Frank Floor Talk: The psychology of the slot player

June 25, 2024 8:00 AM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • John G. Brokopp, CDC Gaming Reports
June 25, 2024 8:00 AM
  • John G. Brokopp, CDC Gaming Reports

The behavioral science associated with gambling, especially playing slots, is a somewhat complex field of study that can awaken a renewed sense of understanding about the folks who occupy the seats on gaming floors in casinos around the world.

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Although not pandemic-proof, as the COVID crisis revealed, gambling is generally perceived as recession/inflation-proof. However, the “if you build it, they will come” principle is something that should not be taken for granted.

We know that there are some people who wouldn’t bet that an elephant is heavy. Fortunately for the casino gambling industry, there are far more people who are inclined to put their money on the line and make casino gambling a regular part of their recreational pursuits.

Just what is it that keeps players in their seats so attentively day after day, time after time, as they focus on the spinning reels in the hope of hitting the jackpot?

Call it “operant conditioning” – first described by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, who used the term “operant” to refer to any “active behavior that operates upon the environment to generate consequences”.

According to author Kendra Cherry, MSEd, in an article she wrote for the website Verywell Mind in February of 2023 titled What is Operant Conditioning?, “Skinner’s theory was heavily influenced by the work of psychologist Edward Thorndike, who had proposed what he called the law of effect”.

“According to this principle,”, Cherry explained, “actions that are followed by desirable outcomes are more likely to be repeated, while those influenced by undesirable actions are less likely to be repeated.”

Operant conditioning is arguably at the very foundation of slot machine development and evolution. It has driven and continues to drive all of the technological enhancements made to the games. The old three-reel spinners with a single jackpot evolved into video grids with the power to increase the number of desirable outcomes to keep players in their seats.

The introduction of second-screen bonuses and their expansion – multi-level progressive tier levels, perceived and true persistence, increased pay frequency, and line-pay “wins” even if the money won is less than what the player bet – have combined to capitalize upon operant conditioning behavior.

Increasing the probability of the number of desirable outcomes and the likelihood of hitting them, incorporating perceived persistence, and celebrating wins that are in fact losses, feed heavily into the operant conditioning power of modern slot machines.

Cherry concludes in her article that “operant conditioning relies on a fairly simple premise: Actions that are followed by reinforcement will be strengthened and more likely to occur again in the future”.

In essence, operant conditioning keeps players in their seats because the many levels of positive reinforcement associated with modern slot machines keep them in suspense wanting and waiting for more.

Operant behaviors, Cherry says, are “those under our conscious control. Some may occur spontaneously and others purposely, but it is the consequences of these actions that then influence whether or not they occur again in the future”.

Winning the Mini progressive is positive reinforcement for going after the Minor, the Major, or even the Grand. Triggering a bonus round with free spins that does not result in a significant payout is positive reinforcement to keep playing and trigger another bonus round that hopefully will light up “BIG WIN” on the top box.

Watching the string of firecrackers ignite and inch upward to a bonus, delighting at the coins that fly from the grid and into a cauldron that gradually fills to overflowing in anticipation of a bonus, are reinforcers that pave the way for continued responses from players leading to that all-important “time on device” metric.

Skinner, it is revealed, discovered that when and how often behaviors were reinforced played a big role in the speed and strength of acquisition.  As such, he identified five different schedules of reinforcement that impact the operant conditioning process, one of which, variable-ratio schedules, can be directly applied to gambling in general, and slot play in particular.

Variable-ratio schedules, Cherry explained, “are also a type of partial reinforcement that involve reinforcing behavior after a varied (unpredictable) number of responses, leading to both a high response rate and slow extinction (fading and disappearance of the behavior) rates”.

“Schedules of reinforcement play a central role in the operant conditioning process,” Cherry wrote in an article titled Variable-Ratio Schedule Characteristics and Examples for Verywell Mind in November of 2023. “The frequency with which a behavior is reinforced can help determine how quickly a response is learned as well as how strong the response might be.”

Cherry breaks down the three common characteristics of a variable-ratio schedule this way:

  • Rewards are provided after an unpredictable number of responses: There is no predictability as to when a reward will be received. It might be after the first response, or the fifth, or another number entirely.
  • Leads to a high, steady response rate: When the subject doesn’t know when the reward will be given, they will continue to respond each time in the hopes that it will be the response that results in an award.
  • Results in only a brief pause after reinforcement: After the reinforcement is received in a variable-ratio schedule, there is just a minor pause in response.

“With slot machines, players have no way of knowing how many times they must play before they win,” Cherry says. “All they know is that, eventually, a play will win. This is why slot machines are so effective and players are often reluctant to quit. There is always the possibility that the next (play) they (make) will be the winning one.”

Of course, her application of the variable-ratio schedule to slot machines was based on the legacy mechanical reel spinners capable of producing far fewer desirable outcomes than the electronic marvels of today

Think about how much greater the variable-ratio schedule applies today, and just how effective operant conditioning has become.

Operant conditioning makes slot machines powerful influencers on gaming floors. The mathematicians and designers that create the games are behavioral psychologists in their own creative ways and have paved the way for slots to become the casino industry’s most powerful revenue generating source.