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Chasing losses: The goal post that keeps moving

By Kelly Tow (Clinical Psychology Registrar) & Dr Anastasia Hronis (Clinical Psychologist)

Have you ever put a lot of time and energy into something, only to reach a point where things just aren’t working out, but you feel you’ve invested too much valuable time and energy that it just doesn’t feel right to stop?

It’s a very common experience. It comes down to the fact that we, as humans, often find it hard to ‘cut our losses’ at the right time. Whether it’s that entire hour you spent trying to solve a puzzle to no avail, those hours you spent trying to fix something that just couldn’t seem to get fixed, or that movie that you knew was absolutely terrible about halfway through but that you just kept watching because, well, you’d already watched the first half and it seemed too late to stop… most of us have had trouble cutting our losses at some point in our lives.

However, the issue is that we tend to worsen the result for ourselves when we don’t cut our losses at a good time.

For example, in the case of the terrible movie that we’ve found ourselves halfway through, we are faced with two options: The first option is to watch the rest of the movie. The second option is to stop the movie and do something else with our time. We often end up choosing the first option because we say things to ourselves like “It might get better” or “I’ve already watched the first half, so it’s a waste of time if I don’t watch the second half”.

The problem here is that we have a pretty good idea that the rest of the movie is going to be equally as disappointing as the first half. In this sense, by choosing to continue watching, we are just setting ourselves up to waste another portion of our time on something that is not valuable to us. In contrast, if we chose to turn off the movie, knowing that it wasn’t likely to get much better, we would have the opportunity to use that time watching a better movie, or doing something else more fun or more valuable with our time.

So, what does this have to do with gambling? Well, our very same thought processes also apply to gambling, which makes it extremely hard to know when it’s the right time to cut our losses and stop.

After people experience a big loss in gambling, or after they notice how much money they’ve lost over the course of a gambling session (or a series of gambling sessions), it’s very common for people to then find themselves feeling desperate to win their money back.

That is, the more you lose, the more desperate you feel to gain the money back, and the more bets you find yourself placing to try and break even or to finish on an up.

What makes this all the more challenging is that some losses actually feel like 'near-misses'.

A near-miss is when the outcome from placing a bet feels like you could have almost won (for example, your horse comes second in a race, or you get “cherry-cherry-lemon” on a poker machine). These near-misses can encourage a person to feel hopeful for future wins. Therefore, even though winning outcomes are determined largely or purely by chance, a person can develop a feeling of control where they believe they can recoup past losses.

The issue is that this can all be a very vicious cycle and typically leads to further losses. This is because the unfortunate reality is that the odds are not in our favour. So, when you place additional bets, you’re likely to lose even more, and to subsequently feel even more desperate than you did before. It’s like trying to reach a goalpost that just keeps moving further and further away.

Just like the example of the terrible movie, while it might not seem the most desirable or comfortable option to tap out at a low point in gambling, doing so will stop you from worsening the situation further. It will stop you from losing more of your time, energy, and money.

Of course, tapping out is easier said than done. So, if it’s something you’ve found yourself struggling with, one of the best things you can do is to take a break after a loss, clear your mind (for example, by using Mindfulness Strategies, going for a walk, and/or heading home) and actively remind yourself that placing further bets is very unlikely to help the situation.

Also, try to check in with yourself and notice if you are interpreting a loss as a “near-miss”. If you notice the urge to place a further bet, you can experiment with strategies like Urge Surfing to help you to move through the urge. By clearing your mind a little and resisting the urge to chase your losses, you’ll be better placed to consider the most appropriate step forwards.

For some people, the most appropriate step forwards might include seeking some additional support to work through the situation. If you’d like some support on this topic or any other gambling issue you might want to talk about, call Gambler’s Help 1800 858 858.


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