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)

Why Should Depression Disqualify You From Practicing Law?

by Dish Staff

Lisa T. McElroy and Katie Rose Guest Pryal argue that the mental-health questions on state bar exams are unfair to law students:

The questions aren’t just about conduct that might impair a person’s ability to practice law, such as refusing to seek treatment for psychotic episodes. Instead, the agencies ask about a wide range of medical history. They ask (we offer just a few examples) whether you have ever “had out-patient treatment, for … major depressive disorder” (Wyoming) or “Within the past five (5) years, have you been diagnosed with or have you been treated for any of the following: … bipolar disorder or manic depressive mood disorder, major depression … or any other condition which significantly impaired your behavior, judgment, understanding … or ability to function in school, work, or other important life activities?” (Colorado). Most states have similar inquiries on their questionnaires for bar applicants; the standard form provided by the National Conference of Bar Examiners includes them, too.

Remember that these soon-to-be-lawyers have already proved themselves more than capable of enduring the intellectual and occupational rigor of law school – and succeeding. But despite your success, if you are a law student and you answer in the affirmative to having been treated for depression, for example, in many (if not most) states, you must provide the state access to your medical records and the names of all of your doctors. As you might imagine, this is a very invasive and alienating process for students with disabilities.

Duck, Duck, Juice

by Dish Staff


Energy Duck, an entry in the Land Art Generator Initiative competition, is conceived as a 12-story-high structure that would collect solar power in Copenhagen Harbor. Beckett Mufson summed up the project last month:

Conceived by London artists Hareth Pochee, Adam Khan, Louis Leger, and Patrick Fryer, the so-called Energy Duck would be topped with a photovoltaic mesh, gathering energy from the sun and funneling it directly into the Copenhagen power grid. Supplemented with an innovative hybrid hydrolic turbine system, when extra energy needs to be delivered— at night, for instance— the duck floods its base, transfering the water through its turbines to generate more electricity. Then next day, it uses energy generated through the solar panels to pump the water back out. A fun consequence of this design is that the duck rises and sinks depending on how much energy it needs to pump into the Danish capital city.

Andrea Chin elaborates:

additionally, ‘energy duck’ has been conceived to be completely scalable depending on the situation: a 40m high duck serves a town; a 20m high duck serves a village, and a 4m high duck serves an individual house. re-imagining our perception of what a power generator can be and do, the ‘energy duck’ brings to mind BIG architect’s amagerforbraending ski slope incinerator located nearby, that follows a similar approach, in which an industrial factory has been envisioned as a power plant, that also stands as a destination for recreational activity and art installation.

(Photo of Energy Duck: A submission to the 2014 Land Art Generator Initiative Copenhagen design competition, courtesy of LAGI. Design Team: Hareth Pochee, Adam Khan, Louis Leger, Patrick Fryer. The winners of LAGI 2014 will be announced on October 3 at the Danish Design Centre in Copenhagen, where Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner of Climate Action, will be presenting the awards)

A Feminist Twang

by Dish Staff

Kelsey McKinney lauds the rise of Kacey Musgraves and strong female country acts:

From the legacy of Loretta Lynn to the belting gunpowder and lead of Miranda Lambert, feminism has been a lyrical undercurrent for many of country’s all-star artists. “My mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman,” Dolly Parton sings in “Just Because I’m a Woman.” That mantra of equality is matched by dozens of female artists happy to sing about being strong, capable women. For political feminist commentary, just listen to Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” or the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl.” ... Feminist themes have always lingered in the background of country music, but today’s up-and-coming female artists are bringing it to them forefront — and acting as an antidote to a misogynistic trend among their male country colleagues.

