How Slot Machines Use Psychology to Make You Play More


Casinos used to hold slot machine players’ attention through the gambling aspect alone. Players were perfectly fine with classic slot machines, which have bland themes and no special features.

But the gaming world has changed greatly over the past few decades. Slot machines are a perfect example of this because they now offer detailed themes and sophisticated features.

No longer can casinos put single-line slots on their floor and expect players to flock to them. Instead, they need games that offer a variety of aspects that can draw players.


Some of these aspects include psychological factors that casinos and slots makers use to keep you spinning the reels. This may sound sinister, but casinos are like any other business in that they earn more money when customers stick around longer.

I don’t personally have a problem with this. But I also like to be aware of the different psychology tricks that casinos use to keep people playing more.

Today, I’m going to discuss with you how casinos employ psychology to win your bankroll – without you even realizing it!

Holding Attention with an Immersive Slots Experience

Most slots players have a vague idea that slot machine themes and sounds are used to draw them in. But many of these same players don’t realize the degree to which casinos use these aspects.

A study appearing in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors tested a theory called the “slot machine zone,” where players ignore their surroundings while playing slots.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) measured how the fast, entertaining nature of slot machines causes players to ignore the outside world.

They recruited two groups of people, including a group of experienced slot machine players and a group of UBC undergrads. Both sides participated in a 30-minute slot machine session at the UBC lab.

The slots featured panels on each side that showed moving white circles. Players were asked to push a button whenever they saw a white circle turn into a red square.

Following the session, each player described whether they entered a trance-like state while playing slots.


The UBC team discovered that players who are at a higher risk of problem gambling are more immersed during slot sessions. Furthermore, these players missed shapes changing on the side panels more often than non-problem players.

Luke Clark, the director for UBC’s Centre for Gambling Research, said the results show that slot machines can immerse problem gamblers into the game more. This same element may even keep responsible players on slot machines a little longer.

“This confirms there is indeed a link between gambling addiction and the so-called slot machine zone,” Clark told the University of British Columbia News.

“When the experienced slot machine gamblers played, we found they not only felt that they lost track of time and their surroundings, but they often failed to notice the shapes on the periphery of the machine.”

Clark added that his team would like to further explore the subject by studying which slots features cause immersion.

“There is potential for slot machines to be designed in a way that promotes more responsible use by disrupting the slot machine zone state,” he explained.
“Since static signs and stickers on slot machines are unlikely to distract immersed players, the messages should be eye-catching and as close as possible to the slots reels.”

More Paylines Lead to Losses Disguised as Wins

Older slot machines feature a win-or-lose model. You insert your money, push the button, and you either win or lose – there’s no in between.

Modern slot machines now blur the lines between wins and losses thanks to multiple paylines. Some slot machines feature up to 300 lines, giving you numerous chances to win on any turn.

But this also creates an addictive effect called losses disguised as wins (LDWs), where you only earn back a portion of your original bet.

Here’s an example:

  • I’m playing a 100-line slot machine
  • I bet one cent on each line ($1 total)
  • I win a $0.30 payout on one line
  • My net loss is $0.70

Any player can logically see that this is a loss. But modern slot machines disguise this through flashing lights and triumphant sound effects.

Even the example above can make you feel like a winner when you’re playing slots at a rapid rate and don’t have time to calculate everything.

Natasha Dow Schüll, a cultural anthropologist and associate professor of media and communication at New York University, wrote a book on the addictive nature of slot machines. Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas dedicates multiple pages to LDWs.

Schüll also spoke with Vox through a 2014 feature on how computerization makes LDWs and other addictive slots traits possible.

“The computerization of slot machines gave casinos such precise control over odds that they could offer much higher jackpots and more exciting games while really controlling percentage payback and the odds,” said Schüll.
“The laboratory research on this shows that people experience this in their brains in an identical way as a win.”

The laboratory research that she refers to is a 2011 study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario. The team sought to learn if LDWs, including winning sounds and graphics, gave players the same “arousal” as regular wins.

They measured skin conductance response (SCR) amplitudes and heart-rate changes after regular wins, LDWs, and losses on 40 slot machine players.

