The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky is one of the most admired men in literary history. His novels such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov have long been studied as classic works of fiction inspiring many with his deep insight into the nature of human motivations. Novels such as Crime and Punishment explore the darkest side of human nature and personality revealing that the most severe punishments to a crime committed are often not the punishments of society but those psychological punishments which we inflict on ourselves. Dostoyevsky's novel The Gambler is an almost biographical account which also explores the darker side of human nature (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). It is within the themes of The Gambler that we find the dark side of Dostoyevsky's own nature. Dostoyevsky was born into a family with a history of money and aristocracy that within previous generations had declined to modesty bordering on poverty (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). Concerns about money and financial disparity were the dominant themes in the life of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's father (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). This theme of financial insecurity was part of what shaped Dostoyevsky's childhood helping to set the stage for future events in his adult life (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009).
Unfortunate events resulting from Dostoyevsky's involvement with a radical political group led to his first encounter with gambling (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). Dostoyevsky was forced into military service in a remote part of Russia where he was able witness, though financially incapable of participating in, several games of chance (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). In these first encounters Dostoyevsky was perceptive enough to realize both his irresistible attraction to gambling as well as the destructive force which gambling can inflict on a person's life (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). Gambling soon became the passion and the downfall of Dostoyevsky's life. He frequented the gambling halls of Germany while neglecting his wife whom he left sick with tuberculosis in Russia (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). He burned through the fortunes he had earned as an accomplished novelist before borrowing money from relatives and then friends to gamble away (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). After the death of his first wife Dostoyevsky remarried. The couple planned to travel through Europe. What was meant to be a three month stay in Germany turned into four years of Dostoyevsky's second wife watching him as he gambled away all of their money and acquiescing to his constant begging for more of their money that he could gamble with (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009).
The Three Keys to Redemption
The end of this tragic downward spiral was the result of a combination of three things. The first thing which helped to bring an end to Dostoyevsky's pathological gambling is that Germany outlawed gambling, effectively removing Dostoyevsky from an environment in which is was able to gamble (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). The second element which contributed to Dostoyevsky being able to resist the impulse to gamble was the role of his family in his life (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). According to Meyer, Chapman and Weaver (2009) “what is evident from his letters at this time is his growing love and emotional dependence on Anna and his family” (p. 236). The third factor is that with age and maturity Dostoyevsky, as with most people, had a diminishing need for stimulation in his life (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009).
Substance Abuse and Pathological Gambling
There are many psychologist who believe that pathological gambling is essentially a behavioral form of substance abuse (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009; Ricketts & Macaskill, 2003). Many psychologist believe that there is a genetic or biological predisposition to the development of addictive behavior (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009; Ricketts & Macaskill, 2003; Hansell & Damour, 2008). This suggests that the predispositions that lead to addictions such as substance abuse may be the same as those that lead to pathological gambling.
Emotions play an important role in the disorder of pathological gambling. Ricketts and Macaskill (2003) found in their study of fourteen gamblers that “gambling had served, or did serve the purpose of altering their emotional states” and that “this emotion-altering effect was used purposefully by the gamblers to manage unsatisfactory emotional states, however they had come about”(p. 387). Ricketts and Macaskill (2003) divided the emotion-altering effects of gambling into three types. The first type of emotion-altering effect they found is arousal. According to Ricketts and Macaskill (2003) “arousal was variously described as the buzz, excitement or enjoyment of gambling, the arousal inducing effect varied in intensity across individuals, but where reported was important to their experience of gambling” (p. 387). Dostoyevsky had many negative emotions in his own life. These emotions included the humiliation of his family needing to rely on others for financial support, the death of his mother, his father's preoccupation with financial matters, the death of his father, his mistress abandoning him and the death of his first wife (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). Dostoyevsky described his experience of watching others gamble as well as his own experience gambling in much the same way that Ricketts and Macaskill (2003) described the state of arousal among the fourteen individuals they studied.
Shutting Out Undesired Emotions
The second emotion-altering effect of gambling described by Ricketts and Macaskill (2003) is the “shutting off from other, unpleasant, emotional states by gambling or gambling having the effect of switching off from worrying concerns” (p. 387). The implication is that through the positive effect of creating arousal through gambling and the negative effect of shutting off undesired emotional states the gambler is able to substitute unwanted emotions that are present in his or her life with the positive emotion of excitement.
A Sense of Achievement
The third emotion-altering effect that Ricketts and Macaskill (2003) describe in gamblers is the positive feeling of achievement which “was experienced as an emotion linked to winning and the perception of being an expert at gambling, irrespective of outcome” (p. 388).
Cognitive issues related to gambling can be seen first by reviewing some of the points concerning Dostoyevsky. The Russian novelist approached gambling methodically believing that he could produce a system to beat the games (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). Ricketts and Macaskill (2003) describe similar notions among the gamblers in their study. This is where a sense of achievement comes in for the gambler. According to Ricketts and Macaskill (2003) these gamblers “were characterised by a greater focus on issues of expertness and skill, with efforts being made to maximise the frequency of the experience of winning” (p. 390). Notions of developing systems or improving skills even when skill does not actually play a role within a game are cognitive components of the disorder. These beliefs are part of the thought processes of the pathological gambler. Gamblers approach their addiction in a way that seems logical at first glimpse but the apparent logic is thin and often based on erroneous assumptions. Dostoyevsky, like many other gamblers, attempted to predict the results of roulette spins based on the few recent spins of the wheel (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). His seemingly logical approach ignored the fact that each spin of the wheel was independent of every other spin (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). Though it would be logical for a gambler such as Dostoyevsky to walk away from the table after a big win, especially when the gambler has significant debts that the winnings could help reduce, this is not way logic works for the mind of the gambler. As Ricketts and Macaskill (2003) explain “despite having financial problems, any gains were commonly reported to be put aside to utilise to win more at a further session of gambling” (p. 392). The addiction to gambling is so strong that other needs such as mounting debts are eclipsed by the thought possibly winning more.
The Behaviorist Perspective
Gambling has been viewed extensively through the lens of the behaviorist perceptive (Ricketts & Macaskill, 2003). There are many elements of gambling and gambling behavior that can be understood through core behaviorist concepts such as classical and operant conditioning. As Ricketts and Macaskill (2003) explain “The arousal commonly reported to be associated with gambling has been studied as an example of classical conditioning” (p. 383). Gamblers place bets in much the same way that rats in a research lab will push a button in the hopes of obtaining food. According to Ricketts and Macaskill (2003) “the financial consequences of gambling have been considered a variable frequency reinforcement schedule” by behaviorist such as B. F. Skinner (p. 383). Variable frequency reinforcement schedules simply dictate that food is delivered randomly to the rat in the research lab rather than every time it pushes the button. In the same way gamblers are rewarded by winning randomly when placing bets. The uncertainty of knowing when the behavior is going to produce the desired results, increases the excitement the gambler feels and the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated in the future.
Hansell, J and Damour, L (2008). Abnormal Psychology (2nd ed.). Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.
Meyer, R Chapman, L and Weaver, C(2009). Case Studies in Abnormal Behavior (8th ed). Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.
Ricketts, T., & Macaskill, A. (2003). Gambling as emotion management: developing a grounded theory of problem gambling. Addiction Research & Theory, 11(6), 383-400. doi:10.1080/1606635031000062074
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AJ Long from Pennsylvania on January 20, 2014:
Wesley Meacham interesting analysis of gambling and Dostoevsky!