Slots and the limits of human reasoning

Gambling Machines

Slots and the limits of human reasoning

I suspect that Slot Machines are the most frequently misunderstood type of gambling. People do not really understand random chance and therefore hold a variety of naive theories and beliefs about random chance and their ability to win in gambling.

In addition, most people do not really understand machines. How often have you seen people swearing at their cars for breaking down or pleading with their computers to give them back their lost or deleted files?

People often project animate qualities onto machines. In literature, this is called personification, a type of metaphor that helps us understand and relate to inanimate objects. Slot machines appear to take on the myths of gambling and the myths of machines. When you combine this with the absence of accurate information about how they work, the number of myths is not surprising.

The focus of this article will be mainly on slot machines, but other forms of Electronic Gambling Machines, in general, will be considered as well.

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Erroneous beliefs and gambling

Problem gamblers may have a wide variety of erroneous beliefs about winning. In fact, most people have a very poor understanding of the nature of random events.

However, problem gamblers tend to have more erroneous beliefs than non-problem gamblers. Most of these errors are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the independence of random events. Many problem gamblers, for example, believe that, if a number has not come up recently, it is due to come up.

This sort of reasoning actually works in the case of card decks. If you draw three aces out of a deck, your chances of getting a fourth one are pretty small (1/49). Card counting is based on the shift in the probability of specific cards that occurs as cards are drawn without being replaced in the deck.

This is called random without replacement. However, most random events are very different from a deck of cards. Each spin on a roulette wheel or roll of the dice is completely independent of the previous spin or roll. This is called random with replacement. The random numbers drawn on regulated slot machines and other Electronic Gambling Machines in North America are independently random.

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Random Events

Related to this belief is the view that all random events should look “random,” and therefore people underestimate the chances of repeated numbers, sequences, or other patterns occurring.

Faced with unusual events such as 10 heads in a row, many people will believe either that the coin has a bias (i.e., bet on heads) or that the coin will now start to show a string of extra tails to balance itself out (i.e., bet on tails).

Often these errors are due to a misunderstanding of the nature of long-term outcomes.

From interviews with gamblers, it is clear that many people conceive of the long term as some definite time in the future (e.g., a million flips of the coin) by which the number of heads and tails will have balanced itself out.

In reality, the time frame is infinite.

In addition, the coin is not balanced out in the long term, but short-term deviation from the expected average gradually becomes watered down.

Suppose the first 100 flips of the coin were all heads and then the next 999,900 were perfectly balanced between heads and tails. The initial 100 heads might still be there, but, by the one millionth flip, the difference of 100 would hardly be noticeable. In fact, 3000 more heads than tails would still round off to 50% heads and 50% tails. The difference between heads and tails is not corrected at all, but that difference becomes less noticeable in the long term.

Many of the features of slots are poorly understood by problem gamblers, at-risk players, and treatment providers. Therefore, I believe that it is vitally important to understand how the machines work in order to set up effective treatment and prevention programs. However, in considering the nature of slots, we must keep in mind that misunderstanding of randomness is not unique to slots but is a general feature of gambling.