Near Misses Feel Like Wins to a Gambler's Brain

Coming up one cherry short of the slot machine jackpot still provides a rush for a problem gambler, even though this near-win technically still is a loss.

"When you look at the machine and the first two [matching symbols] come down, the excitement and adrenaline builds up for that final one," says Donna Zaharevitz, 66, a recovering gambler.

"Even if you don't win, you know it's going to hit [eventually], because all the near misses keep you more entranced in the machine itself," says the Connecticut native, who has been gambling-free since 2001.

This near-miss rush, while mild among recreational gamblers, is almost as intense a rush for the brain as an actual win for those with gambling problems, according to new research from the U.K.

Though the near-miss rush has been observed among gamblers for decades, a University of Cambridge study offers a biochemical explanation for why compulsive gamblers get such a rush from the game even when they are losing.

Using fMRI scans, researchers compared brain activity in a casual gambler to that of a compulsive gambler when they played a computerized slot machine. They found that problem gambler's brains reacted to near-wins almost as strongly as with actual wins, with the areas of the brain associated with reward lighting up.

In this way, problem gambler's brains reward them for almost winning, and "this encourages more and more play," says Dr. Luke Clark, the lead author on the study.

Clark says that this research may help explain why problem gamblers keep playing when they are losing, while causal gamblers will give up and go home.

Betting on the Brain

Everyone's brain has a mild response to almost winning money, Clark says. In a study he did last year, he found that even in [non-gambling] student volunteers, near misses light up the same reward center in the brain as actual wins do, just not to the same extent.

Our brains work this way because they are used to responding to skill games, like soccer, not chance situations like a slot machine, he says. Nearly missing the goal in soccer teaches us how to adjust our strategy and the brain rewards us for gaining this knowledge.

"But in gambling games, those near misses are not useful; it doesn't tell you anything about what to do next on a slot machine," Clark says.

But the reward response is still there, and in gambling addicts, it's extra strong.

What's more, the more severe the problem gambling symptoms in a subject, the more their brains respond to almost winning in the study. For example, the more gambling debt a subject had, the more likely they were to have a strong positive reaction to almost winning.

Past research has tied the gambling high to increased levels of dopamine, a chemical tied to pleasure and feelings of reward, and it is the "dopamine center" of the brain that is affected during this rush.

In the past, health experts were guessing at why people kept playing even when losing, says Joanna Franklin, chief trainer for the Institute on Problem Gambling, but with this research, they're actually seeing the neurological explanation for why problem gamblers respond differently than recreational gamblers to a losing situation.

Mary Sojourner, a recovering gambling addict and author of the memoir/self help book, "She Bets Her Life," says the dopamine response results in an addictive buzz.

"Eventually, you are playing not for the money, but to stay in the zone because it feels peaceful and a little jazzy," she says.

The machines were even designed to capitalize on that "just keep trying" feeling, she says, with little messages on the video game versions popping up after a near-miss to say, "Not quite! Almost!"

True Addiction vs. Moral Depravity

While problem gamblers often will compare the betting buzz to highs gained from cocaine or other substances, calling gambling an addiction -- and thus putting it on par with substance addictions like alcoholism -- is still a contentious claim among some in the field.

"Classifying gambling as a behavioral issue has brought up some problems because it doesn't quite fit," says Dr. Timothy Fong, director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program.

"Some people said it is like obsessive compulsive disorder," he says. "Some people said it was just people being depressed and acting out through gambling. Other people said this is a byproduct of people being antisocial."

As such, gambling problems have "much greater stigma in society and in the medical community," he adds, because they're not always seen as a legitimate medical issue.

"It is an addiction that a lot of people don't understand," Zaharevitz says, "because nothing is ingested, there's nothing to smell on our breaths, there are no track marks on our arms ... but it is a true addiction."

It is one that, in her case, led her to commit a felony to get a fix -- stealing a neighbor's checks in order to continue gambling when the money ran out.

Fong and Franklin agree with the drug abuse comparisons, saying that gambling problems are "absolutely" an addiction, as evidenced by the changes in the brain.

"Society tends to judge this behavior, saying, 'Oh, they're immature, they're lazy,'" Franklin says. "But now, when you look inside the brain, it helps us see the 'keep playing' message as more of a hard wiring difference. This study goes a long way towards understanding what makes the person with a gambling problem behave this way."

With the help of research like Clark's, public perception of gambling issues is now shifting, experts say, and with it the stigma attached to this problem.

Research like this "makes it much easier to stop judging problem gamblers and start helping," Franklin says.