Earlier this summer, Monica Wadhwa, a professor at the business school INSEAD, published a study on the thrill of the almost-victory. Imagine, for example, that you buy a lottery ticket and hit on every number but one, and there’s no prize for that result. On the one hand, it doesn’t much matter, because you’ve lost. But the prize was so close to being yours that you can’t just move on. Instead, you’re driven to seek out that reward you so very nearly got, and, irrationally, you buy more tickets.
As Wadhwa explains to NPR social-science reporter Shankar Vedantam on his brand-new podcast, “Hidden Brain” — which debuts today — the idea for this study came from her own mildly concerning obsession with buying lottery tickets as a 13-year-old. Wadhwa’s study found that this reward-seeking drive may spill over into other areas.
For example, in one experiment, she and colleague JeeHye Christine Kim stopped people before they were about to enter a clothing store and gave them a (fake) scratch-off lottery ticket with a potential $20 prize. The researchers constructed the tickets so that some of them were winners, some were way off, and others were nearly winners, with five of the six correct symbols. After the shoppers scratched off their tickets, they went into the store to shop, and the researchers peeked at their receipts on their way out. They found that the near-winners spent significantly more money than both those who’d won and those who’d lost badly. To Wadhwa, this demonstrates that the feeling of almost winning may lead people to go seek that reward somewhere else.
For more on Wadhwa’s research, listen to this clip from the second episode of Vedantam’s podcast, available exclusively on Science of Us: