Scientists believe they have uncovered the secret of why gambling is so addictive: a near miss feels almost as good as a win.
The research could explain why people continue to gamble even when they know that the odds are against them.
Even though they lose, gamblers get a surge of excitement from almost hitting the jackpot, the study found.
It is this ‚hit‘ which spurs them on to continue gambling, even when they are losing.
„Gamblers often interpret near misses as special events, which encourage them to continue to gamble,“ said Dr Luke Clark, from Cambridge University, who led the study.
„Our findings show that the brain responds to near misses as if a win has been delivered, even though the result is technically a loss.“
These signs were red herrings, confusing the brain about the odds of winning, he said.
„On games where there is some skill involved, like target practice, it makes sense to pay attention to near-misses.
„However, on gambling games where the wins are random, like slot machines or roulette, near misses do not signal your future success.
„Importantly, our volunteers in this study were not regular or problem gamblers, and so these findings suggest that the brain may naturally respond to near misses in this way.“
The study looked at the reactions in the brains of 15 volunteers as they gambled on a fruit machine.
When the volunteers won on the machine their brains responded in the areas known to process natural rewards like chocolate and drugs, the study, published in the journal Neuron, found.
But near-misses, such as scoring two cherries and an orange, also caused activity in the same region.
When asked later the players described the near-misses as unpleasant, but said that they made them want to continue playing the game.
Those who responded more forcefully to near-misses were also more likely to agree with statements of problem gamblers, the study found, such as „losses when gambling are bound to be followed by a series of wins“.