October 10, 2012, 1:32 PM — There aren't many situations in life where frustration provides its own form of reward, but for gamblers, just missing a winning bet can trigger a reward response in their brains that spurs them to continue gambling.
Which is why it's hard to drag someone who's on a painful losing streak away from a gambling table -- they are determined to convert their near-misses into a win, and their frustration fuels further betting.
New research from University of Waterloo (Ontario) psychology professor Dr. Mike J. Dixon studied the responses of 122 test participants to the results of a slot machine simulator. The researchers measured how much time elapsed between the results of a spin -- wins, losses and near-misses -- and when the players began another spin.
The experiment also accounted for physiological signs of frustration by measuring how fast electricity courses through subjects' skin. (Measurements of steam coming out of players' ears apparently weren't taken.)
Nearly half of the participants reported having gambling issues, with 23 being identified as "problem" gamblers and another 37 identified as "at risk."
The results, according to MedicalXpress:
The analyses showed that progressively larger wins led to longer pauses between spins and increased arousal levels. Near-misses with jackpot symbols landing on the first two reels led to significantly larger skin responses than regular losses and other types of near-misses. In addition, the gamblers were compelled to repeat the spin as quickly as possible after this type of near miss.
Because I only missed by one symbol, dammit! The next one has got to be a winner, because if it's not I'm going to go crazy! What a high! (Rough approximation of gambler's fevered and delusional interior monologue.)
Or as Dixon would say (in his comments about the research, quoted on Science 2.0): “By activating what we call the appetitive component of the mesolimbic rewards system, these near-misses may help a player develop a hopeful, subjective impression that the next win is imminent. This might ultimately contribute to the sensitization of the appetitive system, which plays a key role in addictive behavior.”
Not the kind of talk you'd usually hear around a blackjack table.
Dixon's research results were published in the Journal of Gambling Studies.