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Psychology of the slot machine

Photograph by Pavel Danilyuk for Pexels. Edited by Marius van Zyl on Canva for

According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders), gambling addiction is characterized by “Persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behavior leading to clinically significant impairment or distress”. It can lead to disastrous financial consequences for individuals with a lack of control over gambling impulses.

An article published in Forbes, cites slot machines as the primary sources of income for casinos. In most casinos between 65 to 80 percent of their income is generated by slot machines. This figure drops when looking at casinos on the Las Vegas strip where a large portion of their income is generated by high stakes table based gambling.

Many gambling addicts are addicted to slot machines. But what about slot machines makes them so enticing to the compulsive gambler?

I interviewed a South African based clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology, Marilyn Aden, about the neurological explanation for this addiction to slot machines.

What is neuropsychology?

Photograph by meo for Pexels.

Aden says that neuropsychology is a fairly new division of psychology which deals with brain and behavioral relationships. She states that the foundation of the profession requires a “working knowledge of neuroanatomy and physiology”.

She explains that this looks at which parts of the brain are responsible for which functions and which parts of the brain “talk” to one another during this behavior because very few behaviors are governed by isolated brain function.

She emphasizes the collaborative nature of the profession stating, “We work with neurologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, remedial therapists etc. to collaborate efforts to diagnose behavioral or mental dysfunction and offer possible therapeutic interventions”.

A neuropsychological perspective of addiction

I asked about a neurological perspective about addiction. She states, “Addiction is a very complex subject, because it marries both neurobiology and neuropsychology. They go hand in hand. It is very difficult to isolate the cause of addiction as either biological or psychological”.

Instead, she believes that both are contributing factors to addiction.

“Through neuroimaging, we have found that certain areas of the brain are involved with addiction. We have found that the limbic system, which is often associated with emotions such as feeling good or bad, plays a primary role. This area of the brain is closely associated with pleasure and reward.”

“Another dominant area associated with addiction is the striatum, a middle area of the brain, which is also responsible for dopamine, one of the primary feel-good hormones. which affects both cognition and emotions.”

“These areas usually work in unison with the memory centers of the brain, such as the raphe nuclei, which produces serotonin, which is also associated with feeling good”.

The addicts brain

I asked if addiction could be related to structural abnormalities in the brain. She believes the issue is associated with the brains functioning rather than its physiology.

She states, “While we haven’t seen structural abnormalities, we have seen a genetic propensity for certain people to be more susceptible to addiction.”

After brain trauma, we have noticed that impulse control is an issue with individuals that have damaged certain parts of the brain, making them more susceptible to addiction.”

She cites studies which have conducted functional MRIs on individuals that are addicted to substances and even those with gambling addiction. They have seen that there are not structural abnormalities, but they have seen abnormalities with the functioning of these key areas of the brain she spoke of earlier.

The behavioral aspects of addiction

She believes that addiction is also rooted in learned behavior. She states, “This has got to do with learned or conditioned responses. These people start to associate various feelings with certain behaviour.”

“These behaviors produce a neurological response, the production of dopamine and serotonin, which provides a feeling of pleasure. The association of these behaviors and the ‘high’ feeling they get when participating in these activities provides incentive to compulsively do them.”

What makes slot machines so addictive?

Photograph by Darya Sannikova for Pexels.

She draws the parallel of addiction to the experiments Pavlov did on dogs. In his experiments, he conditioned dogs to associate the ringing of a bell to receiving food. He found that ringing the bell caused the dogs to salivate even before receiving the reward of food.

Slot machines are bright and noisy devices. When you spin the wheel it makes a noise, when you win it makes an even bigger noise. The feeling one gets when you win playing online slots at is invigorating. These auditory stimuli are then associated with the reward.

She believes that this visual and auditory stimuli produced by the slot machines triggers the production of dopamine and serotonin which provides the compulsive gambler that ‘high’ .

Speaking about gambling addicts going into casinos, Aden states, “They go into there and just get swept up by the moment and they can’t control themselves, and they always want more”.

“This is the thing with addiction, the feeling the addict gets from gambling is so overwhelming that you want it over and over again.”

“Like Pavlov’s dogs, you spin the wheel, the bell rings, and the coins drop in the tray, they get a major rush from these stimuli”.

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