One of the most frequent questions that I am asked by both my students and the media is why gamblers continue to gamble despite the fact that (in the long run) they consistently lose. The simple answer is that they gamble because they get constant rewards from engaging in the behaviour. To a non-gambler, losing money doesn’t seem like a very rewarding activity.
To a gambler, there can be many different kinds of rewards. For instance, they could be financially rewarded (by winning money), physiologically rewarded (through an adrenaline rush by the thrill and the ‘buzz’ of the gambling itself), psychologically rewarded (through an increase of self-esteem) and/or socially rewarded (by getting peer praise from their friends). There are also many other things that can be rewarding in specific gambling settings because they produce excitement, arousal and tension. Obvious examples are things like the pre-race and race sequence at the race track, the flashing lights of a slot machine, or the spinning roulette wheel, the placing of bets.
One of the most interesting psychological rewards that I have carried out research into is the “near miss." In simple terms, near misses are failures that are close to being successful. In games of skill, near misses are very helpful as they give us useful feedback and encourages us to continue because we know that we were nearly successful in what we were trying to achieve. However, in activities of pure chance (such as buying a lottery ticket), such information is worthless as it gives absolutely no likelihood as to the chances of future success. Research has shown that gamblers experiencing near misses may view them as encouraging signs by confirming their strategy and by raising their hopes of winning.
In gambling situations, near misses encourage and induce continued gambling, and some commercial gambling activities (particularly slot machines and scratchcards) are deliberately designed to ensure a higher than chance frequency of near misses. In some of my own research, I have shown that gamblers appear to get as physiologically excited when they are nearly winning as when they are winning. Therefore, a gambler is not constantly losing but constantly nearly winning! And the near misses are both psychologically and physiologically rewarding. What’s more, it costs the gaming industry nothing to incorporate them into their products.
Unfortunately, because of features like the near miss, some types of gamblers (such as slot machine players) can become very hooked on playing. Characteristics such as the near miss are capable of producing psychologically rewarding experiences even in financially losing situations.
My research also shows that the psychology of the near miss appears to be being used now more than ever and in different ways to that with which it was traditionally used. On many slot machine games here in the UK, it is no longer just about the symbols on the spinning reels but about 'games within games' and players trying to get onto the 'feature games' that go on after the reel has stopped spinning. These games also utilize near misses.
Before I go I ought to add one more thing. Near misses only work up to a point. To increase the proportion of near misses in relation to wins will in the long term be self-defeating. Put simply, it is like crying "Wolf!" – gamblers will very quickly start to realise that near wins don’t pay out. However, from a gaming industry perspective, even a very slight manipulation of near misses may reap huge commercial rewards for them in the very long run.