Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012) by Charles Duhigg
In 2010, a cognitive neuroscientist named Reza Habib asked twenty-two people to lie inside an MRI and watch a slot machine spin around and around.
I spoke to Reza Habib when I was reporting my book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, because I was researching the case of a woman named Angie Bachmann who had lost of $1 million gambling, and then had claimed in court that she shouldn't be held accountable for her losses, because the casinos had taken advantage of gambling habits over which she had no control.
It wasn't a ridiculous claim. Just a few years earlier, a man in Britain had defended himself from murdering his wife as they slept by claiming that he suffered from 'night terrors,' and that he had strangled her while dreaming of an intruder. His self-defense habits, he argued, had kicked in, and thus he bore no blame. He was set free by the jury. Bachmann was hoping for something similar, and was hoping that experiments like Habib's would make her case.
Half of the participants in Habib's experiment were “pathological gamblers” — people who had lied to their families about their gambling, missed work to gamble, or had bounced checks at a casino — while the other half were people who gambled socially but didn’t exhibit any problematic behaviors.
Everyone was placed on their backs inside a narrow tube and told to watch wheels of lucky 7s, apples, and gold bars spin across a video screen. The slot machine was programmed to deliver three outcomes: a win, a loss, and a “near miss,” in which the slots almost matched up but, at the last moment, failed to align. None of the participants won or lost any money. All they had to do was watch the screen as the MRI recorded their neurological activity.
“We were particularly interested in looking at the brain systems involved in habits and addictions,” Habib told me. “What we found was that, neurologically speaking, pathological gamblers got more excited about winning. When the symbols lined up, even though they didn’t actually win any money, the areas in their brains related to emotion and reward were much more active than in nonpathological gamblers.
“But what was really interesting were the near misses. To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. But to a nonpathological gambler, a near miss was like a loss. People without a gambling problem were better at recognizing that a near miss means you still lose.”
Two groups saw the exact same event, but from a neurological perspective, they viewed it differently. People with gambling problems got a mental high from the near misses— which, Habib hypothesizes, is probably why they gamble for so much longer than everyone else: because the near miss triggers those habits that prompt them to put down another bet. The nonproblem gamblers, when they saw a near miss, got a dose of apprehension that triggered a different habit, the one that says I should quit before it gets worse.
It’s unclear if problem gamblers’ brains are different because they are born that way or if sustained exposure to slot machines, online poker, and casinos can change how the brain functions. What is clear is that real neurological differences impact how pathological gamblers process information—which helps explain why Angie Bachmann lost control every time she walked into a casino. Gaming companies are well aware of this tendency, of course, which is why in the past decades, slot machines have been reprogrammed to deliver a more constant supply of near wins.