The psychology of slots - A little risk for just enough reward

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When you think about it, slot games are a very unusual and somewhat strange way for people to spend their time. In days gone by it would be pulling a lever or pressing a button that set the reels in motion, while nowadays it is a tap of the touchscreen or a click on the mouse that will set the virtual reels into action.

Yet it is interesting to think about slot games in a humanistic way. What is it about them that makes slot games by far and away the most popular form of casino entertainment today? Is there anything particular about the game that appeals to our psyche? Why do some people find slots so hard to resist, to the point of becoming addicted to them and requiring intervention from bodies that support this type of gambling? Why do many millions more, not get addicted?

To answer this, we need to delve a little into human psychology and discover what is it about us that makes slot games so appealing? Is it something we learn to enjoy, or is there something about hitting those wins that makes it almost natural for us to want to play?

What is interesting about slot games is that even since the earliest formats of the game, the idea of risk and reward has been a central theme to the slot genre.

In olden times in the late 19th century, slot games were not as advanced as modern-day games. The first slots were actually five drums with playing cards on them, which would be spun in order to produce poker hands. The better the poker hand you landed, then the more that you would win. These machines had no way to offer prizes to players, so it was down to the bartender to provide the winner with the prize.

Prizes took on many forms in those early days, form cigarettes and gum, to free drinks and even on the odd occasion, a lucky winner could enjoy the company of a 'lady of the night' on the house, if they landed a particularly good hand.

For the player the option was simple, you risk a little bit of your money and the likelihood is that you will lose that money. But for that spin, you also have a chance of winning a prize that is greater in value than what you spent and in some cases, could be worth considerably more.

It is this trade-off between risk and reward that is at the heart of not just every slot game you can play in the modern day, but also the reason why games such as the National Lottery, Roulette and many other forms of gambling are also hugely popular.

Why Risk v Reward is key to understanding slots appeal

One of the biggest reasons why slot games are so popular with punters is that compared to other forms of gambling, they offer two key things.

  • They can be very cheap to play (especially when compared to other forms of gambling typically available)
  • They can offer massive rewards in relation to the size of your bet.

This second point is perfectly shown by the progressive jackpot slot where for a spin of as little as 0.25 in your chosen currency, you can win a cash prize that is often worth many millions. British-born Jonathan Heywood made a £0.25 bet in October 2015 and landed a prize of £13.2 million. There is no comparable other form of gambling so readily available and so easy to understand, that can offer such tempting rewards.

Both these factors contribute to players wanting to play slots, but it doesn't explain everything. Of course, you have to learn about slots and trial them to understand how they work and what ones have the most appeal to you. Some players prefer slots which pay out smaller amounts more often, others much prefer games that don't pay out as often, but when they do offer larger value wins.

However, is there something innate within us that makes this form of gambling so appealing? One of the great behavioral psychologists of all time, B.F.Skinner wondered this very thing when he observed how people played and became addicted to slot gaming.

He set up a simple experiment where pigeons were taught to pull a level. On some occasions the lever would produce a treat for the bird. On others, it would not. Skinner's experiment showed that the birds quickly learned that pulling the lever could produce a treat and so they would repeatedly pull the lever time and time again to access the treats.

It seems that it isn't solely human brains that are wired to enjoy the risk and the reward factor however it should be noted that the pigeons were not risking anything to pull the lever. So perhaps the experiment did not quite replicate the slot experience. Even so, it is a good indication of how rewarding people just enough times, will make them perform the same behavior over and over again.

Of course, the key to learning to control this behavior and avoid any of the issues surrounding it is the ability to self-moderate. All good slot players have this ability, the skill to know when to stop playing. The good news is that this is very easy to do. Simply set yourself a limit to your spending and when you have spent that amount, regardless of whether you are in profit or in loss, stop your game.

Although this sounds easy on paper, for those in the throes of slots addiction, can find it almost impossible to do this and it seems their risk/reward impulses are now controlling them, rather than them controlling the impulses.

In truth, this is only one aspect of slot gaming's appeal. Modern online slots now offer a vast choice of game titles, themes and a massive number of different bonus games, all of which are designed to appeal to us and to get us to want to play. It then depends on the individual as to which types of games and features are the most appealing, which is why if you ask ten slot players what their favorite slot is, you will likely get ten different answers.

There's no doubt that playing slots is rewarding. That feeling of euphoria when you land a win, especially a sizeable win, is hugely addictive and players want to feel that again, causing them to spend more money playing a game that they know is not in their favor, but which offers them a chance of a sizeable win.

The final point of slots in terms of psychology for us as humans is simply that they are fun to play. They are a great form of relaxation and unwinding for some people. Many people head to Vegas on vacation for example and will dedicate a lot of time to playing the slots there. It would be interesting to see a report on how slots can have beneficial effects for people dealing with stress, or in need of relaxation. Could slots be good for your health, if not necessarily the best for your wallet?

The key thing to remember is that all slots are designed to make you want to play them, it is down to you how you control that urge and ensure that you develop a healthy attitude towards slot gaming. If you can control your slot playing, rather than it controlling you, then you have developed a strong attitude towards the games and can enjoy all the fun they have to offer.

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