Save all your misses for me: The psychology of the near miss in gambling

One of the most frequent questions that I am asked is why gamblers continue to gamble despite the fact that (in the long run) they consistently lose. The simple answer is that they gamble because they get constant rewards from engaging in the behaviour. To a non-gambler, losing money doesn’t seem like a very rewarding activity. To a gambler, there can be many different kinds of rewards. For instance, they could be financially rewarded (by winning money), physiologically rewarded (through an adrenaline rush by the thrill and the ‘buzz’ of the gambling itself), psychologically rewarded (through an increase of self-esteem) and/or socially rewarded (by getting peer praise from their friends). There are also many other things that can be rewarding in specific gambling settings because they produce excitement, arousal and tension. Obvious examples are things like the pre-race and race sequence at the race track, the flashing lights of a slot machine, or the spinning roulette wheel, the placing of bets.

One of the most interesting psychological rewards is the “near miss”. In simple terms, near misses are failures that are close to being successful. In games of skill, near misses are very helpful as they give us useful feedback and encourages us to continue because we know that we were nearly successful in what we were trying to achieve. However, in activities of pure chance (such as buying a lottery ticket), such information is worthless as it gives absolutely no likelihood as to the chances of future success. Research as shown that gamblers experiencing near misses may view them as encouraging signs by confirming their strategy and by raising their hopes of winning. In gambling situations, near misses encourage and induce continued gambling, and some commercial gambling activities (particularly slot machines and scratchcards) are deliberately designed to ensure a higher than chance frequency of near misses. In some of my own research, I have shown that gamblers appear to get as physiologically excited when they are nearly winning as when they are winning. Therefore, a gambler is not constantly losing but constantly nearly winning! And the near misses are both psychologically and physiologically rewarding. What’s more, it costs the gaming industry nothing to incorporate them into their products.

Unfortunately, because of features like the near miss, some types of gamblers (such as slot machine players) can become very hooked on playing. Characteristics such as the near miss are capable of producing psychologically rewarding experiences even in financially losing situations. On slot machines, the most significant change in near miss design over the last decade involves the types of near misses incorporated by the manufacturers in their machines. On current slot machines, gamblers can win money through the machine’s ‘reel order’ or specialist ‘play features’. (In basic terms they can either win money through the order of symbols on the ‘win line’ such as three melons in a row, or win money via a specialist play feature by progressing up a feature board). The gaming industry appears to have adapted and strengthened the near miss by connecting it more to the ‘feature’ play rather than reel order.

The more features incorporated into the slot machine, the more opportunities for manufacturers to use different types of near miss. For instance, a player can often move their way up the ‘feature board’ without actually winning any money. They might even get themselves up to a point where they are just one spin away from the jackpot or the ultimate prize winning feature. On this final spin having moved right up the feature board, they lose. This is clearly an example of the near miss evolving but is extremely powerful for three reasons. Firstly, the gambler actually had access to several wins along the way but decided not to take them in order to pursue their goal of the jackpot prize. Secondly, the play leading up to the jackpot is extremely arousing and involves intensive gambler involvement that is itself highly rewarding. Thirdly, habitual slot machine players will often continue until they reach the jackpot or top feature no matter what the cost. These factors all give the impression that losing is the player’s fault since they did not collect the winnings when they had the chance.

As with traditional near misses, the gambler feels the excitement of “nearly” winning via ‘feature’ participation. Perhaps more importantly, it may cause frustration or regret that can perpetuate gambling. Often the only way a gambler can get rid of the feeling of frustration and regret is to gamble again. The main point is that the psychology of the near miss appears to be being used now more than ever and in different ways to that with which it was traditionally used. Before I go I ought to add one more thing. Near misses only work up to a point. To increase the proportion of near misses in relation to wins will in the long term be self-defeating. Put simply, it is like crying “Wolf!” – gamblers will very quickly start to realise that near wins don’t pay out. However, from a gaming industry perspective, even a very slight manipulation of near misses may reap huge commercial rewards for them in the very long run.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Chase, H.W. & Clark, L. (2010). Gambling severity predicts midbrain response to near-miss outcomes. Journal of Neuroscience, 30, 6180-6187.

Clarke, L., Lawrence, A. J., Astley-Jones, F., & Gray, N. (2009). Gambling near-misses enhance motivation to gamble and recruit win-related brain circuitry. Neuron, 61, 481- 490.

Griffiths, M.D. (1991). The psychobiology of the near miss in fruit machine gambling. Journal of Psychology, 125, 347-357.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). The psychology of the near miss (revisited). British Journal of Psychology, 90, 441-445.

Harrigan, K. (2008). Slot machine structural characteristics: creating near misses using high award symbol ratios. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 6, 353-368.

Harrigan, K. (2009). Slot machines: Pursuing responsible gaming practices for virtual reels and near misses. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 7, 68-83.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Gambling addiction and the evolution of the ‘near miss’. Addiction Theory and Research, 12, 407-411.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics (revisited). International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 151-179.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). The role of structural characteristics in gambling.  In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies. pp.211-243. New York: Elsevier.

Reid, R.L. (1986). The psychology of the near miss. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 2, 32–39.


About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on January 3, 2012, in Addiction, Gambling, Problem gamblng, Psychology, Technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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