The Near Miss Effect in Slot Machine Gambling

In the old days, slot machines were all-or-nothing affairs: You yanked the lever and either all the cherries or the lucky 7s lined up, you won some money, or you lost it. But with the advent of computerized slots, casinos could fine-tune odds, jackpots, and other features to make them more addictive. The industry tapped into psychological insights like reward anticipation, loss avoidance, and the desire for social status to keep people gambling.

Among the most influential strategies is a phenomenon known as “near miss.” In games of chance, near-miss feedback occurs when feedback for a loss approximates a win. For example, if you play a slot machine and don’t hit the big jackpot but get “cherry-cherry-lemon,” that would be considered a near miss (Skinner, 1956).

Schull has spent 15 years in Las Vegas watching this evolution. She says many slot players no longer go to the casino to feel the thrill of a jackpot; they instead enjoy the gradual drip feed of winning credits. Some players she talks to even get annoyed when they do win, which disrupts their flow.

Research on this effect has been inconsistent, but one study cited by Ghezzi and colleagues did find that frequency of near-miss presentations increased gambling persistence. However, this result may be invalidated by a limitation in the design of the experiment. In this case, the experimental group was placed on an extinction condition after 100 trials; the rate at which wins occurred during extinction was manipulated to be 15%, 30%, or 45%.

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