Neurophilosophy

Near misses fuel gambling addiction

GAMBLING is extremely popular, with lottery tickets, casinos, slot machines, bingo halls and other forms of the activity generating revenues of more than £80 billion each year in the UK alone. For most people, gambling is nothing more than an entertaining way to pass the time. But for some, it becomes a compulsive and pathological habit – they spend increasing amounts of time gambling, because tolerance builds up quickly, and experience withdrawal symptoms when they aren’t gambling.

The terms “tolerance” and “withdrawal” are normally associated with drug addiction, and indeed pathological gambling is now considered as being akin to substance abuse. We know, for example, that monetary wins activate the brain’s reward circuitry. In pathological gamblers, however, these responses are dampened, so that increasingly larger wins are needed to produce the same rewarding effects. And according to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, near misses fuel the habit in regular gamblers, because they are almost as rewarding as wins.

Henry Chase and Luke Clark of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute in Cambridge have previously found that the brain responds to near miss gambling outcomes in much the same way it does to as winning. In moderate gamblers, both types of outcome activate the reward circuitry, and although near miss events are experienced to be somewhat less rewarding than wins, they nevertheless increase the desire and motivation to gamble. For games involving skill, near misses indicate an improvement in performance and spur the player to try again. But gambling is a game of chance, which distorts gamblers’ thought processes – near misses cause them gambler to overestimate both the level of skill involved and their chances of winning. This spurs them to continue gambling.

The new study extends these earlier observations to regular gamblers, with the aim of establishing whether or not the response to near misses is related to gambling severity. Chase and Clark recruited 24 regular gamblers, The participants were asked to perform a computerized gambling task while their brains were scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Two slot machine reels, each with the same six playing icons, were presented to the participants on the screen inside the scanner. In one condition, they were required to select an icon on the left reel and then spin the right reel. In another, the icon was randomly selected for them by a computer. If the icons matched after the reels stopped spinning, they were rewarded with a small amount of money.

After collecting the fMRI data, the researchers focused on the midbrain, which contains neurons that signal reward by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine. They again found that near misses activate the reward circuits, confirming the results of their previous study. Significantly, they also found that gambling severity, as measured prior to scanning by the South Oaks Gambling Screen, could predict the midbrain’s response to a near miss. The more severe a participant’s gambling habit, the stronger was the midbrain response to a near miss. In other words, near misses were most rewarding for the pathological gamblers, who experienced them as being almost as rewarding as a win. The participants who gambled less severely also found near misses rewarding, but to a lesser extent.

Manufacturers of gambling games have apparently known the rewarding effects of near misses all along, and they design slot machines in such a way as to exploit the cognitive distortions of gamblers. Using a technique called clustering, they create a high number of failures that are close to wins, so that what the player sees is a misrepresentation of the probabilities and randomness that the game involves. The gambler who nearly hits the jackpot will therefore want to continue playing, because he thinks he has a good chance of winning.

Related posts:


Chase, H., & Clark, L. (2010). Gambling Severity Predicts Midbrain Response to Near-Miss Outcomes. J. Neurosci. 30: 6180-6187. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5758-09.2010.

Clark, L., et al. (2009). Gambling Near-Misses Enhance Motivation to Gamble and Recruit Win-Related Brain Circuitry. Neuron 61: 481-490. [PDF]

Reuter, J., et al. (2005). Pathological gambling is linked to reduced activation of the mesolimbic reward system. Nat. Neurosci. 8:147-148 [PDF]

Comments

  1. #1 ToSeek
    May 14, 2010

    The one time in my life I acquired scratch-off lottery tickets, I noticed that they were all “close-but-no-cigar.” But I must be weird because it just pissed me off rather than making me want to try again.

  2. #2 femSpidwife
    May 14, 2010

    thanks! :)

    lets write them until the admit it, or stop doing it! i am writing them now!
    :)

  3. #3 arranomew
    May 15, 2010

    thanks! :)

    lets write them until the admit it, or stop doing it! i am writing them now!
    :)

  4. #4 Avattoir
    May 15, 2010

    So, is it possible that initial decision, to embark on a bout of gambling, work like turning off some critical-thinking switch in the brain? Surely that’s at least the most rational brake against the broader vulnerability to addiction; but could it mean more?

    Could it mean that the conscious decision to get on board a ride that you concede makes no sense means, not merely a dramatic increase in risk that you can’t get off, but, a voluntary submission to irrationality? And if so, what brain process takes one to that critical point of that last conscious, “rational”, voluntary choice, the one to turn off that switch?

    I’d suggest even that ‘governor off’ choice manifests an earlier loss of rational control, but that the dynamics in play once AT play, i.e. the subject of the Clarke et al studies, are different, particularly for those more inclined to rationality in making decisions. Is that difference measurable? Testable?

    I’d hypothesize that it is, both; but that the methodology in such a test would have to be enormously complex (biology plus psychoanalysis?) and the tools vastly more subtle. Could it be that ‘story’ is the furthest along we’ve got in this?

  5. #5 givejonadollar
    May 15, 2010

    I just published an older article from my blog yesterday that deals with the hypocritical gambling laws.

    As for the study above, I’m not terribly impressed. The same laws could be applied to other things too. Someone who has an aggressive gambling personality might also make for a fantastic businessperson in the right circumstances.

    Instead of overanalyzing it, how about making it legal? Through competition, the market will sort out the majority of the issues.

    And, the ones who are compulsive, won’t lose as much in a free market system as they would in one we have now.

    Which, essentially, is rigged through protectionism.

