Come On Big Money

Compulsive gambling may come from near misses triggering the reward system in the brain

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Do people gamble compulsively because they think they’ll win the next round, or to get rid of the bad feelings from losing the last one? New research points to the latter.

A recent study tested 122 people with gambling simulators for responses to certain scenarios.

Results found that frustration can trigger the reward system and fuel problem gambling.

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Mike J. Dixon, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, led an investigation into gambling behaviors.

For the study, 122 people were monitored while playing slot machines.

The participation group consisted of 22 people who played slots on a regular basis, but were not classified as problem gamblers; 37 were considered at risk gamblers; and 23 were problem gamblers.

Researchers tallied the time it took for players between a near-miss at scoring a jackpot and trying again. This bit of time was called the post-reinforcement pause (PRP).

Another test monitored the rate of electricity as it traveled through the skin as an indicator of frustration while gambling. This measure was called the skin conductance response (SCR).

SCR was measured for losses, near-misses, and wins of 5, 15, 25, 50 or 250 fake money credits.

Results of the tests showed that as the proportion of PRPs and SCRs were directly related to the size of the win.

That is to say, if a player won a small amount of credits they would take a small pause and have a small SCR; whereas, if they won a large amount of credits they would take a longer pause and have a greater SCR.

SCR was higher for near-misses when the first two reels would show jackpot symbols and then the third would not hit the jackpot compared to other types of losses.

PRPs for that same kind of near miss, two jackpots in a row then an unmatched symbol on the third, were “significantly smaller than regular losses.”

Dr. Dixon said, “Our findings support the hypothesis that these types of near-misses are a particularly frustrating form of loss, and contradict the supposition that they are a mis-categorized win.”

“Specifically, following these types of near-misses, participants may be driven to spin again as quickly as possible to remove themselves from a particularly frustrating state.”

Authors concluded that the research points to the reward system of the brain perceiving a near-miss as an almost-win. Reinforcing this reward system may play a key role in addictive gambling behavior.

This study was published in October in the Journal of Gambling Studies.

No financial information was given and no conflicts of interest were reported. 

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 17, 2012
Last Updated:
October 19, 2012