A psychophysiological and behavioural study of slot machine near-misses using immersive virtual reality
During slot machine gambling, near-miss outcomes occur when the final winning icon lands one position off the pay-line. To understand how near-misses promote gambling behaviour in healthy populations, autonomic arousal is often used to index outcome response valence. Findings remain equivocal, possibly owing to the limited ecological validity of computer simulations. Relevant psychological traits, such as impulsivity, which increase the risk of problem gambling, are often not examined. Here, we used immersive virtual reality (VR) to investigate near-miss-induced changes in physiological arousal and VR gambling behaviour. Sixty adult participants with no history of problem gambling were immersed in a VR casino-bar where they engaged with a self-selected slot machine. Real-time heart rate (HR) data were acquired during immersion. Within-subjects analyses were conducted on HR and post-reinforcement pauses (PRPs; i.e., time taken to initiate next-spin) across wins, losses and near-misses. Significant HR acceleration occurred for both near-misses and losses compared to wins, indexing an initial orientation response. Both types of losses were associated with faster next-spin responses. Near-misses did not apparently have unique HR or PRP profiles from losses, although this may reflect our loss control condition, which in itself may have been a subtler near-miss outcome. Impulsivity measured by the SUPPS-P was not associated with near-miss responses. Losses may encourage gambling as participants experience more immediate HR acceleration (indexing arousal unique to losing) and initiate faster responses. Future studies should clarify this effect by investigating problem gambling cohorts and develop VR paradigms taking into consideration the current findings and limitations.