There are certain things in life that appear to be contradictory but actually make sense. Fans know, for example, that professional wrestling is “fake,” i.e., the results of the match are booked in advance, yet they still watch, which is a tribute to the athleticism and story-telling of the “sports entertainers.” In some ways, this “fake” sport provides more real entertainment that actual athletic contests, which can sometimes be downright unexciting. So it makes sense, in fact, that people looking to be entertained might choose an exciting “fake” over a boring “genuine” athletic contest.
I’ve written before on the parallels between professional wrestling and casino gaming; in both, the results are predetermined (statistically, in gaming’s case, but not in any individual instance), but both have become wildly popular after shucking any pretense at legitimate competition for “entertainment.”
Here’s a news story from the Philadelphia Inquirer that might bolster my arguments about casino entertainment. It asks the fundamental question of why slots players continue to fill the machines when they know, statistically, they are destined to lose over the long haul:
At the Borgata, slots chief Paul Tjoumakaris knows what he wants in a slot machine. Great math. Great hit frequency.
“It’s very important that the machine create a system where the customer doesn’t dry out quickly,” he says.
But the same math that doles out a bunch of hits also ensures that the customer will dry out eventually. Or at least come out behind. That’s the point. “Eventually the bankroll is going to deplete, but at least they had fun,” Tjoumakaris says.
In fact, slots players exhibit some of the most persistent positive thinking despite the near certainty that they will lose, say psychologists who study gambling behavior.
Tjoumakaris may chalk this up to entertainment – to machines that pay in little increments as they take your money, to machines with fun sounds, good graphics, complex bonus rounds, and video narratives and characters who talk and tease you.
But psychologists consider a slots player’s propensity for positive thinking, ordinarily a useful response to adversity, to be “maladaptive” – the kind of thing that leads to excessive gambling. Or to healthy slots revenue for the casino, depending on whom you’re asking.
New Jersey requires machines, over time, to return at least 83 percent of all wagers back to gamblers. (Pennsylvania’s new law requires 85 percent.) Payout percentages are reported monthly.
In Atlantic City, the average is about 92 percent, though the rate varies among machines, with higher-denomination ones returning a higher percentage. The Borgata, which claims the “loosest” slots in town, holds an average of 7.8 percent of all wagers.
That 92 percent doesn’t sound too bad, but the returns get smaller and smaller as your bankroll depletes.
Psychologists say slot machines are the crack cocaine of gambling. They promote a way of thinking known as the gambler’s fallacy, says Nancy Petry, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center.
“Cognitive illusions – there’s a whole series of them,” Petry says. “You think that past wins or losses are predictive of future wins or losses – ‘I’m bound to win next time’ – when every pull of the slot machine has an equal probability of payout. Everybody gets tricked into those illusions.”
Griffiths and colleague Jonathan Parke have studied “chasing” behavior, and they have written: “Gamblers report that they are reluctant to quit until they win. In essence, they believe that each loss brings them one step closer to winning. To some extent, this is necessarily true. If the gambler persists, they will eventually win. However, these individuals appear to ignore how these transactions balance out in the long run.”
New-generation slot machines, with video narratives, bonus rounds, and even trivia questions, give gamblers the notion that they are more involved in the outcome.
They get caught up with the themes, the humor, the choices, and the pop-culture references.
Psychologists say all the themes and interaction – some machines have animated characters that talk to, even taunt, the gamblers – can have powerful effects on some people.
The psychology of slots: Hooking players on hope
It is ironic, indeed, that something like perserverance, which in theory benefits people in a capitalist system, could actually hurt those having problems with slots.
You’ve got to wonder if slots players are really as unsophisticated as these stories make them out to be. For example, one of the few players quoted in this piece admits to being outsmarted by a “Cops and Donuts” machine:
Regulations prohibit casino operators from blatant “near-miss” manipulations, such as having the first two reels of a standard machine match more often to increase suspense. But newer machines have several ways of winning, including multiple pay lines and bonus rounds, so players feel as though they are always “almost winning.” And some bonus rounds present players with options, then show what a different choice would have yielded.
“They tease you,” says Joe Evers, 74, playing the “Cops and Donuts” game. That leads to regret, psychologists say, which can be most efficiently eliminated by playing another round.
I’ve often wondered why people play “Cops and Donuts.” Now I know–because deep down inside, they want to be teased.