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
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Posted on January 3, 2012, in Addiction, Gambling, Problem gamblng, Psychology, Technology and tagged Gambling. Problem gambling, Near Misses, Rewards, Structural characteristics. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.