How two cherries and a lemon can make your wallet feel lighter.

You’re in a Las Vegas Casino, ready to call it a night after overspending your budget. Just as you are about to leave, your friend suggests using one of the slot machines. You decide to give it a try- a win on the machine would really benefit you. You need three cherries in a row to win. The machine gives you one completely unlucky run. You try again, with no positive results. Would you make a third attempt?

Assuming the same slot machine gives you two runs of cherries in BOTH the first and the second attempt, would you make a third attempt?

Years of research on the cognitive biases that affect gambling behaviour would suggest that you will be likely to give up in the first situation and persist with the same machine in the second one. This is because in the second situation, you experienced what is known as a near miss. The machine ALMOST gave you three cherries in a row and this ‘near-win’ gives you hope that you will be third time lucky.

When an individual faces an obstacle that prevents them from attaining a goal that was almost satisfied, they experience feelings that characterize near misses. One of the key contributors to persistent gambling, it was traditionally assumed that near misses are accompanied solely by feelings of frustration*. However, research over the years has shown that the motivating factor behind near misses include their ability to generate feelings of excitement and curiosity, which serves as encouragement to gamble more. Near misses have shown to be involved with the brains reward circuitry –namely the striatum and insula (Clark, Lawrence, Astley-Jones & Gray, 2009) and therefore, near-misses encourage gambling even in the absence of monetary reinforcement. Additionally, dopamine transmission may be enhanced as a result of near misses, as found by Chase and Clark (2010).

Near misses lead to increased optimism about future gambling outcomes. It has been suggested that near-misses evolved to help us stay motivated in activities that require real skill*. While gambling has proven to be motivated by near misses, it is an activity in which success is often determined by luck and chance (this excludes professional gambling). The illusion of control (IOC), an influential theory by Ellen Langer, which suggests that individuals have a tendency to treat chance events as being within their control, may explain why gamblers are motivated by near misses. The IOC is highly pervasive in the gambling environment and Langer found that gamblers often tend to attribute skill to their gambles. Examples of the IOC are when gamblers throw dice softly for low numbers and harder for high numbers (Henslin, 1967) or when they express more confidence when they throw the dice themselves rather than have it thrown by someone else. Superstitious beliefs held by gamblers also foster IOC- these include chanting the numbers needed to win the game in the hope that that very number will come up*.

If gamblers perceive gambling as an activity that involves skill, near misses are likely to motivate them to continue gambling. In this way, the IOC and near-misses together contribute to persistent gambling behaviour. The power of a near miss to induce an adrenaline rush in an individual can also be observed in wide ranging consumption behaviours- a tennis enthusiast with a limited budget would be more likely to consistently prefer buying tickets to a Federer-Nadal match, where a near miss for one of the players is more likely than in another setting.

Casinos are well aware of the cognitive biases that affect gamblers and tailor the gambling environment to encourage persistent gambling. Slot machines are pre-set to provide a number of near misses that will make continuing gambling seem more desirable. Casinos also capitalize on the pain of paying (see previous article) and gamblers’ use of tokens and coins that substitute money makes losing the money hurt less. Windows in Casinos are a rarity, making gamblers lose all perception of time. Given such ingenious design of the gambling environment, my bets are on a newbie gambler taking a while to realize that they’ve been deceived by two cherries and a lemon.

Chase H. W., Clark L (2010), Gambling severity predicts midbrain response to near-miss outcomes. Journal of Neuroscience, 30, 6180-7.
Clark, L., Lawrence, A. J., Astley-Jones, F., & Gray, N. (2009). Gambling near-misses enhance motivation to gamble and recruit win-related brain circuitry. Neuron, 61, 481–490
Henslin, J.M. (1967). Craps and magic. American Journal of Sociology, 73, 316-330
Langer, E.J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 311-328.
Reid, R.L. (1986). The psychology of the near miss. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 2, 32-39


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