  6. #6 Romeo Vitelli
    May 18, 2010

    Don’t forget good old-fashioned operant conditioning. The venerable slot machine is as close an analogue of the Skinner box as you’re going to find in the real world.

    http://drvitelli.typepad.com/providentia/2009/02/playing-the-odds.html

  7. #7 BobbyEarle
    May 19, 2010

    Manufacturers of gambling games have apparently known the rewarding effects of near misses all along, and they design slot machines in such a way as to exploit the cognitive distortions of gamblers. Using a technique called clustering, they create a high number of failures that are close to wins, so that what the player sees is a misrepresentation of the probabilities and randomness that the game involves. The gambler who nearly hits the jackpot will therefore want to continue playing, because he thinks he has a good chance of winning.

    Since slot machines and video poker machines use random number generators, I am going to have to ask for a citation here.

  8. #8 Mo
    May 19, 2010

    @BobbyEarle: See this 2009 paper by Harrigan and Dixon.

  9. #9 BobbyEarle
    May 19, 2010

    Thank you, Mo. I will be looking it over later in the day, it looks very interesting.

  10. #10 Jack
    May 20, 2010

    Gambling addictions are serious and sometimes overlooked. I’d recommend looking into http://www.unityrehab.com if you feel you have any addiction. They’re affordable but offer the best services to help you reach a natural recovery. Through their programs they also teach you how to prevent from relapsing to take place. They’re highly recommended nationwide and have such a great reputation due to their high success rate. Great place indeed.

  11. #11 KS
    May 20, 2010

    I wonder if you could treat gamblers by reversing this process. Rig slot machines so they start off rewarding and then progressively stop being rewarding and actively avoid even near-wins. If gamblers were “forced” to play these for hours, maybe it would neutralize the relevant reward centers.

  12. #12 llewelly
    May 21, 2010

    BobbyEarle | May 19, 2010 3:01 AM:

    Since slot machines and video poker machines use random number generators, I am going to have to ask for a citation here

    This is terrible logic. A non-uniform distribution with a particular shape to the PDF is by far easiest to build and maintain if one starts with a good uniform random number generator as a base. If one wants a particular shape, one needs to write a particular mapping function. The mapping function is naturally much easier to design and maintain if it maps a uniform distribution to a non-uniform distribution rather than a non-uniform distribution to a different non-uniform distribution. It’s akin to building an origami animal; in almost all cases it’s easier to start with with a piece of quality flat paper, rather than a piece of paper that is already folded up into the wrong shape.

  13. #13 llewelly
    May 21, 2010

    givejonadollar | May 15, 2010 5:54 PM:

    As for the study above, I’m not terribly impressed. The same laws could be applied to other things too. Someone who has an aggressive gambling personality might also make for a fantastic businessperson in the right circumstances.

    Uh, the whole point of the study is that a behavior which is normally advantageous becomes dis-advantageous when one is gambling. It’s important because it helps us understand how the brain works, and why it works that way.

    Instead of overanalyzing it, how about making it legal?

    If you had actually read the article, you would have realized the study was conducted in a place where many sorts of gambling are legal.

    Through competition, the market will sort out the majority of the issues.

    “market” thinking assumes participants are (a) rational actors, (b) have reliable information about product/service quality, and (c) consumers have information and understanding comparable to providers. All three of those assumptions are in denial of reality.

    Laws and regulations may or may not be a good way to reduce gambling addiction problems, but neuroscience like this is indicating that we cannot rely on “markets” to “sort out the majority of the issues”.

  14. #14 Dust
    May 22, 2010

    givejonadollar @ 3

    Instead of overanalyzing it, how about making it legal? Through competition, the market will sort out the majority of the issues. And, the ones who are compulsive, won’t lose as much in a free market system as they would in one we have now. Which, essentially, is rigged through protectionism.

    What llewelly said, plus this; as former galmbling addict, who developed a gambling addiction in a legal gambling environment, ie, the legal casinos of Lake Tahoe, NV, USA I must say you are full of shit.

    Commplusive gamblers will play to their last dollar, and then some, in a legal gambling environment. And all gambling games that I know of have ‘near misses’ whether slot machines or sports betting….Game over, would you like to play again?

  15. #15 Michelle Tee
    May 25, 2010

    Great post. Near misses are just as powerful as the real thing. The brain chemistry and the excitment level of near misses truly contribute to slot machine gambling addiction.

  16. #16 Dr Paul Dyer
    June 5, 2010

    The near-miss phenomena is fascinating and, when considered a reward in and of itself, helps support Behaviorists’ views of gambling behavior. For many years, research has shown that the most powerful operant conditioning reinforcement approach is one that follows a variable ratio schedule. When reinforcement comes periodically, and unpredictably in terms of the numbers of attempts needed to secure reinforcement, as it does in gambling, the stimulus-response bond is incredibly powerful and quite difficult to break. While many different theoretical schools could weigh in on how and why gambling is so addictive, we need little more than this simple Behaviorist model to predict how people will respond to the gambling industry.

  17. #17 M.Power
    September 1, 2010

    It’s all grist for the mill. It’s true that problem gamblers can make great businesspeople (and great sportspeople as well).
    I think a touchstone site is streets2success.com especially if you want a true case example.

  18. #18 geatteGrano
    September 25, 2010

    so informative, thanks to tell us.

  19. #19 kelly
    January 8, 2011

    Great Article it is so sad to what people create a euphoria
    through gambling or alcohol or drug addiction that in so many cases it ends their lives way to early.
    http://soberlivingbytheseablog.blogspot.com

  20. #20 noam schneck
    January 25, 2011

    What I found most interesting about this article was that it provides some support for the research which dissociates striatal reinforcement from pleasure (Robinson & Berridge, 1993). Activation of this area in a near miss is likely serving encoding reward prediction accuracy as opposed to the thrill of winning. A near miss may be supporting further gambling behavior even in the absence of reward, which may suggest a more habitual model of gambling.