Rigid Vs. Flexible Self-Control: Why We Struggle to Adapt and Lose More Money in Online Gambling

22 min read

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


Understanding the dynamics of rigid versus flexible self-control and cognitive control failures is key to managing impulses and addiction disorders including online gambling. In North America where online gambling is available at our fingertips, these insights are extra important.

  • Rigid Self-Control means a strict, inflexible approach to managing impulses and behaviors. People with rigid self-control stick to the rules or habits and it’s good for stable environments where responses don’t need to change. But it’s a problem when we need to adapt to new or unexpected situations and old rules no longer apply.
    • Example: Imagine someone who rigidly follows a daily routine: wake up at 6 AM, exercise for 30 minutes, breakfast by 7 AM. When they travel for work and the schedule changes, their strict adherence prevents them from adjusting. They skip exercise and breakfast and end up stressed and off track. This inability to adapt to new circumstances is what rigid self-control looks like.
  • Flexible Self-Control means a more adaptable approach where we adjust our behaviors based on the context and changing circumstances. This type of self-control is good for uncertain or changing environments where we can adjust our plans and behaviors based on new information or feedback. Flexible self-control is what helps us be resilient and cope with new challenges without falling back on old habits.
    • Example: Imagine someone who plans to exercise every morning but adjusts based on the day’s demands. If they have an early meeting they shift their workout to the evening or do a shorter session. This flexibility helps them stick to their fitness routine without added stress. By being flexible they stay resilient and handle changes well and avoid the pitfalls of a rigid schedule.

This study explores how these control types can influence online gambling behaviors and their implications for responsible gambling practices.

By looking at the neural and behavioral aspects we want to give a full picture of how self-control variations affect gambling behaviors. We will discuss the key findings from Odlaug et al. (2011), Moccia et al. (2017) and Soyata et al. (2018) to understand the mechanisms of pathological gambling and potential treatments.

Key Concepts

1. Rigid Self-Control

"Do strict rules protect us or leave us exposed?"

Rigid self-control means a strict, inflexible approach to managing impulses and behaviors. People with rigid self-control stick to the rules or habits. This is good for stable environments where consistent responses are needed, it’s reliable and predictable. But it’s a problem when we need to adapt to new or unexpected situations where change is required. When we face such situations people with rigid self-control struggle to adjust their behaviors and end up with 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) demonstrated that pathological gamblers often exhibit deficiencies in motor impulse control and cognitive flexibility. These deficits are more pronounced in individuals with rigid self-control, as they are less capable of adjusting their responses to changing gambling scenarios. The inability to modify behaviors in the face of new information can perpetuate gambling disorders.
  • Moccia et al. (2017) found that decreased activity in the orbitofrontal cortex is associated with impaired cognitive control in gambling disorders. This brain region is crucial for decision-making and adapting to new situations. Individuals with rigid self-control may find it challenging to regulate their gambling behavior when they cannot flexibly process and integrate new sensory information.
  • Soyata et al. (2018) explored the effects of transcranial direct current stimulation on cognitive flexibility. Their findings suggest that enhancing cognitive flexibility can improve decision-making in individuals with gambling disorders. This highlights the potential for therapeutic interventions that promote flexibility in self-control to mitigate the risks associated with rigid self-control strategies.

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.
  • 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: Mint, YNAB
        • 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: RescueTime, StayFocusd
        • 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: Headspace, Calm
        • 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)​.


