Question (with a Few Videos too): How Do Slot Machines Hook Gamblers?

Sep 28, 2016
Video Resource, Research, Purchase Decisions, Current Events, Article, Financial Scams

download-16I am flying back from Oklahoma after a great workshop organized by Oklahoma Council of Economic Education (thanks to Amy Lee and team!) and Oklahoma Jump$tart (thanks to Melissa Neal!). Among Oklahoma’s 14 financial literacy standards is this one: “ Understanding the financial impact and consequences of gambling.” I think that this is quite unique among the state standards that I have come across. With that thought still fresh in my mind, this headline caught my attention: “How Slot Machines Mess With Your Brain To Get You Hooked On Losing (Bloomberg).” 

Here were a few research findings in the article:

There are few worse bets than a slot machine in the world of gambling. The games are programmed to ensure the house wins and they trigger a chemical surge in the brain that can fuel addiction, scientists say. The father of behavior analysis, U.S. psychologist B.F. Skinner, likened slot-machine players to the pigeons he’d trained to peck for scraps of food.

So, how do slots trick us into playing compulsively? It’s all in the intermittency (is this really a word?) of the reward system:

Skinner trained a pigeon in a box to peck a disc to receive food. He found that if food appeared intermittently, rather than after each peck, the pigeon would repeatedly tap the disc in anticipation. He argued this system of random rewards was at the heart of gambling and a pigeon could become a “pathological gambler” in the same way as a person.

Staying on this theme of the addictive nature of slots, here is an informative video (13 minutes in duration) from 60 Minutes:

Here’s ‘another video from WBAL-TV (4 minutes in duration) that demonstrates how the design of slots leads to addictive behavior:

The winning sounds and images on slot machines may make gambling fun, but the recent study out of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, found that the new multiline games fool the brain into thinking the player has won when he or she has actually lost.

“You wager $1, and you get back 25 cents, so you’ve lost 75 cents. But the machine displays it in both audio and video as if it were a win,” explained UW professor Kevin Harrigan.

He and a team of scientists programmed several slot machines based on design documents for multiline gaming machines. They then recruited 96 people for the study, which was funded by an anti-gambling group. The machines were programmed to win 28 times out of 200 tries, with the sound on, and the study showed a quarter of the players overestimated their number of wins. The study found that sound is an integral component that can make losses seem like wins.

Harrigan’s study also found that the machines gave players the illusion of control.

Why this focus on slots? It is generally accepted that they are the most addictive of the casino games!



About the Author

Tim Ranzetta

Tim's saving habits started at seven when a neighbor with a broken hip gave him a dog walking job. Her recovery, which took almost a year, resulted in Tim getting to know the bank tellers quite well (and accumulating a savings account balance of over $300!). His recent entrepreneurial adventures have included driving a shredding truck, analyzing executive compensation packages for Fortune 500 companies and helping families make better college financing decisions. After volunteering in 2010 to create and teach a personal finance program at Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto, Tim saw firsthand the impact of an engaging and activity-based curriculum, which inspired him to start a new non-profit, Next Gen Personal Finance.

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