Near Misses are Motivating

Posted on July 14, 2015

Photo: flickr

Modern slot machines are fascinating devices. Most of them are not mechanical, they are electronic. That means that you pull the lever (or press a button) and the machine draws a random number that determines whether you have won. After that, the machine displays a show on the screen that ultimately lets you see whether you won.

Last time I was in Las Vegas, I watched people playing the slots with interest. Often, they would pull the lever and the wheels would line up so that they almost won a big prize, but did not. Why was the machine set up so that it looked as if people nearly won?

This issue was explored in a paper in the June, 2015 issue of Psychological Science (link is external) by Monica Wadhwa and JeeHye Kim. They were interested in how near misses affected pursuit of another unrelated goal.

In many of their studies, they used a clever manipulation. Participants were asked to test out a new video app in which they uncovered squares in a grid. If they uncovered all diamonds, they would win. As a prize for testing the app, participants would get a small prize if they uncovered eight diamonds in a row. In clear loss condition, participants uncovered only one diamond. In a near miss, they uncovered 7 diamonds and then a rock on the last trial. In a far miss, they also uncovered 7 diamonds, but they got a diamond on their second trial, so they knew they had lost early on.

In the next study, after trying out the game, participants had to walk to a far table to pick up a chocolate bar as a gift for participating. Participants walked faster to get the chocolate bar if they had a near miss than if they did not.

This research fits with a lot of work suggesting that people are most motivated when they have not yet achieved their goals, but feel those goals are attainable. A near miss creates exactly those circumstances. The goal seems completely in reach and then it is not achieved. The motivational energy people get from this situation has to be spent in some way, and so people apply that energy to the next goal they engage.

Source material from Psychology Today