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How Slot Machines Mess With Your Brain to Get You Hooked on Losing

  • Games trigger addictive dopamine rushes, scientists say
  • Lawmakers call for tighter controls as gambling losses rise

There are few worse bets than a slot machine in the world of gambling.

The games are programmed to ensure the house wins and they trigger a chemical surge in the brain that can fuel addiction, scientists say. The father of behavior analysis, U.S. psychologist B.F. Skinner, likened slot-machine players to the pigeons he’d trained to peck for scraps of food.

Now lawmakers in Australia, where per-capita gambling losses are the biggest in the world, are renewing calls for tighter controls on the machines, which raked in A$11.6 billion ($8.9 billion) in the year through June 2015.

Under Australian law, the so-called poker machines -- or pokies as they’re known locally -- can retain as much as 15 cents of every dollar put into them, though typically keep about 10 cents. While a player might lose more or occasionally get lucky, the longer a machine is played, the more money it takes. It’s a mathematical certainty.

No Getting Ahead

It’s impossible to get ahead playing pokies in the long run, according to a gambling help website set up by the New South Wales state government. Illusions of near misses, when icons almost line up, may persuade players they’re close to a win, but there’s no way to make success more likely, it says. Labels on pokies say the odds of a jackpot are no better than 1 in a million.

Advances in electronics in the 1980s turned the original lever-operated devices, which earned them the nickname “one-armed bandits”, into audio-visual entertainment. But the basics haven’t changed: with each play, the machine generates a random series of numbers. These determine what images appear when the reels stop.

The first spin elicits a release of dopamine in the same way as a drug affects an addict, said Charles Livingstone, a lecturer at the School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine at Monash University in Melbourne. Then any wins trigger more surges of the hormone, he said.

“Getting onto the machine and starting to use it provides an anticipatory rush,” said Livingstone, who has studied gambling and its effects for 20 years. “The lack of notice for when a prize actually arrives is also part of the thrill. People find it extremely difficult to give up gambling and often turn to help only when they’ve exhausted all of their funds.’’

‘Inaccurate Comparisons’

The Gaming Technologies Association, a Sydney-based industry group, “strongly supports” responsible gaming and “inaccurate comparisons” with illegal drug use don’t add to the debate, said Chief Executive Officer Ross Ferrar. Aristocrat Leisure Ltd., Australia’s biggest slot-machine maker, said in a statement it “emphatically rejects any suggestion that its games are designed to encourage problem gambling.”

As many as 500,000 people in Australia either have a gambling problem or risk developing one and slot machines pose the biggest risk, the government estimates. Problem gamblers can lose around A$21,000 a year each, it says.

Pushing for more protective legislation, some lawmakers gathered in Sydney on Tuesday to urge gaming addicts and industry insiders to tell their stories. Pokies use “misleading strategies” to hook “vulnerable and stressed Australians,” Greens Senator Larissa Waters said.

The most successful slot machines condition humans to behave in a certain way, the 2010 inquiry by the government’s Productivity Commission found. The commission drew comparisons with work on animals by Harvard professor Skinner in the mid-20th century.

‘Pathological Gambler’

Skinner trained a pigeon in a box to peck a disc to receive food. He found that if food appeared intermittently, rather than after each peck, the pigeon would repeatedly tap the disc in anticipation. He argued this system of random rewards was at the heart of gambling and a pigeon could become a “pathological gambler” in the same way as a person.

Kate Seselja was once one of them. A recovering gambling addict from Murrambateman in rural New South Wales, Seselja says she felt hypnotized by pokies and spent more than A$500,000 on the machines.  

“You keep pressing the buttons whether you’re winning or losing,” she said. “It sounds laughable, but I fooled myself into believing there was skill in playing.”

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