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The Positive Power of Barely Losing

The near-misses in life — such as missing the winning lottery number by one number — may actually boost our motivation to achieve other potential wins, leading us to pursue unrelated rewards and goals, according to a new study.

“Our research suggests that, at least in some cases, losing has positive power,” said lead researcher Monica Wadhwa, Ph.D., of INSEAD, a business school in Fontainebleau, France.

“While we often think of motivation as being targeted to a specific reward or goal, these findings support the notion that motivation is like energy and reward is like direction — once this motivational energy is activated, it leads an individual to seek out a broad range of goals and rewards.”

While it may seem like losing might snuff out motivation, Wadhwa and co-author JeeHye Christine Kim hypothesized that losing out by only a narrow margin might have the opposite effect. A near win, they speculated, intensifies but doesn’t satisfy our motivational state, and so the drive to win is extended to the next task or goal we encounter.

To test this hypothesis, they conducted two studies.

In the first, the researchers recruited 50 undergraduate students to evaluate a game that was supposedly in development.

In the game, students saw a grid of 16 tiles; half of the tiles covered a rock and half of the tiles covered a diamond. The goal of the game was to click on the tiles one by one to find eight diamonds without uncovering a single rock.

What the students didn’t know was that the game was rigged by the researchers.

Some of the students were set up to experience a near win, uncovering seven diamonds in a row only to uncover a rock on their final tile. Another group of students was also set up to uncover seven diamonds and one rock, but this time the rock was uncovered on the second click, which meant these students had no anticipation of winning after they turned over the second tile.

After playing, the students completed surveys evaluating the game and were asked to drop the surveys off at a booth at the end of the hallway, where they could pick up a chocolate bar as a thank-you gift.

The researchers surreptitiously recorded how long it took the students to walk to the second booth. They wanted to see if a near-miss in the game might influence how eager participants were to get to the second reward, the chocolate bar, researchers said.

The results were clear: Students who lost the game on the last tile walked significantly faster, reaching the booth about 12 seconds sooner, than those who lost the game on the second tile.

The near-win effect was confirmed in another, real-world experiment, according to researchers. Shoppers who had near wins with scratch-off lottery tickets handed out next to a store in a shopping mall subsequently spent more money in the store than those who had clearly lost or clearly won, the researchers report.

The findings indicate that a near-win may actually provide a stronger motivational boost than an actual win, the scientists add.

The research has specific applications in sales and marketing, according to Wadhwa.

“The current research suggests that managers who want to motivate their salespeople to perform better should think about giving feedback that highlights the individual’s performance compared to someone only slightly better,” she explained.

“It also impacts marketers who want to design effective promotions — our field study shows that nearly winning a lottery is better than clearly losing or winning.”

The researchers plan to continue their research into the near-win effect, exploring its potential negative side and how it relates to the brain’s dopamine system, which is thought to underlie reward processing.

The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

The Positive Power of Barely Losing

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). The Positive Power of Barely Losing. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 13 May 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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