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The psychology of the near-miss (revisited): a comment on Delfabbro & Winefield (1999).

This paper briefly comments on Delfabbro & Winefield's (1999) paper 'Poker-machine gambling: An analysis of within-session characteristics', published in the British Journal of Psychology, and questions their notion that gambling is maintained by winning and losing sequences within the operant conditioning paradigm (i.e. that the only rewards and reinforcers in gambling are purely monetary). It is argued that Delfabbro and Winefield's contribution is too narrow in its focus in that they have taken no account of the 'near miss' in relation to operant conditioning theory and that there may be other reinforcers that play a role in the maintenance process. It is also argued that gambling is biopsychosocial behaviour, and should therefore be explained by a biopsychosocial account.

The article, 'Poker-machine gambling: An analysis of within-session characteristics', by Delfabbro & Winefield (1999) raises some important theoretical insights into the understanding of gambling behaviour. However, it will be argued that Delfabbro & Winefield have failed to examine the psychology of the near-miss as an important factor in operant conditioning (Griffiths, 1991; Reid, 1986). Historically, Skinner (1953) argued that the individual's gambling behaviour is a function of their previous reinforcement history. This is supported by some gambling research, such as Bolen & Boyd's (1968) concept of 'beginner's luck' and Custer's (1982) emphasis on a 'big win' of the pathological gambler's predisposition. The logical question to ask is what exactly is the nature of reinforcement in the gambling situation? Is it purely monetary as Delfabbro & Winefield suggest in their experimental analysis?

Saunders (1979) has noted that money is quite obviously a reward. However, gamblers may win in the short run but most will eventually lose in the long run. Lea, Tarpy & Webley (1987) pointed out that another potential reinforcer is activation ('the thrill of gambling'), and that this could play a role in all gambling situations. It may also play a role in mood modification and regulation. There are also social rewards (e.g. raising of self-esteem, peer praise, social meaning of the activity, rites of passage, etc.). Further to this, Dickerson (1984) notes that there are multiple stimuli which can be perceived to be rewarding in gambling settings. Events such as the pre-race and race sequence at the race track, the spinning roulette wheel and the placing of bets can be reinforcing because they produce excitement, arousal and tension.

The psychology of the near-miss: An overview

Delfabbro & Winefield's basic proposition is that gambling behaviour is maintained by winning and losing sequences within the operant conditioning paradigm (i.e.

that the only rewards and reinforcers in gambling are purely monetary) - although they did this to assess whether Dickerson, Hinchy, Legg-England, Fabre & Cunningham's (1992) findings concerning variations in response rates could be generalized to modern slot machines. However, the major problem is that there can be intermediate reinforcers in the guise of 'near-misses' which have been investigated at various points in the psychological literature. Any theory of gambling behaviour using an operant conditioning paradigm must take into account important non-monetary reinforcers such as the near-miss. As Griffiths (1995a) has stated, slot-machine gamblers tend to play with money rather than for it, and their basic playing philosophy is to stay on the machine for as long as possible using the least amount of money (very much as a video-game player would do).

In games of skill, near-misses provide useful feedback for participants and encourages them to continue because they know that success is within their reach. However, in games of pure chance (such as the National Lottery), such information is useless as it gives no insight into the likelihood of future success. However, gamblers experiencing near-misses may take them as encouraging signs by confirming the gambler's strategy and raising hopes for future success (Reid, 1986). Reid (1986) and Griffiths (1991, 1994, 1995a) have both noted that near-misses, i.e. failures that are close to being successful, are believed to encourage future play-inducing continued gambling, and that some commercial gambling activities (particularly fruit machines and instant scratchcards) are formulated to ensure a higher-than-chance frequency of near misses. Reid argued that at a behaviouristic level, a near-miss may have the same kind of conditioning effect on behaviour as a success. For example, the fruit machine's pay-out line is horizontally located in the middle line of a 3 x 3 matrix. When three winning symbols are displayed, the jackpot is won (and thus reinforces play). However, a near-miss, e.g. two winning symbols and a third losing one just above or below the payline, is still strongly reinforcing at no extra expense to the machine's owner (Skinner, 1953). Thus, a near-miss could produce some of the excitement of a win, i.e. secondary reinforcement. Therefore, the player is not constantly losing but constantly nearly winning (Griffiths, 1991, 1994).

Strickland & Grote (1967) drew attention to an aspect of the design of fruit machines which has been experimentally shown to encourage repeated play and which Reid (1986) has argued produces a greater-than-chance number of near-misses. They noted that the first reel on a fruit machine tends to have a larger proportion of winning symbols than the second reel, which has a larger proportion of winning symbols than the third reel. Since the reels stop in this order, the player is most likely to see a winning symbol early in the result sequence. Strickland & Grote investigated the effect by presenting players with frequent winning symbols either early or late in the fruit machine's result sequence. The former situation led to significantly longer play than the latter.

The potential danger of the near-miss element in gambling was first documented in the 1970s in relation to instant scratchcards. At the time, these were termed 'heart-stoppers' because they gave the illusion of coming close to a big prize (Moran, 1979). Further to this, there have been a number of papers written from a psychological perspective showing how and why scratchcards may be potentially addictive (see for instance, Griffiths, 1995b, 1997). Like fruit machines, scratchcards have a short pay-out interval (i.e. there is only a few second's interval between the initial gamble and the winning payment) and rapid event frequency. This means that the loss period is brief with little time given over to financial considerations and, more importantly, winnings can be re-gambled almost immediately.

