. I work within a biopsychosocial model of addiction, which basically means that I think all addictions is the result of a person's biology, their psychological constitution and the environment they were brought up in. Official figures indicate that around 1% of the population have an addiction, which adds up to 350 000 people in the UK. With the new gambling bill that has just been passed, I think the numbers are likely to increase.
Chris - What makes people get into gambling in the first place?
Mark - Getting into gambling is no different to getting into other addictions. It often involves trying to cope with other deficits in life. Gambling, like drugs, has the capacity to give immense highs and buzzes, which is why many people gamble from time to time. I gamble even though I'm a professor of gambling studies! My point is that all these things are perfectly acceptable activities, but for some people, it goes too far and becomes an addiction. Thankfully few people cross this arbitrary line. The triggers are usually idiosyncratic [specific to the individual].