The Psychology behind Slot Machines

Slots are some of the most widely played games at both land based and online casinos, but have you ever wondered why? What is so attractive about this games that players keep returning to them.

To understand this we'll examine the psychology behind slots and how casinos use this to their advantage to keep players gambling.

Slot machines are based on basic psychological principles identified by B.F Skinner in the 1960's. Skinner is renowned for an experiment that he conducted wherein pigeons were placed in a box (which came to be known as the Skinner box) and given a food pellet every time they pressed a lever. He then altered the box so that the pellets would only be awarded randomly when the pigeon pressed the lever. This system was referred to as variable ratio enforcement and the pigeons pressed the lever more often in this set-up and Skinner likened his box set-up to a slot machine.

In essence, the Skinner box operates by mixing tension and release ‐ the pigeon learns to press the lever to obtain a treat, and then when the pellet is not awarded when the lever is pressed an expectation is created that finds release when the food item is awarded on subsequent presses. Skinner discovered that if too little rewards were given, the bird would become frustrated and would stop pressing the lever, and if too many pellets were awarded the bird pressed the lever less frequently.

At this point if you're a slots player you may feel slightly insulted, because, after all, you're way more intelligent than a bird...right? Of course, but that doesn't mean that the same principles don't apply to humans. Think about it ‐ most multi-line slots pay out smaller, more frequent wins rather than paying out large jackpots, yet these machines have maintained their popularity amongst player for decades.

According to associate professor at MIT Natasha Schüll who has been involved in slots research for 15 years, slots continue the video poker trend by dolling out smaller wins in order to keep players on an even keel and not jolt their emotions too intensely in the form of either losses or wins. Schüll's research has shown that smaller wins are favoured by casinos, not only to curb losses but also because too-big wins cause players to pause, think about the money involved, cashout and leave, but stretching out game play with smaller wins allows them to stay in the flow and keep playing, enjoying one small reward after the next without any perceived risk whatsoever.

It is no wonder then that modern slot machines payout around 45 percent of all spins instead of the miniscule 3 percent that their predecessors offered.

Schüll's findings are supported by a white paper published in 2010 by the American Gaming Association which stated that games with lower volatilities generally have greater appeal in "local markets" as opposed to casino resort destinations like Las Vegas, Macau and Atlantic City. They found that players usually played low volatility casino games for longer periods, which has led to the popularity and expansion of gambling worldwide.

The introduction of slots bonus games has also aided in boosting their popularity thanks to the fact that players can now enjoy not only the chance of winning, but added entertainment and opportunities for rewards within these mini games. In these games, players are generally required to pick something on a second screen (also called a "pick 'em bonus") and are rewarded accordingly. This feature gives players a sense that they are employing a certain amount of skill and are earning rewards for that. The truth of the matter is that all results are random and there really is no skill behind it, yet still we feel pretty great when we pick the symbol with the highest possible reward.

Add to this the sounds and lights that are incorporated into the game, triggering for even inconsequential wins, and you keep feeling excited and rewarded almost the entire time you play.

One also cannot discount the emotional appeal of these games, which are specifically designed using well-loved and familiar themes and graphics ‐ like those from popular TV series and movies (think the Jurassic Park, Game of Thrones, Wheel of Fortune, Friends and Baywatch slots). The games may all be similar in design, but when we find one with a theme we love, we're likely to play a great deal more than on a slot featuring something that isn't that appealing to us.

As you can see an entire arsenal of psychological programming and consideration goes into slots design. Some will argue that this is unethical and is designed to trap players, but most of us simply acknowledge that it's what makes these games great and keeps us coming back for more. And if you're enjoying yourself and playing responsibly, does all the rest really matter? That's entirely up to you.