“Is the key to responsible gambling found in understanding our own self-control?”


Grasping the dynamics between rigid and flexible self-control, as well as understanding cognitive control failures, is essential for managing impulse-related disorders, including online gambling. In North America, where online gambling is highly accessible, these insights hold particular significance.

Rigid Self-Control refers to a stringent, unyielding approach to managing impulses and behaviors. Those with rigid self-control stick closely to established rules or habits, which can be beneficial in predictable environments. However, this inflexibility can become problematic when adapting to new or unexpected situations, leading to maladaptive behaviors when established rules no longer apply.

Example: Imagine someone who meticulously follows a daily routine: rising at 6 AM, exercising for 30 minutes, and having breakfast by 7 AM. When they travel for work, their rigid adherence prevents them from adjusting to a new schedule, causing them to skip exercise and breakfast, resulting in stress and a disrupted day. This scenario highlights the limitations of rigid self-control.

Flexible Self-Control involves a more adaptable approach, where individuals adjust their behaviors according to context and changing circumstances. This type of self-control is advantageous in unpredictable environments, allowing for the adjustment of plans and behaviors in response to new information or feedback. Flexible self-control fosters resilience and the ability to tackle new challenges without reverting to maladaptive habits.

Example: Consider someone who intends to exercise every morning but adjusts based on the day’s demands. If they have an early meeting, they might move their workout to the evening or opt for a shorter session. This adaptability helps them maintain their fitness routine without added stress. By being flexible, they remain resilient and handle changes effectively, avoiding the pitfalls of a rigid schedule.

This study delves into how these types of self-control influence online gambling behaviors and their implications for responsible gambling practices.

By examining neural and behavioral aspects, our aim is to provide a comprehensive understanding of how variations in self-control impact gambling behaviors. Key findings from Odlaug et al. (2011), Moccia et al. (2017), and Soyata et al. (2018) will be explored to shed light on the mechanisms behind pathological gambling and potential therapeutic interventions.

Key Concepts

1. Rigid Self-Control

“Can rigid adherence to rules safeguard us, or does it leave us vulnerable to the unexpected?”

Rigid self-control entails a strict, unyielding approach to managing impulses and behaviors. Those who employ this type of control adhere closely to set rules or habits, which can be advantageous in stable environments, as it fosters reliability and predictability. However, this same rigidity can become a hindrance in new or unforeseen situations that require adaptability. When faced with such circumstances, individuals with rigid self-control often find it challenging to modify their behaviors, which can lead to maladaptive outcomes.

This graph based on data from Odlaug et al. (2011), compares the impulse control and cognitive flexibility scores among different groups of gamblers: Pathological Gamblers (PG), At-Risk Gamblers (ARG), and No-Risk Gamblers (NRG). The Y-axis represents the scores, with higher scores indicating better cognitive performance. The X-axis categorizes the groups of gamblers. The yellow bars indicate impulse control scores, and the orange bars represent cognitive flexibility scores. The data demonstrates that pathological gamblers (PG) exhibit lower impulse control and cognitive flexibility compared to at-risk (ARG) and no-risk gamblers (NRG), highlighting the cognitive deficits associated with problematic gambling behaviors.

Odlaug et al. (2011) illustrated that pathological gamblers frequently show impairments in motor impulse control and cognitive flexibility. These shortcomings are especially evident in those with rigid self-control, as they struggle to adapt their responses to varying gambling scenarios. The inability to adjust behaviors based on new information can sustain gambling disorders.

Moccia et al. (2017) discovered that reduced activity in the orbitofrontal cortex is linked to impaired cognitive control in gambling disorders. This brain region plays a vital role in decision-making and adapting to new situations. Individuals with rigid self-control often find it challenging to regulate their gambling behavior because they cannot flexibly process and integrate new sensory information.

Soyata et al. (2018) examined the impact of transcranial direct current stimulation on cognitive flexibility. Their research suggests that improving cognitive flexibility can enhance decision-making in those with gambling disorders. This finding highlights the potential for therapeutic interventions that encourage flexibility in self-control, thereby reducing the risks associated with rigid self-control approaches.

Development and Characteristics of Rigid Self-Control:

  • Personality Traits: Individuals with a high need for order, consistency, and predictability may develop rigid self-control as a way to maintain stability and reduce anxiety.
  • Environmental Factors: Growing up in environments with strict rules, high expectations, and little tolerance for deviation can reinforce rigid self-control behaviors.
  • Social Influences: Cultural and social norms that emphasize discipline, conformity, and adherence to rules can also contribute to the development of rigid self-control.
  • Cognitive Factors: A tendency toward black-and-white thinking or perfectionism can make individuals more likely to adopt rigid self-control strategies.
  • Emotional Regulation: Rigid self-control may be used as a coping mechanism to manage stress and prevent emotional overwhelm, though it can lead to difficulties in adapting to new situations.

2. Flexible Self-Control

“Does true freedom lie in our ability to adapt and change?”