A number of other factors are linked with these characteristics. The first of these concerns the frequency of opportunities to gamble. Logistically, some gambling activities (e.g. the UK National Lottery, football pools) have small event frequencies (i.e. there is only one or two draws a week) making them 'soft' forms of gambling. However, in the case of scratchcards there are few constraints on repeated gambling, as limits are set only by how fast a person can scratch off the covering of the winning or losing symbols. The frequency of playing when linked with two other factors - the result of the gamble (win or loss) and the actual time until winnings are received - exploit certain psychological principles of learning (i.e. operant conditioning). Reinforcement occurs through presentation of a reward such as money. To produce high rates of response, those schedules which present rewards intermittently have been shown to be most effective (Moran, 1987; Skinner, 1953). Since scratchcards operate on such schedules it is unsurprising that high rates of response (i.e. excessive gambling) could occur. Promoters appear to acknowledge the need to pay out winnings as quickly as possible, thus indicating that receiving winnings is seen by the gambling industry to act as an extrinsic reward for winners to continue gambling.

The various characteristics of gambling activities like fruit machines and instant scratchcards have the potential to induce excessive gambling regardless of the gambler's personality, environment and/or genetic make-up. Some characteristics are even capable of producing psychologically rewarding experiences in financially losing situations - particularly the psychology of the near-miss. With their integrated mix of conditioning effects, rapid event frequency, short pay-out intervals and psychological rewards, coupled with the fact that scratchcards require no skill, are deceptively inexpensive, are highly accessible and are sold in respectable outlets, it is not hard to see how scratchcard gambling could become a repetitive habit. There is plenty of evidence (e.g. Griffiths, 1994; Langer, 1975; Wagenaar, 1988) to suggest that a gambler's ignorance about probability or situational cues may encourage gamblers to think they have some influence over mainly chance-determined activities. If Delfabbro & Winefield want to use operant conditioning as a theory to explain gambling maintenance, they must additionally examine non-monetary reinforcers and take them into account in their explanation.

Finally, one further point needs to be added. It is probably the case that near-misses only work up to a point. To increase the proportion of near-misses in relation to wins will in the long term be self-defeating. It is, as Reid (1986) points out, like crying 'Wolf!'. Repeated exposure to near-miss stimuli will reduce their value as signals that success is on the way. This is backed up by recent evidence by Chantal, Vallerand, Ladouceur & Ferland (1995) who suggest that a moderate frequency of near-misses appears to be more reinforcing than a very high frequency of near misses (i.e. the process is not linear). However, from a gaming industry perspective, very slight manipulation of near-misses may reap huge commercial rewards in the very long run. However, even an operant approach broadened to encompass the role of other reinforcing events will fail to explain everything about gambling behaviour.

Gambling: The biopsychosocial approach

Gambling behaviour is a biopsychosocial process and must therefore be explained in biopsychosocial terms using the best theoretical strands of contemporary psychology, biology and sociology. No two gamblers will have the same etiology and no simple parsimonious explanation of gambling maintenance (e.g. operant conditioning) will ever be sufficient to explain all cases. It is probable that sociological, psychological and biological processes are involved in an interactive and complex fashion in its etiology, with gambling acquisition underpinned by sociological mechanisms and gambling maintenance underpinned by psychological mechanisms.

It is clear that for any model or theory of gambling to be complete it must not only feature the sociological roots, the underlying physiological, biological and/or genetic mechanisms and the psychological factors (e.g. personality traits, cognitive distortions, attitudes, etc.), but also provide a framework from which a non-gambler may eventually become pathological. Most importantly, it must be able to differentiate 'normal' or 'social' gamblers from those who gamble to excess. Any such model should consist of a cross-sectional view, i.e. important groups of variables or 'components' in the development and maintenance of gambling behaviour, whether addictive or not, and a longitudinal view, i.e. the stages of acquisition and development of gambling behaviour in different 'subtypes' of gamblers (see Brown, 1986). Cross-sectional variables could include subcultural conditions, psychophysiological arousal needs, behaviour reinforcement schedules, internal fantasy object relations, cognitive factors, affective factors, significant external relationships and social/institutional determinants, whereas developmental stages could include induction, adoption, promotion and addiction. It is unlikely that the cross-sectional variables have equal weighting in the acquisition, development and maintenance of gambling behaviour, and it is almost certain that every individual will be different in the details of the variables that affect them the most in maintaining the behaviour.

In summary, it would appear that the gambler is at first influenced by sociological factors, e.g. attitudes and habits of parents, friends, peer groups etc., as well as a lack of viable alternatives to gambling activity. During the middle stages of development, any number of factors can heavily influence the maintenance of gambling behaviour whether they be of physiological, psychological or social origin. Persistent gambling eventually leads to a desperate 'spiral of options' and the variables affecting behaviour become limited. Gambling is thus a complex, multidimensional activity that is unlikely to be explained by any single theory. Although eclectic approaches to the understanding of various human behaviours are often criticized, it does appear that explanations of gambling behaviour (and particularly excessive gambling) are best served by an integrated biopsychosocial model which stresses the individuality and idiosyncratic nature of the development of gambling problems.


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Title Annotation:repsonse to article by Paul H. Delfabbro and Anthony H. Winefield in this issue, p. 425
Author:Griffiths, Mark D.
Publication:British Journal of Psychology
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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