Go into any casino and likely at least three quarters of the floor will be rows of slot machines. Open the app store on your phone and browse to the games section – chances are there’s a slot machine apps in the top five. What is it about slot machines that drives people to keep playing them? They are often fairly simple games that involve no strategy and yet billions of dollars are pumped through them every year. Why? The answer is that they hack the brain using a well documented psychological weaknesses – slot machines are basically Skinner boxes for humans.
A skinner box is another name for an ‘operant conditioning chamber’ – a very common apparatus in animal behavioral studies. Basically, it’s a box with a lever and a means to distribute a positive reinforcement stimulus – often food. The most basic design is when the animal is given a piece of food everytime they press the level, in this case most animals will press the release whenever it is hungry.
A scheduled dispersal is when the food pellet is given after a certain number of pushes. If the animal’s food appears every tenth time the subject pressed the lever, the basic behavior will be the same as before, but they will hit the lever ten times in row.
The most effective means of getting a laboratory animal to hit the lever a bunch of times though was to give a random reward – every press have an opportunity for a reward to be dispensed. The uncertainty is a powerful motivator. Animals will hit their lever even when they are not hungry, just so they can be sure to have some later when they need it.
Replace the box with a casino, the food pellets with cash money, and the lever with a slot handle, and there you have it. A Human Skinner Box, optimally tuned to hack your brain into an unhealthy relationship with the slot machine. It’s that random reward that gets you.
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