Degree Name

Doctor of Psychology (Clinical)


School of Psychology, Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences


Electronic gambling machines (EGMs) are associated with the highest prevalence rates of problem gambling. The role of arousal in reinforcing gambling activity has been recognised for a long time. It is possible that the many event-types (losses, near-misses, wins, and large wins) generated by EGMs create a psychophysiological roller-coaster that is captivating and possibly addictive for some individuals. However, physiological changes associated with win and loss events on EGMs have not been investigated in a systematic manner. This area of research is important for several reasons. Converging evidence from several domains indicates that biological factors, especially arousal mechanisms are likely to have an important role to play in the development and maintenance of problem gambling. It is possible that objectively measured physiological characteristics may allow for discrimination between problem and non-problem gamblers. This information may aid early detection of problem gambling and the assessment of treatment progression. The current program of research was designed to systematically examine the nature and significance of psychophysiological responses to wins and losses on EGMs as they occurred in real time. Study A investigated 12 non-problem gamblers in a laboratory environment and successfully trialled contemporary psychophysiological equipment and methodologies. This study showed that psychophysiological measures [skin conductance level (SCL) and heart rate (HR)] could be captured on a second-by-second basis and that SCL could reliably differentiate between win and loss events on an EGM. Study B replicated and extended the findings of Study A. Losses, wins, fake-wins (where a return is paid, but is less than that has been wagered), and large wins were examined among 24 non-problem gamblers under high- and low-stake conditions. v The results demonstrated significant increases from baseline for SCL, but not HR, following wins but not losses. Study B also revealed that increases in SCL were moderated by the amount won and wagered. Study C was a field study and extended the laboratory findings by monitoring HR and SCL of 6 problem and 6 non-problem gamblers as they experienced wins and losses on EGMs in a licensed club. Both HR and SCL increased relative to baseline in non-problem gamblers following wins but not following losses. More importantly, problem gamblers exhibited significantly fewer changes in HR and SCL to wins during gambling sessions, relative to non-problem gamblers. Clinical tools based on psychophysiological responses to rewards (wins) may help differentiate between those who develop problem gambling and those who do not, and needs to be further investigated.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.