GSS 006: The Near-Miss—How Games Are Designed to Hook Compulsive Gamblers

Episode Details

In this episode, I introduce something called The Near-Miss which is used to exploit the way problem gamblers think. From slot machines to scratch off tickets, the near-miss is built into the design of gambling games in order to keep gamblers gambling, even when they are losing.


The Near-Miss Effect by Jonan Lehrer

The Psychology of the Near Miss by R.L. Reid

Why Your Brain Loves Near-Misses in Gambling by Sharon Begley

Full Episode Transcript

This is Episode 6 of the “Gambling Still Sucks” podcast. In this episode, we’re going to discuss something called the “near miss” and how knowing about it may help you to stop gambling. Hey there, and welcome to the “Gambling Still Sucks” podcast. My name is Jamie. I am a compulsive gambler, and I’m also the host of this show. The last day I gambled was July 15th of 2010.

Now, in the last episode, we talked about dealing with gambling thoughts and urges, and in this episode, I wanted to dive into something that the gambling or gaming industry is doing to us that we don’t even know about, or in my case, I didn’t know about it. But once I did, it opened my eyes and really let me see the games in a completely different light. And so, I hopefully, it does that for you as well.

Now, what I’m talking about is called the “near miss,” and there are several different ways that people describe it, but the near-miss effect is basically – think of whatever your game of choice was. If it was a slot machine, think of those times, all those times where you got whatever the item was, three cherries, but you needed four to win it all. I wasn’t a slot machine player, but I’m sure you can think of those times where you were so close to winning the jackpot. For me, with poker, it’d be the times where, hey, I was one card off hitting the Royal Flush, which would have won the big jackpot, you know, or I was one card, the last card came off, and the guy pulled the lucky card where there were only two of them in the deck to beat me.

So, think of whatever your game of choice was, think of those times where you almost won. I mean, you were so close to winning. Now, think of what it did to your brain and your thoughts. If you’re like me, it got you fired up, a little mad, but also like you sort of felt like you won the hand. Like for me, with poker, I got all my money in with the odds in my favor and then I got screwed, sort of okay with that. And I imagine for slot machines, it’s like, man, you see that come up, and you’re like, “Ah, I was so close, I almost hit it.”

The other place that they use this quite a bit is in scratch-off tickets. I mean, I’ve never bought a scratch-off ticket and had it be a complete loser, right? Usually, you scratch it off, and it’s like $100,000, $5, $5, $100,000, and so you’re like, “Oh man, I only have to match one of these, I have two more chances.” And that but then it comes out, and the rest don’t match anything, but “Oh man, I had two out of the three for the hundred thousand, the big prize.”

And there’s been a lot of research done on this near-miss situation and what it does to our brains, especially, and they’ve studied how people, that are compulsive gamblers, versus other people. And what they found is that in compulsive gamblers, the near miss registers just slightly less on kind of that reward system in our brain as an actual win.

So when they do this, and we see, okay, hey, we got two out of the three or four out of the five, or I had all the cards except for that last one, but I was almost there, our brains treat that differently than they do just an all-out loss. The reality is, it’s just – I mean, you win or you lose.

And so, we lost, but our brains treat that near-miss differently, and it really pays off those reward sensors. And so, we’re getting increases, I think it’s in dopamine, and just those pleasure centers in our brains react differently to these near misses than they do to an all-out loss. And so, what’s the gaming industry going to do knowing this? They’re going to make games and design games that consistently have near misses. And so, as I mentioned, you never get a scratch-off ticket that’s just nine different things or however many other things are on it that are all different, right? You always get at least a couple matches that get you real close but not quite to the prize. And the same with slot machines; they can generate these things to sort of get you real close to the grand prize or a big win but not quite there. And they’re doing all these because they know that for us compulsive gamblers, these are things that keep us coming back. They reward our brains in a way that’s almost as good as if we would have actually won, even though we should just feel like it’s a loss.

And so, the difference, like I say, in how our brains react to these near misses as compared to somebody that’s not a compulsive gambler, it’s completely different. They just look at it and they say, “Well, I lost,” and it’s not, “I almost won.” And so, this is one thing that I will link some of the links and studies in the show notes. Definitely check it out because I think it’s something, one of those things, that hey, knowledge is power. And if you can see near-misses in action, it’s going to help you know what’s going on and prevent you from falling victim to that same thing, which is keeping you in that cycle and saying, “Hey, but I almost won the jackpot and maybe the next spin is going to be the winner.” Because that hope that we all live off, and they thrive on us having that “hey, next time’s the time, it’s going to be different. I almost got it today, but I’m confident I’m gonna get it next time.” It’s something that, like I say, they prey on. They know about, they’re designing into games.

And so, I wanted to do an episode on this, and this is going to be a shorter episode but just really to highlight the fact that these people are doing things directly to mess with our brains or to prey on our brains. And so, I want you to know what they’re doing so you can sort of look at it and say, “Hey, I know what you’re doing, but it’s not gonna work on me,” because like I say, knowledge is power. So hopefully, this has opened your eyes up. I’m sure if you’re like me, you look back, and you say, “Yeah, I remember the time I almost had the Royal Flush,” or “I remember the time I almost had this.” And I think if you look at it, it probably got you gambling even more after that because you were so close. You were almost there, to where you believed that we could all hit the big one and then quit, which we all know is not true. But that’s what we wanted to believe.

And so, that wraps up this episode of the “Gambling Still Sucks” podcast. If you have any interesting near-miss experiences, feel free to tweet about them or share them with me because, I think like you, if you’re like me, you’ll look back, and you’ll say, “Oh yeah, I remember this time, I remember this time,” and those are some of those triggers.

So, hopefully, this will empower you and help make it easier to live a gambling-free life in recovery. Thanks for listening, and I will see you in the next episode.

Now, before you go, I’d like to go over a few very important things. First of all, I think it’s important to remember that problem gambling is a treatable disorder. There’s no scientific evidence or study that suggests that this is just a terminal condition and that we’re going to be forced to deal with the negative side effects and results of our actions for the rest of our lives. And so, while I know that in the moment, it feels like this is something that you’re gonna be struggling with for the rest of your life, science just hasn’t backed that up. Recovery is real, but we just need to seek out treatment. And so, that brings me to point number two, which is that help is available.

Many of the states here in the United States actually offer free counseling and therapy for not only gamblers but family members as well. And so, you just need to know that these programs are available, and the best way to start finding out more information is to call the hotline number, and that’s 1-800-522-4700. Again, that’s 1-800-522-4700. And this is the number run by the National Council on Problem Gambling, and so it covers all 50 states, and they’re gonna have information and be able to start to guide you on the path to seek out help in the area where you live. And these hotlines aren’t just available here in the United States; they’re available around the world. So just simply open up a web browser, type in “gambling help,” “gambling hotline,” and you’ll be able to find the information for your local area.

In addition to the hotlines, there are numerous places where you can find gambling support and information online. If you go to, I’ll list some of these things, and I’ll continue to add to this as I find new resources, whether they’re chat groups or online forums or just great information. So again, that was

As a disclaimer, this podcast does not provide legal or medical advice. Look, I’m not a doctor, a therapist, or an attorney; I’m just a guy who had a gambling problem. So while we’ll discuss a lot of topics and I’ll provide a lot of insight into what’s worked for me, please seek out the help of a professional. Go visit a lawyer, a doctor, or a therapist to help you deal with your gambling problem. The information that we discussed is for informational purposes and should not be taken as professional legal or medical advice, and reliance on the information appearing on the podcast is solely at your own risk.

The music for this podcast is “Something Elated” by Broke For Free and licensed under the Creative Commons.