Here's why gamblers chase losses

Problem gamblers invariably can't cope with a loss. The pain of losing can feel overwhelming. Rather than stick to a staking strategy and tolerate short term volatility, problem gamblers will double up on their staking in a desperate attempt to reclaim past losses. The pioneer of behavioural economics Daniel Kahneman has shown how we feel the pain of a loss more than the pleasure of a win. This might go some way to explain the phenomena of gamblers chasing losses. The doubling up is a desperate attempt to soothe the pain of the loss.

Problem gamblers can seem like a contradiction in action concerning the value of money. They will often be penny pinchers in other aspects of life but will throw away huge sums of money in an instant whilst gambling. They might resent paying domestic bills and will often be insistent on saving money on any quotations.

Gambling often spirals out of control at times of great meaning such as wedding anniversaries, birthdays, promotions at work (or indeed redundancy), renegotiated mortgage deals or when about to go on holiday. It is almost as if a switch is turned that induces reckless and self-sabotaging behaviours. Such occasions create additional emotional pain surrounding the losses incurred.  

The psychoanalyst Bion said addiction can be a hatred of reality. This might appear to be the case as sometimes gamblers have a preoccupation with seeking escape from daily chores, the routine of family commitments or when feeling emotionally vulnerable. Gambling acts as a relief mechanism to retreat from boredom, worry or stress.

Problem gambling can be defined as increased ritualistic behaviour, preoccupation, increasing obsession and eventually loss of control. This is when the fun stops, especially when adverse consequences start to occur in other parts of life. The phenomenon of chasing losses creates a momentum that rarely has a happy ending given the absence of self-discipline and a reckless disregard for careful staking.

Counselling and psychotherapy can help to devise greater meaning and purpose to a gambler's life. An abstinence based approach is invariably needed to help deal with problem behaviour, especially when the recklessness of chasing losses has taken hold. Harm reduction strategies can potentially help some people in the longer term but such strategies are often masking the true nature of the addiction. Abstinence is usually needed to assess the emotional damage caused by the reckless behaviour.

Understanding the need for escape can help the search for greater serenity and peace of mind but first the difficult feelings have to be felt and contained. The so-called heavy lifting of behavioural change involves constant adherence to a new way of living that is more engaging in life and proactive when dealing with triggers to gambling.

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Written by Noel Bell MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, CBT, humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.… Read more

Written by Noel Bell MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP

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