The Effect of Near Misses on Gambling Persistence

In a Slot game, a player inserts cash or, in “ticket-in, ticket-out” machines, a paper ticket with a barcode. The machine then takes the money and distributes credits based on its pay table. Symbols on the reels vary according to the machine’s theme and can range from traditional fruit icons to stylized lucky sevens. In some states, it is possible to win a jackpot if the right symbols line up.

For more than half a century, researchers have been fascinated by the notion that near-miss outcomes in a slot machine might reinforce gambling persistence. This belief stems from an intuitive and powerful learning process called conditional reinforcement, which allows us to learn from our mistakes by seeing how close we came to a reward.

However, the evidence supporting the hypothesis that near misses encourage gambling persistence is inconclusive. The main problem with previous experiments is that they didn’t control for key variables that could influence the results. The other issue is that they used very simple stimuli, which might limit the impact of pre-existing biases and make it harder for participants to identify a pattern.

In the past, research into the effect of near-misses has relied on a specific contingency: that wins were 75% certain to occur after near misses. But this is not a typical feature of real slot machines. Instead, manufacturers can produce a similar effect by creating losses that appear very close to wins—another reason why the “near-miss” phenomenon may not be as strong as it is often claimed.