Why Gamblers Can't Walk Away
A near miss gives that winning feeling, study finds
By Nick McMaster,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 5, 2010 4:55 PM CST
Gamblers sit at the roulette wheel at a casino in downtown Moscow, Monday, June 29, 2009.   (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

(Newser) – Scientists have unlocked a key to obsessive gambling—the lure of the near miss. In search of the reason gamblers keep playing even after strings of horrible losses, Cambridge University researchers examined the brains of gamblers. They found that a near miss—putting a bet on a horse that finished second, for example—stimulates areas of the brain nearly identical to those that respond to winning.

The reason has to do with our fundamental learning mechanisms, LiveScience reports. "A near miss is a signal that you're acquiring the skill, so it makes sense that your brain processes them as if they were a win," explains the lead researcher. "In a game of skill like soccer, a near miss might be hitting the post or cross bar." The problem is that gamblers' brains are confusing games of chance—in which near misses don't predict future success—with games of skill, and that keeps them returning to the table.