Moccia et al.
Neural correlates of cognitive control in gambling disorder: a systematic review of fMRI studies
Soyata et al.
Effects of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation on Cognitive Flexibility in Gambling Disorder
Casey, L.M., Oei, T.P.S., Raylu, N. et al.
Internet-Based Delivery of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Compared to Monitoring, Feedback and Support for Problem Gambling: A Randomised Controlled Trial
Martinotti, Giovanni, et al
Cite Share Favorites Permissions ORIGINAL STUDIES Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Reduces Craving in Substance Use Disorders
De Vibe, Michael, et al.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for Improving Health, Quality of Life, and Social Functioning in Adults
Binde, P.
A Mutual Support Group for Young Problem Gamblers

Research Highlights

  1. Impaired Response Inhibition and Cognitive Flexibility in Pathological Gamblers
    1. Findings: Pathological gamblers show significant deficiencies in motor impulse control and cognitive flexibility compared to no-risk and at-risk gamblers.
    2. Implications: Deficits in these areas become more pronounced as gambling behavior becomes pathological.
    3. Reference: Odlaug et al., 2011.
  2. Neural Correlates of Decreased Cognitive Control in Gambling Disorder
    1. Findings: Decreased activity in prefrontal cortex areas, such as the orbitofrontal cortex, is linked to impaired cognitive control in gambling disorder.
    2. Implications: Highlights the role of these brain areas in sensory integration, decision-making, and emotional processing.
    3. Reference: Moccia et al., 2017.
  3. Effects of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation on Cognitive Flexibility in Gambling Disorder
    1. Findings: Transcranial direct current stimulation over the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex enhances decision-making and cognitive flexibility in individuals with gambling disorder.
    2. Implications: Suggests potential for this intervention as a therapeutic approach.
    3. Reference: Soyata et al., 2018.

Understanding the balance between rigid and flexible self-control is key to fostering responsible gambling habits. Our research highlights that both types of self-control play crucial roles in managing gambling behaviors, especially in the dynamic and accessible world of online gambling in North America.

Rigid Self-Control provides a stable framework for managing impulses by adhering to strict rules and habits. This approach is beneficial in stable environments but can become problematic when faced with unexpected changes. As seen in the findings by Odlaug et al. (2011), individuals with rigid self-control often struggle to adapt their behaviors in changing gambling scenarios, leading to potential maladaptive outcomes. Moccia et al. (2017) further illustrate how decreased activity in the orbitofrontal cortex contributes to impaired cognitive control, exacerbating the challenges faced by those with rigid self-control. However, interventions like transcranial direct current stimulation, as explored by Soyata et al. (2018), show promise in enhancing cognitive flexibility and decision-making, offering potential therapeutic strategies.

Flexible Self-Control, on the other hand, allows individuals to adapt their behaviors based on context and evolving circumstances. This adaptability supports resilience and effective coping mechanisms in the ever-changing online gambling environment. Odlaug et al. (2011) emphasize the importance of flexible self-control in maintaining control over gambling behaviors, while Moccia et al. (2017) highlight the role of the prefrontal cortex in fostering cognitive control and decision-making. Enhancing cognitive flexibility through interventions like those studied by Soyata et al. (2018) can improve outcomes for individuals with gambling disorders, underscoring the protective nature of flexible self-control.

Final Considerations

While the research is comprehensive, adding specific strategies tailored to different types of gamblers can provide practical insights:

Recreational Gamblers:

  • Establish personal limits on time and money spent gambling.
  • Use budgeting apps to manage finances.
  • Set strict self-imposed betting limits to keep gambling as a form of entertainment.

Problem Gamblers:

  • Engage in self-exclusion programs to limit access to gambling.
  • Seek counseling and join support groups for emotional and psychological support.
  • Undergo Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to understand and modify gambling behaviors.
  • Utilize personalized interventions based on specific gambling patterns and triggers.

The Responsible Gambling Tools That Can Help You

Several technological tools and apps can help manage self-control and promote responsible gambling:

  • Block Access: Gamban and BetBlocker - Block access to gambling sites across multiple devices, providing a physical barrier to online gambling.
  • Budgeting Apps: Mint, YNAB - Help gamblers track their spending and set financial limits.
  • Gambling Feedback: GamBan - Offers real-time feedback on gambling behavior, alerting users to potential problems before they escalate.

By incorporating these tools, gamblers can maintain better control over their activities and make more informed and responsible decisions.

