Don't Humanize the Slot Machine

1952: A man inspects a 'blonde bombshell' dummy fitted with a slot machine in a Death Valley cafe.
1952: A man inspects a 'blonde bombshell' dummy fitted with a slot machine in a Death Valley cafe.
Photo by Ernst Haas/Getty Images

My Orange Catholic Bible* tells me "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind," and a new study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology warns the same thing about slot machines!

As a 2015 study from the University of Milano-Bicocca reveals, anthropomorphism -- that overpowering tendency to attribute humanlike mental states to nonhuman entities -- enables a slot machine to better latch on to its human host.

Inspired by recent theories of anthropomorphism and social perception, researchers Paolo Riva, Simona Sacchi, and Marco Brambilla conducted a series of four experiments in which individuals were primed via written descriptions to see a slot machine either as credit-guzzling automaton (which it is) or a fickle goddess who'll mock you with defeat or reward you with victory, depending on her whims.

Study Findings

In each experiment, the researchers found that an anthropomorphized description of the slot machine increased gambling behavior and reduced winnings -- and winnings decreased because the gamblers gambled more on their anthropomorphized machines. After all, that's the insidious nature of the algorithm: The more you gamble, the more you lose.

That's why casinos love them: They're essentially a robot army of wage-suckers. Each one latches onto a gambler and sets to draining, powered by an algorithm preprogrammed to deliver a certain number of wins and losses.

Of course, nobody plays a slot machine with that sort of frank realism in mind. So we fill our heads with fantasies about luck and the ultimate jackpot -- and, when we attribute a human will to the mechanical money muncher? That only sinks the hook deeper. As slot machines are a handy way to study gambling behavior in the lab, we actually have a couple of key studies (here and here) that prove out how essential irrational thinking is to the "maintenance of behavior" in slot machine gambling.

The Milano-Bicocca study, however, is the first to explicitly test the effects of anthropomorphization on gambling activity, thought past studies have noted the tendency among gamblers. And you can be sure slot machine designers had some inkling as well. After all, as the authors point out, physical and online slot machines are positively crawling with vixens, muscle men, cartoon characters and Egyptian kings -- all serving to cast the machine in the likeness of a human mind.

* Yep, I'm also still researching for our upcoming "Dune" episodes, so forgive the reference.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.