Habit and Behavior Engineering Toolbox: Near Misses

It’s time to add another tool to the habit and engineering toolbox. The tool we’ll be adding this time is: near misses.

So what are near misses? They are exactly what they sound like. It’s getting close to achieving a reward, placing your portal just an inch off to the right in Portal or getting two 7′s and one cherry at a slot machine. Now you may be wondering how this could help build habits and behaviors.

Near misses sound like they would be frustrating and stop you from playing a game or going another round at the slot machine. But in fact, the opposite is true. In general, when encountered with a near miss, people are likely to try just one more time at beating the level or going another round at the slot machine. Plus, if you’ve ever played the slots or videogames you already know what I’m talking about.

Even though near misses are easy to understand, it may not be easy to think how to utilize this great tool. So I’m going to give you three things you’ll want to keep in mind when using this tool along with some examples so you can get some ideas of your own:

Things to keep in mind:

  1. The user/player has to get close enough to getting the desired result, so instead of it feeling like a loss, it feels like a “mini win.”
  2. They cannot be abused. People are smart and will realize their near misses don’t end up “paying out.” It’s just like the boy who cried wolf.
  3. Even though they can be used alone, IMO, near misses are better when used in tandem with other behavior and habit tools.


Dropbox’s affiliate system:


Dropbox’s referall program is a win-win for both users in the referral process. If you sign up through a referral link, not only does the referrer get an extra 250MB of space, so do you (shameless referral link)!

But that’s not the only reason its been so successful. Whenever you refer someone to use Dropbox, Dropbox lets you their progress, from sign-up through installation of the Dropbox application. Because of this, whenever you see one of the people you invited is just one step away (a near miss), you’ll probably have an urge to give them a phone call or an email to get them to complete the process. Both of you just got more filespace and Dropbox scored yet another potential customer.

McDonald’s Monopoly Game


You probably already know what this is, but for those who don’t, every year McDonald’s puts on a Monopoly event where you get Monopoly properties in the form of stickers when you buy their fries, drinks, etc… Now since I don’t have any actual data this is just speculation, but it seems McDonald’s engineers the chances of you getting certain Monopoly pieces so almost everyone who plays the game achieves a near miss.

You’ll find yourself getting Boardwalk with your first order of fries, and Atlantic Avenue and Marvin Gardens the next time you visit… but you most likely won’t ever get the all important last piece. But the guys at McDonald’s are quite smart and avoid the “boy who cried wolf” with all those near misses (see #2 above in the things to keep in mind). So while you may never get the last property (e.g., Park Place or Ventnor Avenue), you’ll get mini consolation prizes like a free large drink or fries. Which will just get you to come back and try your luck once again!

Nike Soccer: My Time Is Now (Link)

Nike Soccer

This is a great example of near misses being used in conjunction with another behavior and habit tool. In this interactive video, Nike beautifully gamified (a.k.a. used the gamification tool) their video to draw the attention of the user and make it engaging. So where is the near miss in this? When you get to the end of the video you’ll see a little illustration showing you how many tunnels you discovered. By showing the user how close they were to discovering all the tunnels it increases the chance the viewer will watch the video, out of their own volition, once again. Perhaps even sharing it with a friend this time.

These are just a handful of examples where near misses are being used to create or change habits and behaviors. So get out there and start using this amazing tool.


  1. Near misses are when a user gets close enough to a goal that instead of it feeling like a loss, it feels like a “mini win.”
  2. They can’t be abused and are almost always more effective when used in tandem with other behavior and habit tools.
  3. From companies like Dropbox and McDonalds to online applications and YouTube videos, near misses are in use everywhere you look.

P.S. If you happen to come across or know of any other great examples where this tool is used, please let me know and I’d love to add it to the list :)

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