Gambling addiction is no joke. It ruins lives as surely as addiction to cocaine or heroin. In fact, you can get into an even bigger financial hole with a gambling addiction because there is essentially no limit to how much you can lose. Behavioral addictions affect the brain in much the same way as substance addictions and people often feel actual withdrawal symptoms when they quit. That means the longer you’re addicted, the harder it is to control. Casinos know how addictive gambling can be and they know how to keep you gambling. Here are just some of the tricks they use.
Most people know about dopamine, that it’s somehow related to addictive behavior. Dopamine actually primes you for learning. When you have a pleasurable experience, like winning some money, you get a little boost of dopamine so you remember how to do it. After a while, you get a boost of dopamine in anticipation of the reward, rather than for the reward itself. And here’s where the casinos get you: You get a much bigger hit of dopamine when the reward isn’t certain. That’s essentially why gambling is so addictive. However, if you go long enough without a reward, you eventually give up. They don’t want that, so they program slot machines to give you just enough reward that you keep playing.
We want to keep playing when we feel like we’ve almost won. We like to feel like we’re making progress. Of course, in games of chance, there’s no such thing as progress because the outcomes are supposed to be random. Slot machines give you the feeling of progress by giving you, say, two cherries and a lemon. You think, “Augh, so close. Maybe one more try.”
These serve two purposes. First, they’re a sort of positive reinforcement. Not only do you get a drink, but the servers make you feel like a big shot. You associate positive feelings with gambling, even when you’re not winning. Second, alcohol undermines your judgment and willpower. This would be obvious if you were playing, say chess, rather than roulette. The more you drink, the more you lose.
Drawing attention to wins.
Whenever someone scores big at a slot machine, there are lights and sirens. You frequently hear these sirens somewhere on the floor and it gives the impression that people are hitting jackpots all the time. However, you don’t hear a “BONK!” every time someone plays and doesn’t win. If you did, you might more accurately perceive your chances of winning big.
Casinos have no clocks or windows so it’s hard to tell how long you’ve been there. You don’t know whether it’s day or night. Even the music is monotonous, giving you little sense of how much time has passed. When you do decide to leave, it’s hard to find your way out because the layout is deliberately confusing. You have to wander past tables and slot machines and there’s a good chance you’ll play “one more time” before leaving.