The Skinner Box

Slots, you can’t escape them in live casinos or online casinos. At least 80% of a brick and mortar casinos are made up of slot machines and their digital counterparts are similar in the online games they offer. Some people can spend hours and hours on them, developing strategies, betting styles and other ways to beat the machines. But why this love of slots, and why are there so many?

To start with, we have to consider the psychological conditioning of most gamblers, or more accurately, just humans in general. With gambling, you put money into a game and sometimes more money comes out. This is a rewarding experience when more money comes out…extremely rewarding. Losing money is not nearly the disincentive to play as gaining money is a reward. The reason why brings us to something called the ‘Skinner Box’.

Meet the operant conditioning chamber, or by another name, the Skinner Box. It’s a nefarious little device, but not as nefarious as its colloquial name would have you believe. B.F. Skinner designed this mechanism to study animal behavior in hopes of better understanding our own psychology. In its basest sense, it’s a conditioning machine that trains mice (or rats, primates, pigeons, etc.) to repeat a task over and over. Whether it’s pushing a button or pulling a lever, the Skinner box teaches an animal that certain stimuli and actions lead to a reward, and other stimuli and actions lead to a punishment. So, if a green light blinks with a chime sound and the mouse pushes the button it gets food. If a red light blinks with a buzzer and the mouse pushes the button it receives a shock from the floor of the box.

Well, unsurprisingly, ol’ B.F. discovered that when the green light came on the mouse would frantically push the button looking for its reward and when the red light came on it would avoid the button at all costs. This became more interesting when more sophisticated lab instruments could be used to study the subjects being tested.

More advanced studies show that the change, within the subject’s brain, when the red light came on is mild, psychologically speaking. In other words, avoidance of the punishment wasn’t a priority to the animal test subject, it simply just didn’t have to push the button when the red light was on and that was that. But the green light was a priority to the subject and the chemical composition in the subject’s brain showed pushing the button became so important that the animal subjects brain was literally being re-wired, or conditioned, to push the button when the green light came on. Take away the punishment element and you still get the same results; conditioned responses to rewarding stimuli.

So, am I saying that slots machines are a Skinner Box with the physical punishment removed? Absolutely, that’s what I’m saying, but that doesn’t make them bad or something you should avoid at all costs. It’s just, you’re conditioned to feel like you lose a little with them when you gain nothing and win big (with all the lights and sounds) when you line up three cherries. They’re a risk, just like any other game in a casino, online, or otherwise. You can win a lot, lose your bankroll, or just whittle away the hours playing penny slots. As long as you’re gaming responsibly, they can be as entertaining as the more high stake games out there.

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