The powerful motivating effect of a near win

If you while away time in a games arcade – play some coin pushers here, a few fruit machines there – you will soon be familiar with that frustrating and enlivening sensation of the near win that follows getting four cherries out of five. New research from INSEAD suggests that these tantalising near wins produce high levels of motivational arousal, that encourage us to chase whatever alternative rewards are then available.

In one fascinating experiment, Monica Wadhwa and JeeHye Christine Kim gave lottery scratch-cards to 164 US shoppers about to enter a fashion store. A row of six winning symbols earned $20, and the cards were rigged so a third of participants won, a third lost abjectly, and a third nearly made it, with five in a row. Shoppers then went about their shopping, and on exiting the store, were asked to share their till receipts. The near-winners had made significantly more purchases than the other groups.

Why? Goal-gradient theory, proposed in the 1930s, suggests that when a reward is one hundred steps away, your initial step progresses you only one per cent towards your payoff. However, once you are almost in reach, the payoff for each effortful act is much higher, meaning we become more physiologically aroused and ready to act. But should the reward be snatched away, the readiness to act doesn’t disappear. Instead, it tends to be transferred to other sources; in the above example, the shoppers who just missed out on the lotto card were well positioned to seek out other rewards, thanks to the availability of tills.

Other experiments showed a near win encouraging participants to make more effort in a card-sorting task when money was on the line, to hurry more towards a chocolate bar, and even to salivate more heavily to images of high-value currency.

There is a caveat. Tightly-focused lab experiments demonstrated that almost winning really only matters when the heightened state of anticipation is prolonged. In a diamond-seeking video game, players who were just one diamond short of victory, but discovered very early that they’d lost (they turned over a tile showing a fatal rock rather than the winning diamond), did not show the near-win effect. By contrast, players who were just one diamond short, and who stayed alive in the game for a sustained amount of time (they avoided any rocks until the very end), did show the near-win effect – after the game had finished, they raced to get a chocolate bar, as if channelling the heightened motivation built up by their near win.

Wadhwa and Kim point out that we already know that repeatedly nearly winning a game can facilitate addiction to it, via heightened production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with motivation and the anticipation of pleasure, among other functions. This new study show this feeling generalises beyond the game. If you almost vanquish the end-of-level boss, you might be more motivated to pound out that tricky article … or reward yourself with a bag of pretzels. So be aware of what you surround yourself with!


Wadhwa, M., & Kim, J. (2015). Can a Near Win Kindle Motivation? The Impact of Nearly Winning on Motivation for Unrelated Rewards Psychological Science, 26 (6), 701-708 DOI: 10.1177/0956797614568681

further reading
How losing can increase your chances of winning

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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