60-Second Science

Near Misses Motivate Gamblers

In a study in the journal Neuron, researchers found that the same brain areas in gamblers that get excited by winning lit up at near wins. Which is great news for the house. Christie Nicholson reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

The lure of gambling clearly comes from the chance of winning. But how exciting is it to almost win? A study in the February 12th issue of the journal Neuron looked at gambler’s brains’ reactions to “near misses,” such as when you get two cherries out of three at a slot machine. While gamblers describe near misses as more unpleasant than full misses, almost winning significantly increased the desire to keep gambling.

Fifteen subjects underwent brain scans as they gambled. Near misses activated the brains’ ventral striatum and anterior insula areas, which were also activated during random wins. The insula has been associated with drug craving and other addictive behaviors.

Interestingly, this effect only happened when gamblers had control of the lever. The inverse occurred when a computer took control. In that case, the near misses significantly demotivated the gambler to keep playing, and it was the complete misses that kept momentum alive. So next time, when you nearly get three cherries and you’re hyped up to try again, remember this is not like working on your golf swing—your odds at the slot machine don’t get better with practice.

—Christie Nicholson 

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