Almost half of the U.S. adult population plans to visit a casino and gamble at some point in the next year. Las Vegas casinos alone average over 50 million visitors per year. Still, most gamblers lose money, so how do the casinos entice people to play games designed to take their money?
Casino operators employ psychological methods when designing the physical layout, color schemes, gameplay, and even fragrance in the air to encourage spending. Most casinos have no clocks and few windows, so you apt to lose track of time. They also control the temperature, air quality, and even the lighting inside the building. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that sensory features in casinos may directly influence a player’s decisions and encourage riskier choices (i.e., increased betting).
Casinos actively control their sound environment. Most use upbeat music to create excitement, but they also use ringing bells or sirens to signify that people are winning. When people see and hear that others are winning, it creates a sense of possibility and even an expectation of winning.
Free drinks are offered because they know that alcohol decreases inhibitions, which will make people more likely to take risks and spend their money. A tipsy gambler is expected to make poor decisions, which means more profits.
Casinos are often laid out in a maze-like pattern, with few straight aisles. The tables and machines are arranged to confuse you and to keep you tempted to play.
Studies have shown scents can affect behavior, so casinos actively manage the “scent environment.” When Harrah’s in Las Vegas sprayed a pleasant perfume around specific slot machines, those machines’ revenue dramatically increased and was found to be 45% higher than revenue from similar odorless machines.
They use chips rather than cash, making it emotionally easier for people to part with money. Studies show that people tend to spend much more when paying by credit card than when paying with cash. Similarly, people tend to gamble more when they are not continually laying out money.
Slot machines account for 80% of a casino’s gambling revenue. Every day, people put millions of dollars into slot machines, but these machines are specifically designed to take the player’s money, so casinos use reinforcement to encourage people to play. Once a person is enticed to sit and try a slot machine, the likelihood that he will continue playing is primarily determined by the machine’s “reinforcement schedule.”
In simple terms, a reinforcer is anything that increases the probability that a particular behavior will reoccur. To the casino operator, the most desired behavior is continued play. Since the odds are stacked against the player, the more a person plays, the more he can lose money.
Slot machines operate on a “variable-ratio schedule,” which means that reinforcement is given after an unpredictable number of responses. Research shows that behaviors reinforced on these schedules tend to reoccur again and again. A slot player has no way of knowing how many times he has to play before a winning combination comes up, but he does know that eventually, the machine will pay off. Consequently, it is always possible that the next play will be a winning one, and this makes it very hard for the player to walk away.
Reinforcement not only comes from winning but also from near-misses, which are programmed into slot machines. According to research psychologist Dr. Luke Clark, “If they watch two cherries come up on a slot machine and then see the third almost click into place, they’ll keep playing.”
People gamble for many reasons: the chance to win money, to have fun, or just to escape from a daily routine. Regardless of why somebody chooses to gamble, he is subject to sophisticated psychological techniques specifically designed to keep them playing the moment they enter a casino.
Dr. Kenneth Freundlich, the Morris Psychological Group’s Managing Partner, heads the Neuropsychology and Consulting Divisions. With over 30 years of experience, Dr. Freundlich’s practice is exclusively devoted to neuropsychological evaluation and management consultation.