Can Outsmarting Slot Machines Help A Gambler Avoid Addiction?

By Paul Fuhr 11/02/17

A new study examined whether giving gambler's insight into the casino's slot machine distraction trick could hold off gambling addiction.

Group of friends playing slot machines

Once gamblers learn the basic trickery of modern-day slot machines, they stand a far better chance of avoiding gambling addiction, a new research study says. According to MarketWatch, it all comes down to understanding the phenomenon of “losses disguised as wins” (LDWs).

“Slot machines are designed to capture your attention toward those cool animations and the neat sounds, but that is where they can lead you astray,” said Michael Dixon, director of the University of Waterloo’s Gambling Research Lab.

The (literal) bells and whistles distract people from the fact that they’re actually losing more money than they have put into the machine.

“Celebratory music, flashing lights and the thrilling feeling that the next try may be the winning one drives slot machine players to push the button again—and again," MarketWatch observed. 

The Waterloo researchers took two groups of “novice gamblers” and showed them two separate videos. One group was provided a brief educational video on how LDWs worked, while the second group was shown a video completely unrelated to gambling. Participants in both groups were then asked to play two slot machine games: one with lots of distracting music and lights whenever they lost money, and another with fewer sensory cues. Both groups won roughly 10% of their spins.

While the group that didn’t watch the video “drastically overestimated their wins,” believing they’d won 23%, the other group was far more accurate, guessing they’d won only 12% of the time.

“We found that the video was effective in correcting multiple misperceptions. Players not only remembered their actual number of wins more correctly, but they were also more capable of labeling losses disguised as wins during slot machine play,” said Candice Graydon, the study’s lead author.

The study is more important now than ever, too. Americans lost nearly $120 billion in 2016 alone, the MarketWatch article said, citing sobering statistics about the country’s deep-rooted gambling problems.

This video highlights the losses disguised as wins technique.

According to MarketWatch, “That number includes losses from games at traditional casinos, state lotteries and regulated online gaming sites.” It also pointed out that the U.S. has the world’s largest gambling market, with China ranking a distant second ($62.4 billion).

Worse yet: an estimated 2 million Americans are addicted to gambling, while as many as 6 million additional adults qualify as problem gamblers, according to data provided by the National Council on Problem Gambling. (That’s not counting illegal sports gambling stats, either, which is notoriously difficult to estimate.)

Still, Waterloo’s Gambling Research Lab believes that the slot machine study is just the beginning. “We'd like to assess whether shining the light on LDWs will make gamblers stop playing sooner,” Graydon said in the study’s press release.

Waterloo researchers currently use a combination of genuine slot machines, as well as computer simulations, according to the Lab’s website. Real machines “are valuable for research as participants can play a game that can actually be found in casinos,” but the simulators afford the Lab “more control of the game, which can be very useful for studies.”

Everything from heart rates to how hard a player presses a spin button can be measured in the lab setting. While the Lab further refines its slot machine study, it’s clear that researchers are already on the right track.

As one of the participants said after playing a slot machine that celebrated losses with lights and sounds: “If I keep on winning, I’m gonna go broke.” 

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.