Improve Your Gambling Odds – Do Not Think Like a Winner

My Aunt C. took up an unlikely hobby after her retirement as a school teacher. Not long after she read her last Dr. Seuss to a roomful of children, a flashing neon sign on the highway lured her to the new casino. From then on, whenever my parents visited Aunt C., I no longer heard about golf scores but of small wins at the slot machines at the casino.

The Curse of the “Almost Winners”

Despite Aunt C’s loyal business, the blackjack tables were not always happy to see the thrice-weekly visitor with the sharp sixth sense. The casino was more interested in her revolving coterie of friends, especially the near-missers. Near-missers are gamblers who breakeven or come close to winning at the slot machines, roulette tables, poker games and other games of chance. As long as they are not incurring major losses, these ‘almost winners’ keep returning expecting their luck to turn in their favor. Previously, scientists have attributed this intoxicating behavior to the dopamine effect — the feel-good hormone that reinforces behavior.

Scientists now have the brain images to show what they suspected all along about near-missers — these losers think they are winners. More specifically, a near win triggers the same reward circuitry as a win. Both winners and near-missers have more theta-band activity in the insula and right orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) of the brain. This near-miss effect is what makes pathological gamblers return to the blackjack table even though they are not winning.

Gambling While High on Theta

Theta waves (4–7 Hertz or cycles per second) are associated with zoning out. If you just missed five minutes of your business meeting, you were likely in the theta zone daydreaming. Theta oscillations in the prefrontal cortex create a number of other faulty circuitry that may predispose us to take more risks. When theta brainwave activity is high, humans are more apt to circumvent the human instinct to act in a way that gains rewards and avoids punishment to achieve a goal. The rational man may choose to walk away from the casino’s offer of free chips to stay in a high stakes blackjack game. The irrational man may take the offer even though he has six month’s salary at risk, beating his built-in instinctual bias to avoid the high potential losses.

Gamblers high on theta from a winner’s mentality are less likely to cooperate and more likely to increase the potential losses of all players. In an ultimatum game, players with prefrontal theta oscillations were less likely to adapt their behavior to cooperate with an adversary and maximize earnings in a game. In a strategic game such as Mahong that requires cooperation, a selfish winner’s mentality can be a form of self-sabotage. In blackjack, a player on a theta high may forego a gentlemanly wager and raise the stakes far beyond the comfort level of all players.

Are the Odds Stacked Against You?

Manufacturers of gambling machines well aware of the near-miss effect have been accused of designing gambling machines and games of chance to create more near misses than chance. Over time, a higher number of near misses in gambling machines has been shown to lower performance. The suspected rigging of gambling machines for near misses is at the center of several lawsuits. Calling on the latest research, pathological gamblers can now present evidence, in the form of brain images, of how manipulating the number of near misses feeds their gambling addiction.

The gambling industry is exploiting our predisposition to breakeven in games of chance. When we spend an entire evening at the slot machines our schooling tells us that, at the very least, we will breakeven — according to the theory of probability, a basis of all fields from science to psychology since 17th century Frenchmen developed it while debating the outcomes of a roll of dice. The laws of probability dictate that if a coin is repeatedly tossed, over time, it will come up heads 50% of the time and tails 50% of the time.  Even if the gambler has experienced losses, he will still find betting opportunities that provide the prospect to breakeven attractive, according to Richard Thaler, the founding father of behavioral economics.

Despite what the positive psychologists say, in gambling, thinking like a winner when you are not winning is likely to lead to losing more money.


Billeke P, Zamorano F, López T, Rodriguez C, Cosmelli D, & Aboitiz F (2014). Someone has to Give In: Theta Oscillations Correlate with Adaptive Behavior in Social Bargaining. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience PMID: 24493841

Dymond S, Lawrence NS, Dunkley BT, Yuen KS, Hinton EC, Dixon MR, Cox WM, Hoon AE, Munnelly A, Muthukumaraswamy SD, & Singh KD (2014). Almost winning: Induced MEG theta power in insula and orbitofrontal cortex increases during gambling near-misses and is associated with BOLD signal and gambling severity. NeuroImage, 91C, 210-219 PMID: 24457067

Oberg, S., Tata, M. S., & Gruber, A. J. (2013, January). The Value of Uncertainty: A Reinforcement Learning Model of Increased Risk Seeking During Gambling With Near-Miss Outcomes. In JOURNAL OF COGNITIVE NEUROSCIENCE (pp. 178-178). 55 HAYWARD STREET, CAMBRIDGE, MA 02142 USA: MIT PRESS.

Thaler, R., & Johnson, E. (1990). Gambling with the House Money and Trying to Break Even: The Effects of Prior Outcomes on Risky Choice Management Science, 36 (6), 643-660 DOI: 10.1287/mnsc.36.6.643

Image via Fer Gregory / Shutterstock.

Catherine Leona, BA

Catherine Leona, BA, is an economist and business journalist with an interest in behavioral economics, the intersection of neuroscience and law, and the use of our sixth and seventh senses in business and life. She holds an Honors BA in English and Political Science and is pursuing postgraduate work in economics and psychology.
See All Posts By The Author