But Alyssa suggests that political country songs aren’t as common as they used to be:

Music journalist Chris Willman, whose 2005 book, Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music, examines the genre’s evolving engagement with political and social issues, told me he thinks that songs like these are outliers rather than representative of a new movement. “Once upon a time, country was better than any other genre at doing ‘issue’ songs,” he said. “Now, they’ve all but abandoned that, with the rare exceptions that have something to do with cancer or patriotism.” … Some of these dynamics are driven more by the needs of country radio than by an inherent political orientation. “There used to be a lot of whiplash on country radio, as you’d go right from a drinking song into a somebody-died song,” Willman says. “I think eventually the programmers noticed the whiplash and decided not to jolt their listeners around like that. Guess which type of song lost out? Not the party songs.”

Retracing The Rise Of The Right

by Dish Staff


The big non-fiction book of the moment for political junkies is Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, the third volume in a series that began with Barry Goldwater’s insurgent 1964 presidential campaign, charted Nixon’s rise to power, and promises to take readers through Ronald Reagan’s winning the White House. George Packer offers a taste of Perlstein’s approach in this latest installment:

“The Invisible Bridge” covers the three years between the return of the P.O.W.s and the Republican National Convention in the summer of 1976—years in which “America suffered more wounds to its ideal of itself than at just about any other time in its history”: a criminal Presidency; oil shock; inflation, followed by stagflation; America’s first military defeat, with the ignominious fall of Saigon; congressional revelations of dark deeds by the C.I.A. and the F.B.I.; violent, bankrupt cities; failed leaders; and on and on. Perlstein has looked under every rock. He has dug up the long-buried meat-inflation crisis from the spring of 1973, and he knows what the Birmingham News editorial page had to say about the bicentennial. The barrage of artifacts is arranged to convey a sense of panic, nervous breakdown, “a world gone mad.” At one point, Perlstein riffles through the March 15, 1975, issue of the Milwaukee Journal and finds “a cabinet of horrors”: a Purdue coed kidnapped by a professor, devastating tornadoes in the South, a bribery conviction in Oklahoma, a French journalist murdered in Saigon, new leads in the search for Patty Hearst, an attempted hijacking in Ethiopia, purse snatching in Milwaukee. “Horrors, of course, drench the news in any decade,” Perlstein admits. “By the middle of the 1970s, however, the perception of the density of horrors was so much worse.”

Emmitt Rensin, following Perlstein, connects these conditions to Reagan’s ascendency:

Reagan offered the easy way out: the story of America that had never lost its innocence, where all the apparent upheavals of our trauma were not rooted in our national character, but in forces outside of it.

“Carter’s appeal at the time was that he spoke to this mood in the dominant political culture that something was deeply wrong,” Perlstein told me, “but for Reagan, the idea was that the things that were wrong were foreign forces, things that weren’t really America at all. All our troubles with race, with violence, with corruption: they had somehow invaded America like a bacillus.”

“What Reagan was saying was that there is nothing in Watergate, for example, that’s essential to the American character. That it can be wished away because America is fundamentally decent and good. He just kept on saying it. And the fact that he said with such confidence gave people a kind of psychological permission to believe the same thing.”

This is what Perlstein calls the “liturgy of absolution”: Ronald Reagan’s capacity to cleanse America of its transgressions without the pain of self-reflection. For those who saw the heroic hometown lifeguard, this liturgy was the salve that put their troubled minds at ease. But for those who saw the man in search of a medal, it was the essence of Reagan’s sin, the moment we surrendered our last, best chance to heal ourselves. The fairy tale was more appealing. The division of a people, laid bare by their reaction to a leader: in exposing this, at least, The Invisible Bridge achieves Perlstein’s stated goal.

While praising Perlstein for being upfront about his “left-liberal commitments,” Damon Linker questions how fairly he portrayed conservatism:

Perlstein’s subject is conservative ideas and their impact on political reality. But he is so utterly unsympathetic to those ideas that he finds it impossible to see them as anything other than expressions of animus and anxiety, and an outgrowth of a childish refusal to face and accept the moral and historical complexity of the world.

Sure, that’s part of the story. But does he really think that’s the whole of it? In implying that he does, Perlstein ends up wandering at least partway down the same gloomy path that Corey Robin exhaustively charted in his thoroughly unhelpful history of conservative ideas, The Reactionary Mind. Neither author finds anything particularly insightful or useful in the ideas they’ve devoted themselves to exploring and examining.

