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The studies on slot play keep coming

By Frank Legato


I just read an article on the “Study Breaks” website titled “The Psychology Behind Slot Games.” It is yet another article that attempts to dissect our brains to reveal why it is we love slot machines, and it’s all stuff I’ve reacted to, debunked and busted on in this space.

So, why not one more time?

The article uses psychological references to explain what it is about slot machines that is so appealing, and why the machines can be addicting to some people.

The article explains that the appeal of a slot game can be traced back to research by psychologist B.F. Skinner, and his experiment with pigeons and food pellets. According to the article, Skinner found “that the birds would peck at a lever that provided food more often when the delivery system was randomized, rather than when the food was guaranteed to arrive.”

I’ve argued against this “risk and reward” theory in the past. Think of it. The bird pecks more when a food pellet doesn’t dispense every time. Don’t you think that when food comes every time, the pigeon pecks less because he’s eating, or because he simply isn’t hungry because, you know, he’s just scarfed down a bunch of food pellets?

Also, does pigeon behavior really portend human behavior? Maybe so.  I do know that playing slots for a while gives me an urge to go poop on a statue.

The article also relates slot play to the idea of “flow,” the theory of “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake,” as theorized by psychologist Mihaly “Dutch” Csikszentmihalyi.

The idea was researched in direct relation to slot machine play in a study by Natasha Dow “Mountain Girl” Schull, who said some people in her study actually were annoyed when they won on a slot game because it interrupted the “flow” of the reel-spinning.

(Yeah, yeah—I made up the nicknames.)

Look. No matter how mesmerized I am with reel-spinning, an interruption that says “You win!” is never going to annoy me. Unless I bet $5 and I “won” $2, but that’s a subject I’ll address further down the page. I don’t care if I’m meditating on that slot rhythm until I’m semi-comatose. I play slot machines with the hope of winning money, and if the bells and whistles of a big jackpot interrupt my mantra, I don’t get upset. I throw up my arms like I just scored a touchdown.

By the way, the article notes that the “flow,” and the trance created by slot play, is helped by the slot sounds, which are all in the key of C, because it is pleasant to the ear. I verified this via my former band, Voodoo Weasel (yes, “Voodoo Weasel”), when we used to play on a stage on the floor of the Delaware Park casino. We used to be able to tune our guitars to the slot sounds.

I heard once that someone designed a slot game using sounds in F-sharp. It caused players to drop to the ground and spin around on the carpet like Curly.

As usual, the psychologist cited in the “Study Breaks” article says wins that are less than the bet, and near-misses (“7-7-blank,”for instance) just make the player want to play more. Umm, no.  In my experience, they make the player want to put his fist through the screen.

Also as usual, the article points to a study from the University of Alberta that concludes the use of credits in slots rather than real money “encourages people to spend more money on a slot game, as they do not see their cash balance depleting in the same way.”

That’s a lot of hooey. When I’m playing, I keep one eye on the credit meter at all times. It’s like the scoreboard. I know how much I want to spend going in, and when that credit meter gets down below my original stake, it’s like the two-minute warning. I’m hoping to score so I make it to overtime.

If you’re a frequent reader of this page, you know I’ve recorded similar reactions in the past to all of these slot studies. I’ve actually had psychologists write letters to me a few times defending their research.

I remember one professor wrote thousands of words of pro- test because I riffed on the fact they used chimpanzees in their research, explaining what parts of the simian brain react the same as the human brain to various stimuli.

I told the professor that this is a humor column, and I only cited his research because monkeys playing slot machines are, well, funny.

Had Skinner used monkeys, I probably would have gotten better grades in Psychology 101.

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