Slot Machine Reinforcement and Gambling Persistence


A slot is an opening in the wing or tail surface of an airplane used for a control device such as an aileron.

These days, video slots are the linchpin of casinos’ success, accounting for up to 85 percent of all gambling profits. They’re solitary, they spin at a dizzying speed, and they present constant reinforcement: each event — a win, a near-miss, or a loss — is another opportunity for the machine to reinforce behavior. So it’s no surprise that people get hooked, often losing themselves in these machines for days on end.

Schull, a cultural anthropologist, spent 15 years in Las Vegas researching the evolution of these addictive machines and found that while regulation is necessary, it’s not always enough to prevent people from falling prey to their seductive allure. So she’s pushing for stricter regulations, not bans, but ways to mitigate the worst addictive effects.

One popular hypothesis is that slot machine contingencies produce a type of conditional reinforcement that encourages more frequent gambling. However, an experimental study that presented participants with different frequencies of near miss presentations—45%, 30%, and 80%—found that while the percentage of wins in each group increased as the frequency of near-miss presentations decreased, this decrease did not result in a reduction in gambling persistence.

Another problem is that conventional chained procedures that successfully produce conditional reinforcement have a logical predictability between the putative conditional reinforcer and the subsequent unconditional reinforcer, but classic slot machines provide random outcomes. Thus, it’s not clear how, exactly, near-miss feedback can be assumed to have a reinforcing function in a typical slot machine.