“Know your limit, play within it,” gamblers are often advised, but how well does that advice really work? 

New University of Guelph research finds many gamblers ignore their limits if they’re having a stressful day filled with other temptations – even those who believe they have high self-discipline in other parts of their lives. 

The study, which appears in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, is thought to be the first to examine the factors that impact self-control as it pertains to violating gambling limits.  

The findings are important given that an estimated 76 per cent of Canadians gamble, and that number may grow with last year’s legalization of single-game sports betting in Canada. 

The study focused on regular gamblers who reported they gambled at least once a week and who had adopted the goal of limiting their gambling through time and money limits.  

“Limit-setting strategies can be effective for some gamblers, and they are often suggested as a way to minimize harms,” said study lead author Dr. Sunghwan Yi, a professor in the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics who studies addictive and compulsive consumer behaviour.  

“However, we don’t know when limit-setting strategies are effective, nor the reasons why some gamblers find it more difficult to not violate their gambling limits.” 

Losses significantly higher on days when limits violated

Dr. Sungwhan Yi
Dr. Sunghwan Yi

To gain better insight, Yi’s team had 103 regular Canadian gamblers complete daily diaries of their gambling habits for three weeks, and record how much stress and temptation they encountered each day as well.  

Overall, self-imposed gambling limits were broken often. On nearly 23 per cent of gambling days in which limits had been set, gamblers broke their own rules.  

Notably, losses were significantly higher on those days when gamblers violated their limits compared to when they stuck to their goals or had no gambling limits. 

The researchers hypothesized that stress and prior attempts to deal with temptations in non-gambling domains would be important factors in gamblers’ violating their own gambling limits. 

Indeed, it was found from daily diaries that gamblers who reported they had to resist several temptations through the day — such as drugs, alcohol, smoking or food temptations — were more likely to exceed their own limits when they gambled later in the day. 

“This was an interesting finding,” said Yi, a professor in the Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies. “It’s possible that having exerted a lot of mental resources to deal with prior temptations in other domains, these gamblers may have become too tired to cope with the urge to go beyond their gambling limits.” 

Escaping bad mood supercedes maintaining self-control

Another explanation is that prior attempts to resist temptations in other domains probably put the gamblers in a negative mood, or adverse affect, which may have increased their desire to use gambling to try to turn it around, said Yi.  

“They may have already experienced frustration or other negative feelings by the time they started gambling. So, for them, continuing gambling in the hopes that they may be able to win and thus feel better is likely to be more important than sticking to their limits. In other words, escaping the negative mood is more important than attaining the goal of self-control. This explanation is consistent with the ‘affect regulation priority’ account from psychology.” 

Even those gamblers who reported they had high self-control in other areas of their life were just as likely to exceed their limits if they had a high-stress or high-temptation day. 

“That was surprising to us,” said Yi. “We predicted that those with higher self-control would be better at sticking to their limits since these are the people who reported they were not impulsive and were generally good at resisting temptations. These people should do well even in negative situations. But that’s not what we found.” 

While those with high self-control scores were generally better at sticking to limits compared to those with less self-control, that changed on high-stress or high-temptation days. On those days, the high self-control gamblers were almost equally likely to violate their limits.  

“That tells us that even those with high trait self-control are not well prepared to deal with temptations to keep betting once gambling starts,” said Yi. 

“This is an interesting finding because these are the gamblers most likely to already take measures to limit themselves, such as bringing small amounts of cash with them or leaving their credit cards at home,” he said, adding that such precautions may not be effective when gambling online. 

More interventions needed to discourage gamblers from overdoing it

As for the advice of “Know your limit, play within it,” Yi believes it is too simplistic and places too much of the burden on the gambler. 

“That campaign assumes people will be able to just stop when they are getting close to their limits. But these findings suggest when people have hard days, they often don’t have a good ability to stop themselves,” he said, adding the best practice is probably not to gamble on those days and instead do other activities that help them relax. 

What he’d like to see instead are more interventions built into gambling sites and devices that discourage gamblers from overdoing it. 

“It could be something as simple as people being asked to rate their mood and entering their gambling limit for the day at the beginning of each session. A warning would then appear to let them know when they are close to breaking that limit and that this may be due to their negative mood. Or maybe it could be a system that forces the gambler into a cooling-off period once a certain threshold had been exceeded, so they are forced to take a break.” 

Setting limits does have some utility, but it often fails. Gamblers as well as gambling operators should know that situational factors can have a strong influence and make it difficult to stick to those limits. 

This research was funded by the Manitoba Gambling Research Program of Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries. Co-authors included Abby Goldstein and Sasha A. Haefner of the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto, and Hai Luo of the Faculty of Social Work in the University of Manitoba. 


Dr. Sunghwan Yi