New technology has increased the thrill of winning. But what happens in the brain when we lose?
Did you know that losing a bet or wager produces a biochemical brain response that is different from that of experiencing an emotional loss? In this article will take an in-depth biochemical, social and psychological look into how our brains respond to the feeling of losing.
Gambling and risk seeking behaviours
Gambling is essentially a risk-reward pathway driven by perceived uncertainty. Some believe skill or luck play a role, however whether it’s the size of a jackpot or the probability of winning at all the reward pathway is what keeps people hooked, even when they lose (1).
This aspect of rewarding uncertainly plays a crucial role in gambling’s attraction to most people. Gambling is often framed as a “game of chance” and promoted as ways to socialize, engage in easy access thrill seeking and heighten the enjoyment of collective engagement events (such as sports). This understanding of the edition of gambling is what up to 80% of Americans will engage with at some point during their lives, citing reasons such as for the enjoyment factor, thrill seeking or to socialize (2).
Those that view gambling more as a skill and way to generate money have a different psychological perspective and are so affected differently when experiencing a gambling loss.
Regardless of the initial behavior that causes some to gamble, it is clear that risk seeking behavior is key, being compounded by a risk-reward pathway that can be active even when we lose (which is how some people become addicted even when they continue to lose).
To understand why losing can also activate the risk-reward pathway we need to first understand what happens to our brain when we lose.
What happens to our brain when we lose?
Repeated exposure to gambling and uncertainty can change how your brain and behavior respond to losing. What is counterintuitive, is that individuals who suffer from an unhealthy relationship with gambling or those who suffer repeated losses can have the same risk-reward release of dopamine almost to the same degree that winning does.
Those gamblers that have consecutive losing streaks often get the urge to keep playing, hoping to earn the money back, or to continue the risk-taking behavior rather than internalizing the disappointment and realization of losing, which would make most rationale people to end the behavior and walk away. This is a phenomenon behavioral economists and clinical psychologists call ‘chasing the losses’.
Gambling is a complex societal and cultural activity, that is often in a fully immersive environment that is not just about the positive feeling of winning or the negative feeling of losing. This is particularly apparent with casino, which is a fully immersive experience with music, lights and an exciting atmosphere.
However, even a game or gambling app on a smartphone includes plenty of audio and visual stimuli to ensure high attention and engagement with the user, providing other enjoyment than simply the risk seeking and pleasure of a ‘win’. Some studies suggest that these lights and sounds become more attractive and capable of triggering urges to play when they are paired with reward uncertainty.
In particular, win-associated cues – such as jingles that vary in length and size as a function of jackpot size – both increase excitement and lead gamblers to overestimate how often they are winning and distract from the statistical calculation of wins Vs losses in a rationale comparison. Crucially, these aspects are used in combination to keep you gambling longer and encourage you to play faster.
The bio-chemical reactions in the brain when we lose
Dopamine, the neurotransmitter the brain releases during enjoyable activities such as eating, sex and drugs, is also released during situations where the reward is uncertain. In fact dopamine release increases particularly during the moments leading up to a potential reward (3).
This anticipation effect might explain why dopamine release parallels an individual’s levels of gambling “high” his or her gambling habbits. It likely also plays a role in reinforcing the risk-taking behavior seen in gambling. Studies have shown that the release of dopamine during gambling occurs in brain areas similar to those activated by taking drugs of abuse. In fact, similar to drugs, repeated exposure to gambling and uncertainty produces lasting changes in the human brain.
These reward pathways, similar to those seen in individuals suffering from drug addiction, become hypersensitive. Animal studies suggest that these brain changes due to uncertainty can even enhance gamblers’ cravings and desire for addictive drugs (4). Since games of chance are set up so the house always has an advantage, a gambler wins infrequently at best but the enjoyment is measured or felt, more widely than a pure transaction cost of winning and losing.
It is these externalities to enjoyment that allows people to come back to gambling even when they lose. Gambling triggers the brain’s reward system which is linked primarily to the pleasure and motivation centers and releases dopamine into the body. This is why we feel elated while we ‘put it on the line’ and take bigger risks to enhance this risk-reward cycle.
Dopamine is the dominant power driver and the chief neurotransmitter in the reward system (5). Gambling stimulates a thrill which triggers the reward system to release up to 10 times more than the amount natural rewarding experiences would produce. This could suggest that the motivation to gamble may be somewhat determined by this inability to predict reward occurrence and are key biochemical explanations of why people develop a gambling addiction.
The ‘near-miss effect’ on the brain
The near-miss effect in gambling refers to a losing situation that is (or perceived to be) close to a win by the gambler (6). This effect is one of the many cognitive distortions that can occur during gambling games. The rise of electronic gambling machines also means that rather than being constrained by the physical arrangement of different possible outcomes on each reel, possible outcomes are programmed onto a set of virtual reels 7).
Gaming designers can therefore stack the deck to make certain events occur more frequently than others. This includes near-misses, where one of the reels stops just short of lining up for a jackpot. These near-miss almost-wins recruit areas of the brain that usually respond to wins, and increase one’s desire to play more, especially in problem gamblers. This phenomenon is not confined to slot machines and casinos. Near-misses play an integral part in the addictive potential of smartphone games like the very popular “Candy Crush.” (Habib and Dixon, 2010).
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Kassinove, J.I. and Schare, M.L., 2001. Effects of the” near miss” and the” big win” on persistence at slot machine gambling. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 15(2), p.155.