They found that both wins and LDWs produce similar SCR. Meanwhile, LDWs offer a significantly higher arousal rate than total losses.

University of Waterloo researchers concluded that reinforcing sights and sounds produce arousal during LDWs that’s similar to a real win. This is despite the fact that players indeed lose money with LDWs.

Even the Slot Machine Is Designed to Encourage More Play

The onscreen action and sound effects aren’t the only things that players should watch out for regarding slot machines’ addictive nature. The cabinets themselves are also designed to keep players on machines.

Here are examples of slot cabinet features that are meant to encourage more play:

  • Bill/ticket acceptors that can be reached with little effort involved
  • Game buttons that are easily accessible
  • Ergonomic seats that allow players to sit comfortably for hours
  • Popular slot machines in alcoves or crannies, because many players like privacy

The casino itself also has various aspects that encourage more slots betting.

They have convenient ATMs located throughout gambling establishments that allow players to quickly withdraw money. Casino hosts may even approach a losing player afterward and offer them a free breakfast or dinner.

Schüll notes that casinos may create slot machines that help players who are losing and reaching their “pain point.”

This is a delicate matter, because casinos can’t legally change odds while people are playing. But Schüll explains that they may be able to reduce volatility mid-play, so long as it doesn’t change the payback percentage.

Adding Skill to the Equation

Casinos began rolling out skill-based slot machines in the mid-2010s. The idea is to appeal to millennials, who don’t play traditional slot machines as much as previous generations.

Game makers and casinos hope that introducing skill into the equation will remedy this.

These games are played like normal slot machines, where you spin the reels and receive random results. But the second-screen bonus rounds offer skill-based play.

Here are a few examples:

  • Space Invaders has a bonus round where you move a plane around to shoot advancing aliens
  • Centipede’s bonus round has you shoot at giant centipedes as they come down the screen
  • Race Ace sees you race against competitors to win a larger prize

These slot machines combine traditional addictive slots qualities with a skill-based side game. Casinos hope that this addition keeps players spinning the reels and trying to trigger the bonus.

Game makers have even been producing arcade-style gaming that cuts out the slot machine aspect. One example is Danger Arena, a first-person shooter that involves blasting robots for a higher score.

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Some players may be under the false assumption that they can win long-term profits with skill-based slots and arcade games. But the important thing to understand is that the skill-based variable only affects a certain percentage of payback.

The house still has the edge with these games. But a skilled player can at least improve their odds of winning money.

It remains to be seen whether skill-based casino games will take off. After all, they’re still relatively new in comparison to traditional slot machines.

But what’s clear is that these games introduce yet another psychological element that can keep people playing.


Casinos don’t just rely on regular slot games drawing players. Instead, these machines also incorporate psychology to keep people spinning.

You might think that this makes casinos evil. But it’s no different from the business model used by Dave & Buster’s and Chuck E. Cheese.

Companies also design their facilities and place games in a specific manner that maximizes play. The only difference with slot machines is that you stand to lose more money when falling into a trance.

The best way to avoid this problem is by being aware of the psychological elements at play. Specifically, you want to watch out for the immersive elements, LDWs, and slots cabinet designs.

More recent developments include skill being incorporated into bonus rounds. While it’s nice to control your results, remember that you’re still facing a long-term disadvantage.

I’m fully aware of the psychology used in slot machines. But I still like playing these games for entertainment.

I use my better judgment to avoid being hypnotized and playing more than my bankroll allows for. The key is to set a time or loss limit and stick with it.

It also helps to constantly remind yourself that LDWs aren’t real wins and there’s an entire world happening around you away from the machine. As long as you don’t lose yourself in slot machines, then you won’t lose much money either.

Petko Stoyanov
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About Petko Stoyanov
My name is Petko Stoyanov, and I've been a gambling writer for more than ten years. I guess that was the natural path for me since I've loved soccer and card games for as long as I can remember! I have a long and fairly successful history with English Premier League betting and online poker, but I follow many other sports. I watch all big European soccer leagues, basketball, football, and tennis regularly, and I keep an eye on snooker, volleyball, and major UFC events.