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Guilt and pathological gamblers: UMass forum eyes behavioral problems linked to gaming

That’s largely why the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling is hosting two forums this month on problem gambling across the state, including a talk at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Wednesday that focused on excessive forms of interpersonal guilt experienced by college students who are pathological gamblers.

“We want more people to understand the research piece and the fact that problem gambling research is important,” said Margot Cahoon, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit health agency, which was founded in 1983. “And we’re going to need more of it to reduce the harms once casinos come.”

The talk by Geoffrey Locke, an adjunct assistant professor at the Smith College School for Social Work, focused on his research, which found that college-age students who are pathological gamblers experience more serious forms of interpersonal guilt compared to their peers who do not gamble. In many cases, that translates into an excessive concern for the well-being of others to the detriment of themselves.

“Guilt is an emotion; it’s kind of a complex emotion and it’s rooted in beliefs,” Locke told an audience of 15 people at the UMass Campus Center, many of them health workers and clinicians. “Some guilt is healthy for relationships, but when it’s excessive, it can be harmful.”

Locke defined pathological gambling as persistent, recurrent and leading to negative consequences, such as family, social and financial problems.

As someone who sees problem gamblers in his Amherst-based clinical practice, Locke noted that gambling addiction often happens very fast and can be triggered by a big win during early exposure to the habit.

Existing research has found more excessive forms of interpersonal guilt among substance abusers, but little to no research had been done in the area of pathological gambling. Locke examined separation, survivor, omnipotent responsibility, and self-hate guilt among the college-age gamblers in his study.

“Guilt is a powerful emotion,” Locke said. “It’s a great way to control people because it is so powerful.

“If you feel bad enough, there’s elements of self-sabotage,” he added.

Those who study and work at UMass say even without a casino nearby, gambling is part of student life.

“The gambling scene is certainly alive at the University of Massachusetts — primarily sports betting and poker and some lottery,” said 21-year-old Guillaume Pagnier, who is studying neuroscience and behavior as a graduate student at UMass.

Pagnier wrote his undergraduate thesis on the stress people feel while gambling and received a $1,500 grant to analyze students’ gambling behavior in a lab environment. He said he was interested in Locke’s talk to learn more about the interpersonal guilt pathological gamblers have from an economic standpoint.

“How people act with money, that really fascinates me,” said Pagnier, who is also interning at the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling.

One health worker at UMass said that while gambling is not one of the more prevalent behavioral issues experienced by students, it is a problem for some.

Diane Fedorchak, a project director for Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students at UMass, said her group has probably seen three students with serious gambling problems in the past decade, “but those three needed help,” she said.

“Every once in a while, I see a student gambler, and with casinos coming, we’ll see more of it,” Fedorchak said.

Locke’s talk addressed his specific research on guilt and pathological gambling and did not veer into a discussion of the potential impact of casino gambling in Massachusetts.

However, in a later interview, he said there will be a curiosity factor among college and university students when casinos open here. Among the popular trends he’s seen are students celebrating 21st birthdays at such venues.

“If it’s going to be right down the road, we will see more college students there,” he said.

He also cautioned about the notion that casino gambling is different from other forms of gambling. In Massachusetts, gambling has been legal for many years, primarily with the state lottery.

“We already have a huge gambling problem in this state,” Locke said. “A casino is not necessarily worse than the lottery. You can get into the same kind of trouble with both, especially when you have $20 and $25 (scratch) tickets.”

Philip S. Kopel, research and data director at the Massachusetts Council for Compulsive Gambling, said the agency wanted to hold its research forums at both ends of the state to reach a wide audience.

Next Tuesday, the council will host a talk by Natasha Dow Schüll, a cultural anthropologist and associate professor at MIT, who will speak at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge about her new book, “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.” The book explores the world of machine gambling and draws on 15 years of field research.

As the Princeton University Press describes it, “Schüll shows how the mechanical rhythm of electronic gambling pulls players into a trancelike state they call the “machine zone,” in which daily worries, social demands, and even bodily awareness fade away. Once in the zone, gambling addicts play not to win but simply to keep playing, for as long as possible — even at the cost of physical and economic exhaustion.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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