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If Pavlov Played the Slots, He wouldn't Have Needed a Dog12 April 2004
By Alan Krigman
Tom Creed, a psychology professor at the College of St Benedict at St John's
University, says that slot machines utilize similar conditioning processes to
produce player behavior characteristics desired by the casinos. Interestingly,
slot machine developers didn't expressly build these features into the apparatus.
Rather, the machines are successful because they happen to include them.
According to Professor Creed, the desired behavior is for patrons to be attracted to the machines, to gamble once attracted, and to continue playing for extended periods. More, this behavior must be maintained despite the negative influence of losses. A device "that can succeed under these conditions is indeed a model of operant conditioning at work," he states. Further, "the slot machine's nickname, 'one-armed bandit,' is indicative of the control it exerts over the player but is only half accurate -- it does take money from its victim, but must do so by enticement rather than force. 'One-armed hustler' would be more accurate."
Attracting solid citizens appears to be a matter of equipment design, from general appearance and sound to displays of payouts. This may help explain the current popularity of "themed" slots. Differences between Little Bo Peep and Count Dracula games may be nothing more than images on the screen or graphics on the faceplate; however, individuals may show preferences for one or the other, as well as a proclivity to investigate something new particularly when they can identify with it.
The most powerful feature of the slots for encouraging desired behavior, Professor
Creed believes, is the reinforcement function. Payouts, which comprise the primary
fortifying element, occur at unpredictable intervals and are of variable sizes.
Play is initiated by the "possibility of winning big," he says. Gamblers
"are not dreaming about small, relatively frequent reinforcement. The lure
is hitting the jackpot." But, once begun, interest is kept up by the variable
interval reinforcement of the modest returns. "This 'schedule-induced behavior'
is so potent," he adds, "it is often regarded as an addiction."
Superstition is yet another conditioning principle intimately associated with slot machines. Prominent among these, Professor Creed asserts, is switching among machines. "Occasionally, switching is followed by reinforcement. When this happens, not only is slot playing reinforced, but so is switching."
This doesn't necessarily equate slot players to rats who find their way through
mazes when there's no cheese at the end. Not necessarily, anyway. For, as the
poet Sumner A Ingmark, wrote:
If often you daydream and find that you crave your
Slot action, then know it's conditioned behavior.