Flexible self-control involves an adaptable approach to managing impulses and behaviors. Individuals with flexible self-control adjust their actions based on the context and evolving circumstances. This adaptability is advantageous in uncertain or changing environments, allowing individuals to respond to new information or feedback effectively. Flexible self-control supports resilience and the ability to cope with challenges without falling back on maladaptive habits.

  • Odlaug et al. (2011) emphasized that flexible self-control is crucial for maintaining control over gambling behaviors. Individuals who can adapt their responses to the dynamic nature of online gambling are better equipped to manage their impulses and avoid pathological patterns. This adaptability is essential for implementing effective self-regulation strategies in the face of evolving gambling opportunities and risks.
  • Moccia et al. (2017) highlighted the role of the prefrontal cortex in flexible self-control. Increased activity in this brain region is linked to better cognitive control and decision-making. By fostering flexible self-control, individuals can enhance their ability to process new information and adjust their gambling behaviors accordingly, reducing the likelihood of developing gambling disorders.
  • Soyata et al. (2018) demonstrated that enhancing cognitive flexibility through transcranial direct current stimulation can lead to improved outcomes in individuals with gambling disorders. This research underscores the importance of flexibility in self-control as a protective factor against the maladaptive behaviors associated with rigid self-control.

Development and Characteristics of Flexible Self-Control:

  • Personality Traits: Individuals who are open to new experiences, adaptable, and resilient are more likely to develop flexible self-control. They view challenges as opportunities for growth rather than threats.
  • Environmental Factors: Environments that encourage exploration, creativity, and problem-solving can foster flexible self-control. Supportive settings that provide positive reinforcement for adaptive behaviors also contribute.
  • Social Influences: Exposure to diverse perspectives and experiences can enhance cognitive flexibility. Social support systems that emphasize understanding and adaptability further promote flexible self-control.
  • Cognitive Factors: A growth mindset, where individuals believe in their ability to learn and improve, is associated with flexible self-control. This mindset encourages experimentation and learning from mistakes.
  • Emotional Regulation: Individuals with effective emotional regulation strategies are better able to maintain flexible self-control, as they can manage their emotions without resorting to rigid behaviors.

Application to Online Gambling in North America

“How does online gambling challenge our traditional notions of self-control?”

Online gambling in North America presents unique challenges and opportunities for examining self-control. The 24/7 availability, ease of access, and digital environments require both rigid and flexible self-control strategies for gamblers to manage their behaviors effectively.

1. Rigid Self-Control

“Can strict rules alone protect us from the pitfalls of online gambling?”

Rigid self-control is essential for setting and adhering to personal limits on time and money spent gambling online. This approach involves strict adherence to pre-established rules and habits, which can provide a stable framework for managing gambling behaviors. For instance, online gamblers might set strict budgets or time limits before engaging in gambling activities. This can be particularly effective in preventing impulsive behaviors that lead to significant losses.

However, the inflexibility of rigid self-control can become a liability in the dynamic online gambling environment. When unexpected situations arise, such as changes in game rules, promotions, or personal circumstances, individuals with rigid self-control may struggle to adapt. This rigidity can result in problematic gambling behaviors, such as chasing losses or deviating from initial strategies, which can exacerbate gambling addiction.

Real Life Scenario:

  1. Mark’s Budget Rule: Mark sets a strict weekly gambling budget. When a special promotion arises, he can’t adjust his budget, leading to frustration and either missing out or overspending.
  2. Lisa’s Time Limit: Lisa strictly limits her gambling to one hour each evening. When a special event runs longer, she either misses out or breaks her rule, leading to extended play and fatigue.

2. Flexible Self-Control

“Is the ability to adapt our best defense against the unpredictability of online gambling?”

Flexible self-control is crucial for adapting to the dynamic and often unpredictable nature of online gambling platforms. This approach involves adjusting behaviors based on the context and evolving circumstances, allowing gamblers to respond effectively to new information or feedback. For example, flexible self-control enables gamblers to modify their betting strategies in response to changing odds, game developments, or personal financial situations.

Research indicates that online gamblers who exhibit flexible self-control are better equipped to handle the variability and risks associated with online gambling. Flexible self-control supports resilience and the ability to cope with new challenges without resorting to maladaptive habits. This adaptability is particularly beneficial in the fast-paced and ever-changing environment of online gambling, where flexibility can prevent the escalation of gambling problems.

User Experiences:

  1. Lisa’s Adaptive Budgeting: Lisa adjusts her gambling budget based on promotions and her financial situation. When multiple promotions appear, she reallocates her spending to take advantage without overspending.
  2. Mark’s Variable Time Limits: Mark sets flexible time limits for gambling. When a special event extends, he plays longer but reduces his playtime the next day, balancing enjoyment and control.

