Why Slot Machines Are So Addictive

by Dish Staff


In an excerpt from Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe, Jim Davies explains how “grinding” – “a computer-game term for a situation in which a player must repeat actions over and over again for some kind of (usually in-game) reward” – applies to the casino cash cows:

Slot machines are computer games that work by grinding. The player does a very simple action—pulling a lever—over and over again, in hope of financial reward. Unlike Lego Star Wars, however, slot machines do not reward every time. Shouldn’t they be less addictive?

Actually, no. It turns out that intermittent reward reinforces behavior even more strongly than reliable reward. … Slot machines have another insidious aspect to them—one can feel like one is getting better at them. To understand this, let’s take a familiar example of a child trying to hit a tree with a thrown rock. When the kid throws a rock and it hits the tree, she gets a surge of positive feeling. This is the brain’s internal reward system. It rewards all of the ways her muscles moved, so that in the future she will be more likely to hit the tree again. However, if she fails to hit the tree but comes close to hitting it, there is still reward, albeit not as much. She perceives that she is getting closer to the target, getting better at the task. More like that, the brain says. It feels pretty good to almost hit the tree.

The same thing happens to her when she is an adult using a slot machine, even though in the slot machine case this behavior is irrational. When she gets two “bar” results but not the third, she feels (subconsciously, of course) that she got “close” to the desired result. Her brain assumes she is getting better at the task, so there is a self-generated reward, as Catharine Winstanley found in a brain study. It feels good to get close, even in a slot machine. It is completely irrational because the slots are random, getting two “bar” results is not really “close” to getting three, and of course how one pulls the bar has no effect whatsoever on the outcome of the machine. It’s completely different from throwing a rock at a tree, but our minds cannot make this distinction.

Relatedly, Brad Plumer talks to Natasha Dow Schüll, author of Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, about how the gambling industry capitalizes on the machines’ addictive qualities:

The gambling industry has realized that the biggest profits come from getting people to sit at slot machines and play for hours and hours on end. (Schüll says the industry refers to this as the “Costco model” of gambling.) As such, slot machines are designed to maximize “time on device.” Computerized slots have made this all possible. Again, in the old days, you pulled the lever and either won or you lost — and when people lost, they’d walk away.

Today’s multi-line slot machines are far more elaborate. Instead of a single line, a player can bet on up to 200 lines at a time on the video screen — up, down, sideways, diagonal — each with a chance of winning. So a person might bet 70 cents and win on 35 of the lines, getting 35 cents back. That feels like a partial win — and captivates your attention.

“The laboratory research on this shows that people experience this in their brains in an identical way as a win,” Schüll says. (And the economics research shows that these multi-line machines are far better at separating players from their money.) That subtle advance, Schüll says, has helped revolutionize the gambling industry. Fewer and fewer people are now going to casinos to experience the thrilling chance at a big jackpot.

Meanwhile, David Frum contends that casinos are bad news for their surrounding neighborhoods:

[I]t has taken a surprisingly long time for city governments to acknowledge a fact that was well understood by the 19th-century Americans who suppressed gambling in the decades after the Civil War. The impact of casinos on neighboring property values is “unambiguously negative,” according to the economists at the National Association of Realtors. Casinos don’t encourage non-gaming businesses to open nearby, because the people who most often visit casinos do not wander out to visit other shops and businesses. A casino is not like a movie theater or a sports stadium, offering a time-limited amusement. It is designed to be an all-absorbing environment that does not release its customers until they have exhausted their money.

The Institute for American Values has gathered the best evidence on the social consequences of casinos. That evidence should worry any responsible city government. People who live close to a casino are twice as likely to become problem gamblers as people who live more than 10 miles away. As casinos have become more prevalent, so has problem gambling: in some states, the evidence suggests a tripling or even quadrupling of the number of problem gamblers.

(Photo by Quinn Dombrowski)