The Strange Allure of Almost Winning


In Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, the cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull describes the extensive use of the “near miss” effect in slot machines. The effect exists when game designers engineer the reels to stop next to winning symbols far more often than predicted by random chance. Consider the tricks used by slot machine manufacturer Universal, which developed a two-stage process after each spin. The first stage determined whether or not the player won. If he lost – and most spins are losers - the second stage initiated the near miss effect, setting up the player to believe he had come exceedingly close to a real payout. For instance, there might be two 7s on the main payline, and then a third 7 just below.* Although near misses cost the casinos nothing, they provide gamblers with motivational juice, persuading people to stick with a game that’s stacked against them.  And so players keep losing money, because they almost won.

While the psychological power of near misses is an old idea – B.F. Skinner celebrated their influence in the early 1950s – scientists have only begun to glimpse their strange mechanics. In a 2009 Neuron paper, scientists found that near misses in a slot machine game recruited the mesolimbic reward machinery of the brain, just like actual wins. Other research has shown that people with a gambling addiction – roughly 1-5 percent of the population - show a larger than normal response in those same reward areas when exposed to near misses. In essence, their brains fail to differentiate between near misses and wins, which might play a role in their inability to step away from the casino.

What remains unclear, however, is why near misses are so influential, even among people without gambling issues. One possibility, explored in a new paper by Monica Wadhwa and JeeHye Christine Kim in Psychological Science, is that near misses trigger a particularly intense motivational state, in which people are determined to get what they want. In fact, according to Wadhwa and Kim, coming close to winning a reward can be more motivating than a real win. This suggests, rather perversely, that a gambler who keeps losing money with near misses will stay with the game longer than a gambler who actually wins some cash.

The scientists began by building their own digital game. Players were shown a grid containing sixteen tiles and were told to click on the tiles one at a time. Half of the tiles concealed a rock, while the other half concealed a diamond. The goal of the players was to uncover eight diamonds in a row. (Needless to say, the odds of this happening by chance are vanishingly slim.) Players were randomly assigned to one of three rigged conditions: a clear loss condition, in which they uncovered a rock on the very first click; a near miss without anticipation condition, in which they found a rock on the second trial but went on to find seven diamonds in total; and a near miss with anticipation condition, in which players uncovered seven diamonds in a row before uncovering a rock on the very last trial.

After the game was over, the scientists measured the impact of these various forms of losing.  In the first study, they clocked the speed of subjects as they walked down the hallway to collect a chocolate bar. As expected, those in the near miss with anticipation condition – the ones who came within a single tile of winning – walked much faster (up to 20 percent faster) than those in the other conditions. (In a separate experiment, people in this condition also salivated more when shown pictures of money.) According to the scientists, these differences in speed and salivation were triggered by the increased motivation of almost winning the game, which spilled over to an unrelated task. The Vegas equivalent would be running over to the poker tables, because you barely lost at blackjack.

The last experiment featured a scratch lottery ticket with a 6X6 grid.  If the ticket contained six 8’s in a row, the player won. Once again, the game was rigged: some tickets were clear losers, others were near winners (they contained five adjacent 8s) and some were winners. The scientists gave people these lottery tickets as they entered a fashion accessory store. Those given near miss lottery tickets showed higher levels of motivation, and went on to spend significantly more money while shopping. Maybe this is why Las Vegas is so overstuffed with luxury boutiques.

In the context of slot machines and lottery tickets, the near miss effect can seem like a programming bug, a quirk of dopaminergic wiring that leads us to lose cash on stupid games of chance. We are highly motivated, but that motivation is squandered on random number generators, dice and roulette wheels.

And yet, if you zoom out a bit, there’s a more uplifting explanation for the motivational oomph of near misses. One possibility is that the effect is actually an essential part of the learning process. Education, after all, is entwined with mistakes and disappointment; we learn how to get it right by getting it wrong. This is true whether we’re practicing jump shots or trying to write the Great American Novel – the process will be full of bricks and airballs and terrible drafts. But if every failure made us quit, then we’d never get good at anything. So the human brain had to learn how to enjoy the slow process of self-improvement, which is really a never-ending sequence of near misses. Pseudo-wins. Two sevens and a bell.

But here’s the poignant punchline of this new study: in some situations, those near misses turn out to be more motivating than real wins. Although we assume success is the ultimate goal, the bittersweet flavor of almost success is what makes us persist. It’s the ball that rims out; the sentence that works followed by one that doesn’t; the slot reel that stopped an inch short of a jackpot. And so we find ourselves drawn to those frustrating pursuits where victory is close at hand, but always just out of reach.

Such a frustrating way to live. Such an effective way to learn.

*This particular bit of slot machine programming was later deemed illegal, although similar techniques are still widely practiced.

Schüll, Natasha Dow. Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Princeton University Press, 2012.

Wadhwa, Monica, and JeeHye Christine Kim. "Can a Near Win Kindle Motivation? The Impact of Nearly Winning on Motivation for Unrelated Rewards." Psychological Science (2015)