An intriguing feature of near-miss outcomes in slot-machine gambling is that, while they are objectively losses, they motivate further play. The “near-miss effect” contradicts standard reinforcement theory in which failure should punish, rather than reward, responding. This critical review first examines neurophysiological research which seeks correlates and perhaps causes of this effect. The search for a neurophysiological substrate reveals that near-misses recruit similar reward-orientated brain regions to those involved in wins. However, two additional research traditions complicate this picture. The first seeks “cognitive distortions” that are held to motivate further play in the face of near-misses. The second claims that contextual factors, inherent in the programming of the machines and the physical arrangement of gambling milieux, modify responses to near-miss outcomes. A recurring theme in all research traditions is the role of a possible source of reinforcement separate from the effect of monetary wins and a potential link between this secondary reinforcement and arousal in players. The paper seeks to diversify the context of slot-machine gambling by arguing that that it is a form of consumer behavior and, as such, influenced by “informational” or symbolic reinforcement as well as by “utilitarian” or functional reinforcement. It compares the behavior of slotmachine gamblers and its consequences with those of economic consumers generally and proposes a framework within which the near-miss phenomenon can be comprehended.



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