Psychiatrist explains why people are attracted to slot machines
By Mark Gruetze
Published: Friday, Jan. 20, 2012
The scene is familiar to anyone who has visited a casino: A slot player sits transfixed in front of the machine, eyes raised slightly as one hand rhythmically taps the spin button.
She seems to be in a trance.
In a sense, she is, says Dr. David Forrest, clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.
Many players go into almost a meditative state at the machine, says Forrest, a slot player and author of "Slots: Praying to the God of Chance" (Delphinium Books, print and electronic editions). The book, released this month, explores why millions of people play slots, even though few expect to win.
Gamblers who favor games involving strategies and decisions often malign slot fans because they don't have to think while playing.
"They aren't dumb," Forrest says in a phone interview. "They tend to be thinking people who read a lot."
Still, he was curious about what attracts them.
"They play, they have fun, they expect to lose money," he says. "No rational person goes (to a casino) really believing they're going to succeed in the long run. They expect to lose, and yet they go there. How does it work?"
His answer: Physical and emotional responses from the players, coupled with the utterly random nature of the machine, generate a sense of awe and mystery -- something akin to prayer among the religious faithful.
Gambling triggers chemical changes in the brain, he says, including the release of dopamine, a chemical that transmits signals between nerve cells.
The timing of spins -- 15 or 16 per minute when a player is "in the zone" -- coincides with the rhythmic breathing of meditation or other relaxation techniques, he says.
Even the motion in the slot has an effect.
"The reels descend. It's a very powerful thing. They force eyes to do a little up-and-down dance," Forrest says. "The eye movement mimics a number of things that are important to us -- like submission, hypnotic obedience and also awe."
Machines often instruct players to look up when they reach a bonus round.
"You have to raise eyes up almost to heaven for the manna to pour down upon you. If your eyes go even further, you see the vaulted ceilings of the cathedral-like palaces we have built for our slot machines."
A random-number generator is a slot's "god of chance." It determines whether you win or lose on a given spin. It spits out thousands of numbers per second, even when no one's playing the machine. Each number is translated to a slot-machine symbol; for example, 1 might be a cherry, 7 might be a star and 13 through 17 might be blanks. The numbers generated at the instant you hit "spin" determine which symbols will appear and where.
That's what our brains have trouble comprehending.
"We don't know what to do with randomness," Forrest says. "We connect then to the random laws of the universe, which are, in a sense, bigger than we are, or inexplicable.
"These are aspects that we attribute to deity."
He cites studies by famed behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner, a Pennsylvania native. Skinner would drop food pellets into a pigeon's box at random intervals. Before long, pigeons would connect their behavior just before the pellet dropped with getting food. "Superstitious" pigeons would turn in one direction, shake their plumage or scratch their floor in hopes of enticing the unseen hand to drop another reward.
Many slot players react similarly, rubbing charms over the machine, covering the screen during a bonus round or pushing the spin button with a special flourish.
"The patternless aspect makes us project pattern onto it," Forrest says.
While many slots share features that put players in a prayerful state, Forrest doesn't think manufacturers intentionally design games that way.
"It's a Darwinian selection," he says. "The ones that seem to be more attractive to us survive, and the ones that aren't, are eliminated."
Slot makers do study what keeps people playing, such as high-definition graphics, pop culture themes, bonus rounds and even team play.
"I guess the perfect slot machine would be one that is so much fun to play that you never pay any attention to whether you win or not," Forrest says.
HBO offers way to try your luck
Fans of Dustin Hoffman, HBO or horse racing have a chance to win $50,000 in a promotion tied to the new series "Luck." Facebook users can submit their picks for the winning horses in six thoroughbred races Jan. 28 at Santa Anita Park in Los Angeles and Gulfstream Park in Miami.
The Facebook app will be available starting Monday. Entrants pick one horse per race; horses finishing first, second or third earn points based on their payouts.
The series, starring Hoffman, debuts Jan. 29.
Slot players lost $41.6 million at Pennsylvania's 10 casinos during the week ending Jan. 15, the Gaming Control Board reported. That's up from $39.6 million in the comparable week last year.
The state gets 55 percent of that "gross slot revenue," or what's left of players' wagers after payouts have been made.
Statewide, slots have paid out at a 90.1 percent rate since the fiscal year started in July. For every $100 bet, the machines returned an average of $90.10.
Payout rates for Western Pennsylvania casinos:
- 89.89 percent: Rivers; revenue for the week ended Jan. 15 was $4.8 million, up from $4.45 million in 2010.
- 89.78 percent: The Meadows; revenue for the week ended Jan. 15 was $3.96 million, up from $3.77 million in 2010.
- 90.45 percent: Presque Isle in Erie; revenue for the week ended Jan. 15 was $2.36 million, essentially even with 2010.
Question of the week
Pennsylvania's No. 2 in gambling revenue. Can anyone catch up to Nevada?
Because of the number and varietyof gambling outlets there, it's doubtful that any other state could match Nevada's gambling revenue. However, the Asian nation of Macau puts Nevada to shame. Macau had $33.5 billion in gambling revenue in 2011. Macau makes about as much in one month as Pennsylvania makes in a year.
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