That would be fine if it didn’t result at times in tendentious, one-sided history. Take Perlstein’s treatment of the neoconservative intellectuals who (unbeknownst to them, of course) were in just these years laying the groundwork for what would become the Reagan Revolution’s domestic policy agenda. Perlstein mentions the crucially important neocon quarterly journal The Public Interest on just two pages of his book, and he has little to say about it beyond noting that it was “inaugurated in 1965 and financed by a former CIA agent who was now a stockbroker.”

Debates about the book, however, haven’t been confined wrangling over history – claims about plagiarism already have been made (NYT):

The most serious accusations come from a fellow Reagan historian, Craig Shirley, who said that Mr. Perlstein plagiarized several passages from Mr. Shirley’s 2004 book, “Reagan’s Revolution,” and used Mr. Shirley’s research numerous times without proper attribution. In two letters to Mr. Perlstein’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, Mr. Shirley’s lawyer, Chris Ashby, cited 19 instances of duplicated language and inadequate attribution, and demanded $25 million in damages, a public apology, revised digital editions and the destruction of all physical copies of the book. Mr. Shirley said he has since tallied close to 50 instances where his work was used without credit.

Mr. Perlstein and his publisher said the charges are unfounded and noted that Mr. Perlstein cited Mr. Shirley’s book 125 times on his website, rickperlstein.net, where he posted his endnotes, which include thousands of citations and links to sources.

Weigel sees political motives behind the charges:

This just isn’t what happens when Rick Perlstein releases a book. The first in his series, 2001’s Before the Storm, was praised by William F. Buckley. George Will called it “the best book yet on the social ferments that produced Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy”—in a largely positive review of Perlstein’s second book, Nixonland, which became a best-seller. What changed? This time Perlstein is writing about Ronald Reagan.

Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan—Perlstein has moved from covering a minor saint, to a martyr, to God.

(Image: Ronald Reagan on the podium with Gerald Ford at the 1976 Republican National Convention after narrowly losing the presidential nomination, via Wikimedia Commons)

Back Hair Is Beautiful, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Just because Andrew is gone doesn’t mean the hair has to go with him:

Time was, I could sympathize with your reader who complained of the casual mockery his R-1363530-1233526092back hair engenders. I’ve been blessed with a thick mane over my upper back and shoulders, and I used to be self-conscious about it. But then one day I tried to tabulate everyone who’d ever made fun of it, and I had a stunning realization: it was all men. Specifically, men without much body hair. As a straight dude, no woman I’ve ever been with (honestly, no woman ever) has uttered one word of complaint and most seemed to like it. It would only come other straight dudes, who obviously envied my luxuriant pelt. Now, whenever anyone ribs me about it, I reply with a superior smirk, “Men have body hair. Boys do not.” I’ve yet to hear a quality comeback.

Also, straight as I am, Aaron looks fantastic. Damn.

Another reader:

This is my first time emailing.  It took the nexus of “End of Gay Culture Watch” and “Back Hair is Beautiful” to spur me to action.  First, let me thank you for your site and all the insights and discussions you provide.  I renewed my subscription in February (founding signer-upper here) and I will continue to do so.  I have been reading along with the Book Club, too.

There are some of us out here who prefer to live in “straight” suburbia and always have.  My first lover and I bought a house together in Riverside in 1981 (before it was “cool”).  We both felt that it was important not to live in gay enclaves so that straights would have to deal with us and experience us face to face.  It is true of any prejudice that individual contact is what sways deeply held beliefs.

On a recent trip we made to San Francisco it struck me just how much the Castro District has changed.  Definitely not Gay Central like it used to be.  But yet, when I think back, on my first visit up there my lover and I stayed with a straight couple who lived a block off of Castro.  In 1978.  Even then it was not monolithic. Sure, something has been lost.  But something has been gained, too. Acceptance.

Now to back hair.

