Gambling research literature suggests that culture influences gambling behaviour (e.g., Raylu & Oei, 2004) and that gamblers use different explanatory frameworks or schemas (e.g., Ohtsuka & Ohtsuka, 2010). Further, culture and gambling has attracted researchers’ attention in recent years partially due to the globalisation of the commercial gaming industry. In the past few decades, accompanied by the ascendancy of the Pacific Rim economies, a large proportion of casino patrons have tended to come from countries in Asia Pacific Region. Liberalisation of gaming licensing in Macau has placed the city on the top of the list of major commercial gaming destinations in terms of annual gaming turnover. As the proverbial prowess in gambling among Chinese and other Asian people has been noted, a putative link between culture and gambling behaviour or cognition has been proposed. Recent research reports also show that gamblers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in Australia show significantly higher prevalence rates of problem gambling (e.g., Victorian Casino and Gaming Authority, 2000). Gambling has been identified as a possible public health issue that new Australian communities are likely to face (Victorian Casino and Gaming Authority, 2000).
Anthropologists suggest that culture predisposes some cultural groups to engage in gambling more frequently than others due to their cultural beliefs. Papineau (2005) argues that the Chinese notion of luck is unique as it is predetermined (fixed) and not under volitional control. However, the Chinese believe that they can decipher the cyclical changes of luck by the Chinese celestial calendar or oracles, allowing them to take advantage of high tides of luck. In contrast, psychologists have mainly focused on cognitive distortions such as illusion of control and the gambler’s fallacy – an over-estimation by individuals of their ability to foresee gambling outcomes, and have suggested that cultural factors may further contribute to cognitive distortions. Among theories concerning culture and gambling cognition and behaviour, there is a range of positions that uniquely emphasises the role of culture. Some researchers subscribe to the view that cultural influence on gambling behaviour is the most important component in the construction of the meaning of gambling (Papineau, 2005), whereas others identify culture as a substantial component that add to the universal mechanism of forming behaviour (Ohtsuka & Ohtsuka, 2010).
Commerce, business, and the accumulation of wealth are often said to be central to the Chinese culture, although they are surely universal aspirations of all people. Western scholars have been mystified by the apparent relative neglect of a spiritual or religious world in Chinese culture (e.g., Bodde, 1942). In fact, the Chinese word “religion” is an imported coinage from the Japanese language to represent the Western concept of organised religions (Goossaert, 2005). While organised religions were historically encouraged and used as a means of achieving the Chinese national unity, Chinese folk religion (中國民間信仰) or Shenism (神教) was often vilified as superstition (Goossaert, 2005). Although these indigenous practices and beliefs are labelled as “folk” religion, Chinese folk religion, such as the Kitchen God, Zao Jun (灶君),1 and the God of Wealth, Cáishén (財神)2 have survived as an integral part of Chinese cultural observance, particularly through ancestor worship, involving prayers for good fortune and good health in the Chinese New Year and seasonal festivities. As Papineau (2005) suggests, the Chinese folk religion has a pragmatic material focus on prayer for wealth, prosperity and luck, which may encourage Chinese to gamble. However, the observance of Chinese folk religion does not necessarily mean that the Chinese believe that they can “control” their luck.
Others have suggested that excessive gambling among Asian immigrants to Western countries such as USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand may be related to maladaptive coping strategies to deal with adjustment stress. For example, Au and Yu (1997) argue that casino tables offer a stage on which newcomers from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds can re-enact a lost glory of the past and indulge in an imaginary grandeur unfettered by the disappointing readjustment of life goals and living standards which migrants from CALD background often have to face. Blaszczynski and Nower’s (2002) pathways model of problem and pathological gambling identifies three distinct groups among problem gamblers. The three groups go through distinctively different trajectories of problem gambling development. Interviewing treatment-seeking Chinese gamblers attending a self-help group, Chan and Ohtsuka (2011) reported that the majority of problem gamblers in Hong Kong had started gambling in their family when they were young, and that they developed entrenched gambling habits by young adulthood. They also reported that Chinese problem gamblers often lack attachment to significant others (Chan & Ohtsuka, 2011). It has been suggested that emotionally vulnerable gamblers, either chronically depressed or anxious, are at risk because they may gamble to cope with depression or anxiety.
Anthropological field studies of Trobriand Islanders in Papua New Guinea in early years (Malinowski, 1954) and American professional baseball players (Gmelch, 2006) provide intriguing observations that rituals and cultural beliefs may be an attempt to regain primary control in a situation where little control over the outcome is possible. If this anthropological insight is applied to the context of modern commercial gaming, so-called cultural influence on gambling may also be related to gamblers’ general sense of control over their lives. As Au and Yu (1997) suggest, new immigrants may participate in gambling as a coping strategy, albeit a maladaptive one, to deal with adjustment stress during migration. Further, for some new migrants, loss of primary control may further contribute to the maintenance of cognitive distortions and superstitious beliefs. Casinos may also attract migrants from CALD backgrounds as “a safe haven” where they can participate in social activities with minimal language skills, and more importantly without fear of being harassed or treated poorly (cf., “Oasis” in Loughnan, Pierce, & Sagris-Desmond, 1998). The interview therefore includes questions regarding the gaming service expectation of CALD gamblers.
Psychologists in particular have been intrigued with cognition concomitant to gambling. Heavy gamblers and problem gamblers exhibit many different types of cognitive distortion (e.g., Delfabbro, 2004; Keren, 1994). Research suggests that the extent of such cognitive distortion is a risk factor of developing problem gambling (Ladoucer & Walker, 1998). Since cognitive distortion leads to decision making errors that aggravate problem gambling, cognitive behavioural therapy that addresses faulty cognitions has been proposed as an effective method of problem gambling treatment (Ladoucer & Walker, 1998).
There are two positions as to the reason why gamblers develop such cognitive distortion. The majority of researchers subscribe to the view that cognitive distortion develops as people gamble heavily and that such “incorrect” cognition in turn encourage them to gamble more. The opposing view is that the consequences of prolonged gambling, such as financial losses and the loss of control over their gambling, necessitate people to justify their actions and behaviours using more and more elaborate explanations (Coventry, 2002). Research of decision making processes reveals that a subjective observation of the data and heuristics, a short-cut of decision making, rather than an objective and methodical evaluation of the dataset, are frequently used in complex situations (e.g., Tversky & Kahneman, 1971, 1974).
In conclusion, psychological research into gambling has focused on the role of gambling cognition: how cognitive distortions encourage gamblers to continue gambling. Of course, not all gamblers from the same cultural group necessarily follow the same gambling trajectory. While some gamblers lose control over their gambling quickly, others do not. Therefore, it is essential to investigate protective factors such as resilience as well as the risk factors of gambling.
This article aims to explore culture influences on gambling behaviour, focusing on subjective views of gamblers and types of different explanatory frameworks. Our previous research mainly focused on gamblers who participated in casino table games (Ohtsuka & Ohtsuka, 2010). In this article, we have extended our research by interviewing recreational electronic gaming machine gamblers who frequent suburban gambling venues such as bars, hotels3 and social clubs.