For Problem Gamblers, Shame Mount With Losses

November 18, 2011 - News Release

A recent University of Guelph study shows that gamblers feel both guilt and shame when they lose, but shame especially rises as the problem worsens.

Co-authors Sunghwan Yi and Vinay Kanetkar, professors in the Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies, said problem gamblers experience much more intense shame and use more avoidant coping strategies when they lose than do low- and moderate-risk gamblers.

“While problem gamblers, moderate-risk gamblers and low-risk gamblers alike feel guilt over losing money at gambling, problem gamblers are likely to feel more intense shame after gambling loss," said Yi. "Shame is experienced when you believe a negative event happened because there’s something inherently wrong with you. So if you gamble away a lot of money, you may think of yourself as a worthless or even bad person.”

Guilt, on the other hand, is temporary remorse or regret about a specific act or event, leaving room for doing something to correct the problem instead of escaping it, Yi said.

“When you experience guilt, as opposed to shame, you are far more likely to use proactive coping strategies to change the situation.”

Although each gambler type manages their negative emotions slightly differently, all three rationalize their gambling loss (“At least I had a good time”), according to the study.

As he had expected, gamblers made more use of avoidant coping strategies such as non-disclosure and mental distortion (telling themselves that their wins balanced out losses) as their shame grew more intense.

Unexpectedly, they also increased their use of two non-avoidant coping strategies: seeking social support and planning to make up for monetary loss.

“I anticipated finding that intense experience of shame would induce gamblers not to disclose gambling losses to anyone," said Yi. " What surprised me most of all was that gamblers who experience shame reported keeping their feelings to themselves, yet at the same time, they also reported seeking emotional support from others.

“The irony is that seeking social support is the polar opposite of non-disclosure. One way of resolving this ironic finding is that shame induces gamblers to seek social support in a very selective manner. For example, although gamblers who feel shame do not wish to reveal their gambling losses to their significant others, they are compelled to confide in a select few people. Unfortunately, these are usually their gambling buddies. So, while hearing some comforting words from gambling pals helps problem gamblers feel less ashamed in the short term, their failure to seek support from significant others could lead to more severe gambling problems in the long run.”

Although researchers and clinicians consider seeking of social support as a constructive coping strategy, looking for that support from “wrong” sources doesn’t necessarily help, said Yi.

The study showed that problem gamblers also plan to make up their financial loss by earning extra income, adjusting their budget or cutting back on other expenses. Rather than follow through with these plans, however, they usually end up trying to recover their losses by further gambling.

“The feeling of shame in response to gambling loss and its associated avoidant or maladaptive coping behaviour really distinguishes the problem gamblers from the rest,” Yi said. “In contrast, feeling guilt did not trigger the use of avoidant coping strategies. The positive aspect of this new distinction is that it may be possible to help problem gamblers learn to attribute their losses to specific temporary factors and thereby help them experience less shame.”

The study is available online.

Prof. Sunghwan Yi
Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies
University of Guelph
519-824-4120, Ext. 52416

University of Guelph
50 Stone Road East
Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1