One of the paradoxes of gambling is that losing can make people want to keep playing as much as winning. All losses are not created equal, though.

Several studies published recently in the Journal of Gambling Studies suggest that near misses, losses that are so close to being wins, are especially important in motivating people to keep playing the odds, even when the odds are against them.

Most recently, researchers from University of Waterloo had participants play a scratch card game. The game was designed so that half the participants would lose by typical margins and the other half would experience near misses, uncovering all but one of the symbols required to win the jackpot. So yes, no one actually won – talk about a rigged game!

Those who were in the near-miss group reported significantly higher urge to gamble after the game. They were also more likely to purchase additional scratch cards, suggesting that close losses can perpetuate gambling behavior.

Other studies support this idea. For example, one study found that while scratch card players experience near misses as the most negative and frustrating outcomes, they also move on to new games most quickly following near misses. Another study showed that near misses are more physiologically arousing, leading to higher heart rate and skin conduction. The same study found that just as near misses are the most frustrating outcomes, narrow wins are the most rewarding.

But scratch card games aren’t the only games where small losses increase people’s urge to keep playing. One group of researchers studied how near misses influence players’ behavior in that most addictive of games, Candy Crush.

It turns out that in Candy Crush, which the researchers described as an “exceedingly popular and lucrative smartphone game,” near misses have much the same role as in scratch card games. Specifically, near misses are the most frustrating outcome, but also the one that most makes players want to keep playing.

Altogether, these results suggest that near misses are an important motivator in a variety of different games. Although people play to win, “almost” winning might be what keeps people going back for more scratch cards – or candies, as it may be!

Image: Flickr/amespiphoto under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0