This flowchart, based on research by Moccia et al., 2017 shows the paths of rigid versus flexible self-control when encountering a gambling opportunity. The rigid path involves strict rules, leading to struggles in unexpected situations. The flexible path involves context assessment, behavior adjustment, and responding to new information, supporting adaptive behavior.

You can see how rigid and flexible self-control strategies play out in real-life situations. While rigid self-control provides structure, it can lead to challenges when adapting to new circumstances. Flexible self-control allows for better adaptation and resilience, crucial for managing the dynamic nature of online gambling.

Implications for Responsible Gambling

The interplay between rigid and flexible self-control has significant implications for responsible gambling practices in North America. Understanding these concepts can inform the development of interventions and support systems designed to promote safer gambling behaviors.

  • Education and Awareness: Educating gamblers about the benefits and limitations of both rigid and flexible self-control can empower them to choose strategies that best suit their individual needs and the dynamic nature of online gambling.
    • Books
    • Podcasts
      • The Science of Self-Control: This podcast delves into various aspects of self-control, offering insights and practical tips for maintaining it in daily life. Available on major podcast platforms.
      • Against the Podds: Focuses on personal stories and expert advice on managing gambling addiction and improving self-control. Available on Spotify.
    • Websites
      • Gambling Therapy: A global service offering free practical advice and emotional support to anyone affected by problem gambling.
  • Tools and Resources: Providing tools and resources that support both rigid and flexible self-control strategies, such as budgeting apps, self-exclusion options, and real-time feedback mechanisms, can help gamblers maintain control over their behaviors.
    • Rigid Self-Control Tools
      • Budgeting Apps: MintYNAB
        • Usage: Helps gamblers set strict financial limits by tracking spending and maintaining budgets.
        • Benefit: Prevents overspending by providing a clear financial overview.
      • Self-Exclusion Programs: Gamban
        • Usage: Allows individuals to exclude themselves from all online gambling activities for a set period.
        • Benefit: Provides a strong barrier to gambling, helping to break harmful habits.
      • Time Management Tools: RescueTimeStayFocusd
        • Usage: Tracks and limits time spent on any websites including gambling sites.
        • Benefit: Ensures gamblers do not exceed their self-imposed time limits.
    • Flexible Self-Control Tools
      • Mindfulness Apps: HeadspaceCalm
        • Usage: Promotes mindfulness practices to help gamblers stay present and make better decisions. 
        • Benefit: Enhances cognitive flexibility by reducing stress and improving focus.
        • Note: I have personally used Headspace for years and in my experience the app has helped me be more mindful, calm, focused, and relaxed in stressful situations.
      • Adaptive Budgeting Tools: GoodBudget
        • Usage: Allows for flexible budgeting, adjusting spending limits based on current financial situations.
        • Benefit: Enables gamblers to adapt their budgets in response to changing circumstances.
      • Real-Time Feedback Mechanisms: BetBuddy
        • Usage: Provides immediate feedback on gambling behavior, alerting users to potential issues.
        • Benefit: Helps gamblers adjust their behavior in real-time, promoting healthier gambling habits.
  • Therapeutic Interventions: Interventions that enhance cognitive flexibility, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or transcranial direct current stimulation, can be effective in helping individuals with gambling disorders develop more adaptive self-control strategies.
    • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
      • How it works: CBT focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with gambling. It involves identifying and challenging irrational beliefs and developing healthier coping strategies.
      • Accessibility: Available through licensed therapists, online platforms, and self-help books.
      • Results: Effective in reducing gambling frequency and severity by addressing underlying cognitive distortions. Research supports CBT as one of the most effective treatments for gambling addiction​ (Casey, L.M., Oei, T.P.S., Raylu, N. et al.)​​.
    • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS)
      • How it works: Non-invasive brain stimulation that enhances cognitive flexibility and decision-making by applying a low electrical current to specific areas of the brain.
      • Accessibility: Administered in clinical settings, with ongoing research into at-home devices.
      • Results: Shows promise in improving self-control and reducing gambling urges. Studies indicate tDCS can help enhance decision-making and reduce compulsive behaviors​ (Martinotti, Giovanni, et al)​.
    • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
      • How it works: Teaches mindfulness meditation techniques to reduce stress and improve emotional regulation, helping individuals stay present and manage their impulses better.
      • Accessibility: Available through courses, online programs, and apps (listed below).
      • Results: Increases cognitive flexibility, helping individuals manage gambling impulses more effectively. Research indicates mindfulness can significantly reduce gambling behavior by improving emotional regulation​ (De Vibe, Michael, et al.)​.
    • Support Groups
      • How it works: Provides a community of individuals with similar experiences, offering emotional support and practical advice in a group setting.
      • Accessibility: Available through organizations like Gamblers Anonymous and online forums. Gamblers Anonymous is totally free for US citizens but availability may be limited in your state so be sure to check with their website.
      • Results: Enhances coping strategies and reduces feelings of isolation, supporting long-term recovery. Support groups are shown to be effective in providing peer support and accountability​ (Binde, Per)​.