Gambling: Mind vs Money
by Emi Knape | published Dec. 25th, 2021
“I hit the jackpot!” said very few people ever.
Casinos are known for being a hot spot for big wins and even bigger losses, so why do people keep going back and 'testing their luck?'
With slot machines’ mathematical algorithms designed to limit the chances of success, the desire to win and the desire for money drives the urge to gamble — despite the odds being against the majority who play.
The Science Behind Slots
Though advertised as such, slot machines aren’t simply based on chance. While chance and pure luck do play a large role in the game, slot machines are built with a mathematical algorithm used to choose the next outcome.
Essentially, the algorithm depends on both a random number generator and the 'return to player' factor, which determines the percent payout for the player.
Ever since slots have been around, the machines have used a random number generator, nowadays controlled by a computer that determines the outcome.Ever since slots have been around, the machines have used a random number generator, nowadays controlled by a computer that determines the outcome.Ever since slots have been around, the machines have used a random number generator, nowadays controlled by a computer that determines the outcome.
While every machine is different, the idea is the same: your win or loss is determined when you activate the machine — if the result matches one of the paylines, you win.
A payline is the combination of symbols, such as cherries and other fruit that the machine has recognized as being “winners.”
With about 300 symbols and millions of combinations, the odds are not in the player’s favor.
Some “pro gamblers” started trying to predict the next combination of numbers, so now machines are programmed to generate numbers even when no one is playing.
Additionally, the amount of money you can win depends on how much money you actually put in; this is where payouts come into play.
Payouts are the amount of money returned by the machine. These payouts are programmed to let users win as low as zero to 99 percent of the money the machine makes, depending on how much money the player decided to wager. This, however, varies per state and per casino.
For example, Nevada has the highest average payout percentage at 95.8 percent and West Virginia at the bottom with an average of 89.12 percent average payback.
These payouts are ultimately determined by how much money is put in, along with the average payout programmed into the machine.
Psyching Ourselves Out
While many people know that the odds of winning big in a slot machine are very slim, people continue to take the risk.
Dave Schwartz, a gaming historian who has studied gambling history for 20 years, used to work at a casino and saw this every day.
“People keep playing because some people do win ... we just only tend to notice the winners more because they celebrate,” Schwartz said.
Therefore, when someone sees another person 'get lucky,' they are more likely to keep playing.
A large part of this is due to "A large part of this is due to "availability heuristic," the idea that our brains tend to make decisions based on immediate examples or scenarios that come to mind.
This can be seen in gambling when someone is debating whether or not to test their luck again at the slot machines.
By nature, the brain will most likely think about the most recent victory or the most advertised jackpot winner and cause the person to think winning is common, leading them to try again.
What many people don’t take into account, however, is how much they actually won.
“You see people win, but you don’t know how much they actually put in,” Shwartz stated.
“You see people win, but you don’t know how much they actually put in.”
So, even though someone may have rolled some big numbers, they could still be leaving with a significantly less amount of money than they originally came with.
This idea of using selective information leads to biased decision making, which is the largest contributor to this sense of a gambling addiction.
Jason Ozubko, associate professor of Psychology at SUNY Geneseo, talked about psychological aspects in decision-making sense.
“People have a poor intuitive sense of randomness,” Ozubko said. “[They] will look at randomness and see the patterns that aren’t there and think they can outplay the pattern.”
For example, roulette wheels show the history of what the wheel has landed on and sometimes there will be certain “runs” of multiple of the same color in a row.
If there is a long pattern of the winning color being red, humans naturally think that the next result will be black. This is because people expect the pattern to change at some point.
While in reality, the machine is an inanimate object with no control, and there is still ultimately a 50 percent chance the result will be red or black.
Part of the attractiveness of gambling goes back to the idea of risk and unpredictability.
Additionally, this also shows a sense of privilege. Some people choose to gamble simply because they have money to throw away, whereas other are just trying to make a quick buck.
When someone does win, they may think they've outsmarted the game. This almost creates a kind of “chosen one” complex for the gambler.
However, when it comes to addiction, the likelihood of possibly gaining that reward is enough to engage in it.
“It’s the same thing with video games, food and drugs: as people engage in activities that offer periodic rewards, they become conditioned to want to engage in that more,” Ozubko said.
Additionally, even though people know the odds of winning may be slim, they still choose to take the chance. This is because the attractiveness to probability is predominantly more about the journey and less about the destination. In terms of gambling, it's more so about the sensation of seeing those numbers spin, and less about the actual winning part of the situation.
“The fun is in the unpredictability in it all ... that’s what makes it addicting,” Ozubko said.
“The fun is in the unpredictability in it all ... that’s what makes it addicting.”
Therefore, people aren’t attracted to the prize necessarily as much as they are attracted to the chance of winning the prize.
While it can be argued that slot machines are “rigged,” humans are prone to engage in risky behaviors because they crave rewards.
“Modern society has noticed the fact that this is how our brains work ... slot-machines were designed with us in mind,” Ozubko stated.
Slot machines have been making money off of our minds for generations, and it’s ultimately up to us to decide how much that costs us.