I am a hairy guy.  Really hairy.  I am fortunate that my boyfriend of twelve years doesn’t mind it.  (He loves the chest hair!) In decades past, when the hair was less extensive and grew more in “socially acceptable” places, I used to shave it off my back.  Miserable to do.  Now I just let it go.  (Cue the music from “Frozen”.)  I still tend to keep my shirt on in public, but the visit my boyfriend and I made a few weeks ago to Provincetown and the last day of Bear Week gave me a chance to see much luxuriant growth.  Now Mark Joseph Stern puts in print what I have thought for years: What is the big fuss about back hair?  And my boyfriend said Stern looks totally hot in that photo.

Of course, I think it is rather silly of women to shave as well.  If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Which dovetails with the thought that whoever you are and whatever you look like, someone is looking for just that kind of person.  Own it and be proud of who you are. Again, thank you for airing these topics alongside your other more political and world-impacting threads.

And again, here’s that link to the related Dish thread, “Why Should Women Shave?”. Another reader takes a religious turn:

I was raised in a deeply religious home and among other members of a fundamentalist sect of protestant Christians. They were sincere, good people but they were convinced that everything sexual outside of traditional marriage was evil. Homosexuality was almost never mentioned but to this young man, who struggled with same sex feelings, I just knew that my unspoken impulses would be topmost on the pile of sins that were forbidden.

Three magazines were permitted in our home aside from the daily newspaper and a variety of religious journals. Dad always bought Look, Life and the Saturday Evening Post, but each issue was carefully scanned before it came into the home. Any picture of a scantily clad woman was torn out lest my older brother and I would be tempted to have impure thoughts. Dad never knew that the very pages he tore out sparked our interest and sent us off to Billy’s home where the same magazines could be read sans his censorship.

What Dad didn’t know was that to me, the most exotic temptations were easily available in the Bible story book I was encouraged to read. The book was wonderfully well illustrated and the illustrator must have had a keen appreciation of male body hair because the images of Biblical men were of men covered in beautiful body hair. I’ve always thought that my very strong preference for men with lots of body hair stemmed from those splendid illustrations. I love male body hair; beards, chests, legs, backs, butts, pubes and arm pits. The more hair the better.

Now at 85, I don’t read that Bible story book any more but I follow six different blogs that feature hairy men in all their naked glory.

Another lodges a small dissent:

I grow weary of your constantly equating hairiness with masculinity.  Sure, a man’s level of testosterone can relate to the amount of body hair (or lack of head hair) they display, but there are many other genetic and hormonal factors at play too – it isn’t as simple a formula as more body hair = more masculinity, as you seem to believe.  (If you give extra testosterone to a not-naturally-hairy guy, he isn’t suddenly coated in fur, you know?)

Certainly if you look at paintings and sculptures of the ultra-masculine heroic male body ideal throughout history, you rarely if ever see your extremely hairy male body type depicted.  This is not due to a prejudice against the hairier male, it is because there are as many (if not more) extremely masculine men who are not heavily coated in fur.

Their are genetic pockets (Turks, Spanish, and others) who tend more toward hairiness as a group and others (Asian, Islanders, some Africans) who do not – with lots of exceptions, due to natural variation.  I would assume that Tiny Tim was hairier than George Clooney is, but I doubt may would think this would make him the more masculine of the two.  So, could you do me a favor and simply say you are turned on by lots of body hair and leave it at that, rather than also implying that the only truly masculine men are the hairy ones?

One more:

I have no personal story to contribute on the issue of back hair (my Italian father was as hairy as a shag rug, but my Native American mother’s genes mean I’m smoother than a baby’s bottom). However, my obsession with pop/rock music might be able to bring something to the table. I know of two indie rock bands who have used hairy backs for shock effect on their album covers: Pixies – Come On Pilgrim and Fabulous Diamonds – Fabulous Diamonds [seen at the top of the post].

Does this mean it will be Bear Culture and rock musicians who will strip away the stigma of having a hairy back? Only time will tell.