Study uncovers why almost winning is just as good for some gamblers

February 25, 2014

A new study led by the University of Exeter and Swansea University has pinpointed the changes in the brain that lead gamblers to react in the same way to near-misses as they do to winning.

The research shows that near-misses are underpinned by increases in the 's electrical activity, particularly in the theta frequency range - known to be involved in processing win and loss outcomes.

They found that these increases in theta are linked to both how severe someone's gambling history is and how susceptible they might be to developing a future gambling problem.

Popular games, as found in many high street betting shops, have subtle ways of telling players not just whether they have won or lost, but also whether they 'almost won'.

One of the best understood is the so-called near-miss effect, when a losing slot machine display physically resembles a win display (such as two out of three matching symbols on the payline).

Near-misses are actually losses, but previous research has shown that they may promote continued gambling because the brain interprets them as being similar to wins.

The new research, led by Dr Natalia Lawrence of the University of Exeter and Dr Simon Dymond at Swansea University, shows that in gamblers, near-misses produce some similar increases in brain theta (4-7 Hertz) activity to wins.

Dr Lawrence, of Psychology, said: "Our findings show for the first time that gamblers have an exaggerated theta response to almost winning in related to reward processing, which could contribute to them continuing to gamble despite their losses. If replicated, these brain activity changes could help us identify those vulnerable to gambling addiction and might be a useful measure of the effectiveness of therapy for gambling related problems."

Dr Dymond, Reader in Psychology, added: "Problem gambling is a growing social concern, and the brain and behavioural effects of 'almost winning' are now well documented. Advances in brain imaging techniques mean we are now able to pinpoint the precise brain regions involved in the near-miss effect and identify how they interact with people's vulnerability to problem gambling."

The researchers studied male gamblers and non-gamblers and exposed them to simulated slot machines presenting win, loss and near-miss outcomes. They underwent a brain scan using a technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG), which measures both the timing and location of to different gambling outcomes.

It emerged that theta activity increased in response to near-misses relative to other losses in brain regions such as insula and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which was linked to gambling severity.

Dr Dymond added: "It is important to point out that this study does not show that brain responses to near misses cause gambling problems; that vulnerability to gambling problems can be predicted by theta changes or that the present findings apply to everyone as only males with some gambling experience were included in the study.

"We can, however, conclude that brain responses to near-misses resemble those to actual wins; that brain responses to near-misses are associated with increased theta activity in gamblers and that gamblers' level of reported gambling severity and susceptibility to thoughts about predicted activity in brain regions are responsible for the near-miss effect."

This article is published in the latest issue of leading neuroscience journal, NeuroImage.

Explore further: Gamblers in a spin over frustrating losses

More information: NeuroImage, 91, 210-219.

Related Stories

Gamblers in a spin over frustrating losses

October 9, 2012
A new study provides evidence that gamblers interpret near-misses as frustrating losses rather than near-wins. This frustration stimulates the reward systems in the brain to promote continued gambling, according to Mike Dixon ...

Scientists reduce behaviors associated with problem gambling in rats

October 29, 2013
With the help of a rat casino, University of British Columbia brain researchers have successfully reduced behaviours in rats that are commonly associated with compulsive gambling in humans.

Gamblers like noisy slot machines—it reinforces the rewarding feeling after a win

July 2, 2013
Winning sounds on slot machines make gambling more exciting, according to a new study by Mike Dixon and colleagues from the University of Waterloo in Canada. Moreover, their work shows that sounds also cause players to overestimate ...

Recommended for you

Depression changes structure of the brain, study suggests

July 21, 2017
Changes in the brain's structure that could be the result of depression have been identified in a major scanning study.

Many kinds of happiness promote better health, study finds

July 21, 2017
A new study links the capacity to feel a variety of upbeat emotions to better health.

Study examines effects of stopping psychiatric medication

July 20, 2017
Despite numerous obstacles and severe withdrawal effects, long-term users of psychiatric drugs can stop taking them if they choose, and mental health care professionals could be more helpful to such individuals, according ...

Study finds gene variant increases risk for depression

July 20, 2017
A University of Central Florida study has found that a gene variant, thought to be carried by nearly 25 percent of the population, increases the odds of developing depression.

In making decisions, are you an ant or a grasshopper?

July 20, 2017
In one of Aesop's famous fables, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The jovial grasshopper has a blast all summer singing and playing, ...

Perceiving oneself as less physically active than peers is linked to a shorter lifespan

July 20, 2017
Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about equally active as other people your age?

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.