The Science of the Near Miss and Why Slot Machines are the Devil

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015 by Cliff.

A near miss is a special kind of failure, It feels a lot like a win. Think back to that time you rolled up that piece of paper and went for that almost impossible shot into your colleagues bin, or the time you were practicing a new dance move that you very nearly performed to perfection. That feeling we experience of very nearly making it, produces almost the exact same feeling as when we do.

Why is that? What is the point?

Well, many believe that the joyfully delicious dopamine that floods our brain when we almost succeed in something, is to give us the motivation and excitement to try it again and work towards its perfection. From an evolutionary point of view this makes sense. Think about hunting or creating a fire. These two things take time and practice to perfect and if we didn’t feel the joy of those near misses, we may have struggled with the motivation to remain engaged….I don’t know about you but discovering bacon was definitely worth the perseverance.

Now whilst this physiological response is vital to our development, it’s also presents a problem.

That rush of dopamine we experience when we hit the basketball rim from centre court is the same rush of dopamine produced when we have a near miss on a gambling table or slot machine. When the spinning wheel gives us 2 cherries, or the white ball lands on 15 and our chips are resting on number 14 we experience that same joy and in turn are motivated to keep trying for the win (by throwing in more money). What makes this particularly terrifying is when you learn that casinos exploit this human response by designing their machines to generate these near misses far more often.

There is fantastic research you delve into on the science behind the ‘near miss’.
Here is a paper by Henry Chase and Luke Clark: Gambling Severity Predicts Midbrain Response to Near-Miss Outcomes –

Cliff Lansley
Article by Cliff Lansley

Expert in emotional intelligence, behavioural analysis and high stake deception detection contexts. Cliff holds; B Ed (Hons), MIOD, MABPsych, Cert Ed.

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