Preventive Measures

Preventive measures are crucial in avoiding maladaptive gambling patterns and promoting long-term responsible gambling behavior:

  • Self-Assessment Tools: Regularly evaluate gambling habits and recognize early signs of problematic behavior.
    • Example: Lisa regularly uses GamTest to evaluate her gambling habits. By answering the 16 questions about her frequency and intensity of gambling, she identifies early signs of problematic behavior. When Lisa notices an increase in her gambling sessions, she takes a break.
  • Strong Support System: Establish a network of friends, family, and professionals for emotional and psychological support.
    • Example: Mark realized his gambling was getting out of control when he started missing family events. He confided in his close friends and family, who encouraged him to join Gamblers Anonymous. Their emotional support and the advice from fellow members helped him manage his gambling urges and stay accountable.
  • Regular Review and Adjustment of Limits: Adapt gambling limits (deposits, betting limits, and time limits) based on personal financial situations and life changes.
    • Example: Lisa sets a weekly deposit limit on her bet365 sportsbook account. After an unexpected car repair bill, she reduces her gambling budget to ensure she can cover her expenses. This adjustment helps her maintain control over her finances while still enjoying gambling as a pastime.
    • Tools: All US sportsbooks must offer features to set deposit, betting, and time limits that can be adjusted according to personal financial situations and life changes. They must offer these tools in order to be compliant with state regulations.
  • Cooling-Off Period: Set a cooling-off period to exclude yourself from gambling activities temporarily. Access is restored once the period expires.
    • Example: Mark noticed he was spending too much time gambling online, especially after stressful workdays. He sets a one-week cooling-off period through FanDuel’s responsible gaming tools. During this time, he cannot access his FanDuel account, giving him a break to reassess his habits.
    • Tools: Much like setting limits, cooling off periods are compulsory for US sportsbooks to implement in order to be compliant to state responsible gambling regulations.
  • Self-Exclusion: For those struggling with problem gambling, self-exclusion is available. Register on the voluntary self-exclusion lists in your state/province to be excluded from all gambling activities. 
    • Example: Lisa struggles with compulsive gambling. After discussing her situation with a counselor, she decides to self-exclude from all online gambling sites in her state of New Jersey. By registering on the self-exclusion list, she ensures she cannot access any gambling platforms, helping her focus on recovery.
    • Warning: Breaking the self-exclusion agreement can result in the following:
      • Confiscation of Winnings: Any winnings you obtain while violating the self-exclusion agreement can be confiscated.
      • Denial of Access: Casinos and online platforms will continue to deny you access to gambling activities.
      • Potential Fines: Although not common, there might be fines imposed on casinos for failing to enforce the self-exclusion list properly.
  • Transaction History: Reviewing your transaction history can provide a reality check on your gambling spending. It helps you understand your spending patterns and make informed decisions.
    • Example: Mark reviews his transaction history and is shocked to see how much he spent on gambling over the past month. This reality check prompts him to set stricter deposit limits and reduce his gambling budget. By regularly monitoring his transactions, Mark can keep better control of his spending.
    • Tools: If you are a customer of any US online sportsbook you have access to your transaction history. The location of the transaction history may be located in different places according to the sportsbook but typically it is within the banking section. Reach out to their customer service if you cannot find yours.

The insights gained from this research have significant implications for promoting responsible gambling practices. Educating gamblers about the benefits and limitations of both rigid and flexible self-control empowers them to choose strategies that best suit their needs. Providing tools and resources, such as budgeting apps and self-exclusion options, can help gamblers maintain control over their behaviors. Moreover, therapeutic interventions that enhance cognitive flexibility can aid individuals in developing more adaptive self-control strategies, ultimately fostering a safer and more informed gambling environment.

To end, the key to responsible gambling lies in understanding and balancing our own self-control mechanisms. By fostering both rigid and flexible self-control, we can better equip individuals to navigate the complexities of online gambling, promoting healthier and more sustainable gambling behaviors.

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