Menus Subscribe Search
slot-machines

(PHOTO: FULLEMPTY/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Why You Keep Losing at Slot Machines

• July 05, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: FULLEMPTY/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Canadian researchers report that the music and sound effects of slot machines help convey the illusion that you are winning.

Does this casino scenario sound familiar? You’re pumping money into a slot machine, very much enjoying the sense that you’re winning more often than you’re losing. Your excitement mounts—right up until that startling, disheartening moment when your money runs out.

How did you misjudge things so badly? It turns out you can’t put all the blame on those complimentary cocktails. Newly published research suggests at least part of the answer involves the slot machine’s music and sound effects.

It seems all those bells and whistles simultaneously perform two functions casino magnates love: They heighten players’ emotional arousal, even as they incite them to “significantly overestimate the number of times they won.”

On modern slot machines, where gamblers wager simultaneously on several lines, success on any one of those lines will produce the music and sound effects associated with a win.

That’s the conclusion of a research team led by psychologist Mike Dixon of the University of Waterloo, who has extensively studied the psychology of gambling. The researchers report two groups of gamblers experienced less pleasure playing silent slot machines. But they were also better judges of how well they were doing.

Writing in the Journal of Gambling Studies, the researchers describe a phenomenon they call “losses disguised as wins.” On modern slot machines, where gamblers wager simultaneously on several lines, success on any one of those lines will produce the music and sound effects associated with a win.

That holds true even if you lost on all of the other lines, resulting in a net loss on that particular wager. This leaves gamblers with the impression they’re winning (and the incentive to play more), even when they are, in fact, losing money.

To determine if the music and sound effects exacerbated this costly misconception, the researchers tested 96 regular slot machine players (a bit over half of them male). Most were recruited at the entrance of an Ontario slots venue; the experiment took place in a meeting room upstairs from the slots floor. Others were recruited online and tested at a university laboratory.

All of the participants played a simulated slot machine game, designed to look and sound like the actual machines, while electrodes attached to their skin measured changes in skin conductance (a good signal of emotional arousal). After playing a block of spins with sound, and one without sound, they were asked to estimate the number of times they won more than they wagered.

“The vast majority of players that were tested preferred the playing session where wins were accompanied by sound,” the researchers report. Skin conductance levels confirmed that the music and sound effects made the experience more exciting.

They estimated winning an average of 33 times when the sound was turned off, and 36 times when it was turned on. In fact, they won only 28 times. This suggests that (a) the multi-line game leads to the false impression of winning, and (b) the music and sound effects exacerbate this misconception, raising the rate of overestimation from 15 percent to 24 percent.

So losses are often masked as wins, and sound effects and music “may be an integral component to the disguise,” Dixon and his colleagues conclude. This, they add, helps explain the “persistence that some players experience when playing slot machines.”

Indeed, there are few things more enticing than the sound of winning money—even when it’s an illusion.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.