A Conversation with Luke Clark

Clark_Psych_WebDr. Luke Clark, a global expert in the field of gambling research, joined the Department of Psychology as the inaugural director of the Centre for Gambling Research at UBC.

Dr. Clark, who led the UK’s largest study of pathological gamblers, will lead the academic and operational activities of the Centre beginning July 1, 2014. We sit down with him to learn more about his research and his vision for the Centre.

Let’s start with a basic question. Why do people gamble?

That’s a big question! Certainly gambling is a very popular activity, and at the same time, most players recognize the mathematical odds that are involved – so gambling does present this basic paradox. As a psychologist, I’m interested in the thoughts and feelings that players experience during gambling, and how these influence a player’s perception of their chances of winning, and also their risk-taking and self-control.

What has led you to study the psychology of gambling?

I’ve always been interested in how people make decisions, and how decision-making is altered in different forms of mental illness. Gambling is a very fertile area for a decision-making researcher – you can see many classic psychological effects in gambling play, and this research has direct applications, both clinically and for gambling policy. I moved into the field in 2005 when the UK changed its gambling laws and there was an injection of research funding, and you could say I’ve been hooked ever since.

What is your area of research expertise and interest?

Our work is grounded in the techniques of cognitive neuroscience. We devise simplified gambling games that run in the lab, in order to take behavioural measures like betting and persistence. We can then use neuroimaging and physiological measures to study how the brain and the body respond during these games, and we look at how these responses differ across different groups, for example, in problem gamblers compared to casual gamblers.

What is the difference between gambling for leisure and recreation – and problem gambling?

Problem gambling is identified by a number of features, which include pre-occupation, signs of withdrawal, and escalating usage. Together, these features indicate that a person has lost control over their gambling. There isn’t one defining feature of a problem gambler, and there’s a spectrum of severity. So although most people who gamble do so in a controlled way, higher levels of gambling involvement do tend to go hand in hand with the symptoms of problem gambling.

Compulsive gambling has become an emerging public health issue in Canada. What is the impact of problem gambling on individuals and to society?

The negative consequences here are profound. Invariably, problem gamblers describe a financial impact – severe debts, borrowing, bankruptcy, and this affects family members and friends in ways that are also very damaging. In the more extreme cases, we see higher rates of suicidal behaviour, or illegal activities to support further gambling. These are issues that affect the whole community.

Why is research on gambling behaviours important?

We want to understand the transition by which some people lose control over their gambling. By understanding that process, we’ll be better placed to treat people with gambling problems. As technology moves forward, we need to know which features of gambling games pose the greatest risks and ultimately, we want to create educational programs to prevent people developing a gambling problem in the first place.

What is your vision for the Centre for Gambling Research at UBC?

The key objectives are to reduce the harm that is caused by problem gambling, and to improve evidence-based gambling policy. I see the Centre as a unique opportunity to achieve those objectives, through studying the psychology and the neuroscience of gambling games and problem gamblers. I also expect the Centre to work closely with other UBC research on addictions.

UBC has partnered with the British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC) and the Government of B.C. to establish the Centre. Can you speak to the importance of this type of collaboration?

This collaboration is an innovative way to energize gambling research in British Columbia – this is one of the few centres of its kind, anywhere in the world. I hope that the involvement of BCLC as a stakeholder will also facilitate the translation of gambling research into responsible gambling policy.

Problem gambling is increasingly being recognized as a behavioural addiction, yet treatment options are limited. Do you foresee any future treatment?

Gambling research is currently in an exciting phase, and this is partly because of the focus on behavioural addictions – this is a fascinating and controversial concept. In terms of treatment, the current psychological therapies that we have are pretty good, but what I think we will see over the next few years are improvements in how and when those treatments are accessed and the tailoring of treatments to different kinds of gambler. Understanding the brain basis of this condition may also enable new kinds of treatment based on biological mechanisms.

Do you have a favourite quote?

We’ve been doing some experiments on the gambler’s fallacy recently, and there’s a quote by Steve Jobs talking about the shuffle function on the iPod – “We made it less random to make it feel more random”. For me, this really captures the difficulties that everybody has in thinking about chance events.

Related stories:

Gambling research pioneer to lead new centre at UBC
$2M from BCLC and the Province creates Centre for Gambling Research at UBC
The Centre for Gambling Research at UBC officially opens