Slot Machines and the Psychology of Gambling

A slot is a narrow notch, groove, or opening, such as a keyway in a piece of machinery or a slit for a coin in a vending machine.

Slots are the most popular casino games in some nations, and their popularity is surging worldwide to the point that they rival table play. They also make up 85 percent of the gaming industry’s profits, and casinos have used a dizzying range of strategies to make them addictive.

In this episode of The Conversation, MIT cultural anthropologist Dan Schull and The Conversation’s Kevin Harrigan and Dan Brown discuss how these machines use psychological insights to keep people playing, often to their detriment.

Schull points to a recent study that found that slots create “near miss” outcomes: losses that appear close to jackpots, encouraging players to keep gambling. This sleight of hand allows casinos to manipulate players and maximize their profits. He also talks about the ways that casinos promote addiction by providing a “fake sense of win” through high payouts and letting players transfer winnings between machines to cover their losses.

Schull also discusses how some cheaters try to beat the game by manipulating the physical parts of the machine. For example, some machines accept only specific types of coins or paper tickets, and counterfeiters in the eastern United States stamp fake coins with the name of a famous casino so they look like the ones accepted at the slot. In addition, manufacturers can modify the odds on a slot machine by changing a computer chip. This makes it difficult to determine how much a player will lose at any given time, because the same machine may have different odds on different days.