You walk into a neighbourhood variety store to pick up bread and milk, and - sure, why not - a scratch ticket from the lottery display.

Nothing comes up in the first two panels as you scrape away with a dime. But the third panel reveals one jackpot icon, then a second . . .

Oh, so close.

You almost win. It’s what is known as a “near-miss” and new research from the University of Waterloo’s Gambling Research Lab shows that almost winning at scratch tickets produces the same emotional response that problem gamblers get when they experience near-misses at the slot machines - the form of gambling most linked to gambling problems.

In the recent study, participants interpreted their near-misses with scratch tickets as highly arousing, frustrating losses and, like slot machine gamblers, they were faster to move onto the next game following a near-miss than if they had a winning outcome.

Scratch tickets like slot machines 

Madison Stange doing research

“It’s concerning to find that something seen as harmless fun could have something lurking behind it that was similar to slot machines,” says Madison Stange, a graduate psychology student at Waterloo and lead author of, “I was that close:” Investigating Players’ Reactions to Losses, Wins, and Near-Misses on Scratch Cards.

It would not be surprising if these “near-misses in scratch cards also increase desire or urge to gamble as they do in slot machines,” the study reported in the Journal of Gambling Studies. "This is a troubling prospect considering the existing availability and relatively benign reputation of these games.”

Stange’s work, under the supervision of Mike Dixon, chair of Waterloo’s Department of Psychology, and Candice Graydon, a PhD candidate, explored how people react to the near miss on a scratch-ticket. “We have all experienced that feeling,” Dixon said about playing scratch tickets. "Madison was the first to actually document it.”

Are scratch card lottery tickets suitable gifts for kids?

As with other lottery products, scratch tickets often end up as gifts parents buy for their under-18 children, the study points out. But there is a research void into whether the win-lose thrill the tickets instantly provide contributes to a problem later. It might give parents pause for thought as they reach for scratch tickets to put in their children’s Christmas stockings, Dixon said.

For the study, the research team printed scratch tickets with the look and function of real ones and then  recruited 38 undergraduate students as participants. To add even more authenticity, they invited the participants to select their tickets from a display case.

The players wore electrodes on one hand as they scratched game panels with the other. The electrodes measured changes in skin conductivity, which is the amount of sweat produced in response to the excitement of winning, losing or near misses. After they played, participants also answered a survey that ranked their level of frustration with each win/loss/near-miss event.

Stange conducted the research while still an undergraduate student in psychology. “It’s really unusual — and very gratifying — to have an undergraduate student turn around an honours thesis and get it published in a peer-reviewed journal that features some of the best work on gambling out there,” Dixon said. Stange’s academic excellence also earned her an award from the psychology department.

Now a masters student, Stange plans to continue her interest in scratch tickets. “I think I’m more cautious about these things,” she said. "When people ask me about them, I have more to say.”