If you’ve ever spun the lottery wheel and waited in agonising tension as the ticking arrow inched closer and closer to the marked jackpot target, only to grind your teeth as it falls short by one space, you’ll understand the immediate temptation to reach into your wallet to try your luck again. It’s just five more dollars, you tell yourself, no harm done. Five dollars would barely buy a McDonalds burger. Deeper and deeper you reach until not only is your wallet empty of dollar bills, but the money you spent could’ve bought a fancy night out at a Nobu restaurant with change to spare. Such is the intricate method behind the visible madness of gamblers that research over the last decade has uncovered psychological forces that explain why the unplayable odds are yet, still played.
“Classical Conditioning”, a term made famous by Anton Pavlov in the 19th century, describes a situation where if a unique sound is played enough times along with the precise moment of a dog’s feeding time, the mere hearing of the sound in the future will generate salivation – a reaction tied to the brain’s pleasure reaction. Linked together with the “Operant Conditioning” phenomenon discovered by BF Skinner in the 1950s, whereby pigeons could be trained to peck at particular spots if grains were fed there at irregular intervals, a method to a gambler’s madness can be explained.
“The Zone” describes an acquired mental state where the brain is continuously geared toward a reward target. Innocently, we may remember being rewarded with a piece of candy every time we performed well in a primary school test. The marshmallow experiment sets an apt context. Dopamine, a chemical regulating our reception of reward and responsible for the feeling of pleasure, is secreted in our bodies. Regulating processes like our primal need for hunger satisfaction to the most material need for the newest iPhone, from the moment we anticipate it to the moment we receive the actual reward, dopamine controls the brain’s internal bribery circuit. Just as Classical Conditioning explains, confessions from addicts reveal the potent allure of sounds, lights and vibrations associated with playing a typical slot machine. The build-up to an (probabilistically impossible) outcome of a jackpot is where Operant Conditioning fuses in: small rewards of a few dollars at each time keep the gambler hooked onto the possibility of winning the ultimate sum; comparatively as a pigeon would keep pecking at a spot once it is fed enough times at irregular intervals.
Whilst it may seem indigestible to level human actions with the behaviour of pigeons, it is important to acknowledge the growing risk to healthy and financially secure families posed by particularly vulnerable members. Vulnerable to? The arguably diabolical methods of casinos driven to take advantage of human psychological traits. Increased accessibility to metrics and computer-generated datasets have allowed gambling companies to prolifically reap huge profit-margins, with statistics such as foot traffic driving innovative strategies exemplified by the placement of slot machines inside petrol stations. The advent of the online casino, in particular, has leveraged the burgeoning number of Internet users across the world to efficiently hedge bets from the comfort of their mobile phones, if not their laptops. But despite weathering a well-heeded infamy of gluttony and monetary excess, how do so-called “sin cities” such as Las Vegas maintain its patron base over the years? Structural and decorative design plays an integral role, as illustrated by Roger Thomas, head of design for Wynn Resorts. Essentially a gamble on the addictive nature of dopamine-instigated vicious cycles, the Bellagio returned a $1.6 billion investment (originally funded into its construction) in spectacular fashion, factoring in that it is less than half the size of MGM Grand. Per guest room, the Bellagio generated four times the average revenue of an average Las Vegas Casino.
How did this happen? Thomas explains that using a Panoscope method, where the dense maze-like layouts of traditional casinos were contrasted to his interior-design, participants in this experiment experienced higher levels of mental restoration with the design that Thomas proposed. Associated with low levels of stress, participants felt that it was a sanctuary, especially within the comfort of large, sunken leather armchairs positioned carefully adjacent to each machine. Thus Thomas revamped the interior design to effect a natural green, pale leather and gold theme reminiscent of a garden conservatory, with natural lights reducing the typical glare of opulent chandeliers playing a poignant role in inducing comfort. The manifestation? A well-maintained comfort and calm, resulting in stronger desire appetite for risk and gambling.
Unnoticeable factors play a key roles too. In addition to popular conspiracy theories claiming that casinos purposely keep their walls devoid of any clocks so patrons will lose track of time, details as miniscule as scent were proved to matter. When a casino (again, in Las Vegas) pumped a pleasant aroma ranging in identification from the smell of a rose to a violet flower, machines brought in 50 percent higher profit on Saturdays. Architects play a part too, with the maze-like structure of expansive casino floors designed to hinder any wayward attempts of escape. Sounds overwhelming? The technology sector has invested its share too, with program-enabled actuarial analysis spurring the advent of bonus games encouraging further participation. Termed “Pick-em bonuses” these games typically convey the impression that skill is required, where players match portraits of characters, often from well-recognised TV-shows such as Wheel of Fortune.
With countless tactics devised to drive an already exorbitant gambling sector, it may seem a hopeless case for the addicted. Fortunately, companies are required to pay levies from its profit, which contribute to regulatory bodies like GambleAware to oversee the ethicality of these tactics and provide support for affected addicts and their families.