Slot Machines and Addiction

By Anthony Gold

One of the most powerful psychological triggers for creating a particular behavioral pattern is known as the variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement. Meaning this: a response is reinforced after an unpredictable number of attempts.

Gambling, especially slot machines, offer the quintessential variable-ratio reinforcement triggers. You win just enough of the time, and the images display so many “near wins” as to keep players attached.

The addictive trending of variable-ratio reinforcement comes from the fact that the next attempt might be a winner. If slot machines rarely paid out, then people would quickly lose interest and give up playing. But by allowing just enough wins with a guaranteed lose-in-the-long-run payout schedule, slot machines generate nearly 80% of all profit for the casinos.

Most people know that slot machines have the worst odds in a casino. Yet players remain seated at these one-armed bandits often for hours on end. That’s what makes addictions so powerful – intellectual understanding is rarely enough to counter destructive behavior.

And the most addictive, variable-ratio reinforcement engine of all is the ego.

The ego teaches us that we can find happiness in the world. If the world were a slot machine, we are looking for the wheel to stop on things like money, partners, health, attention, affection, respect, satiety, and comfort.

We receive just enough compensation to keep us entrenched in the belief that the next “attempt” will be a winner. That attempt might be the next lover, friend, job, house, vacation, spiritual thought system, or anything else we think can give us the payoff we desire. And so we keep playing the ego game over and over hoping that we’ll find the happiness we desperately desire.

What makes the ego even more compelling than slot machines is that we aren’t even aware we’re playing. If you sit at a slot machine long enough, you’ll eventually get tired or hungry or sad enough to stand up and choose another activity. Yet we rarely stop to question our beliefs in the world and contemplate the idea that perhaps happiness isn’t something that is “out there”.

Is it not strange that you should cherish still some hope of satisfaction from the world you see? In no respect, at any time or place, has anything but fear and guilt been your reward. How long is needed for you to realize the chance of change in this respect is hardly worth delaying change that might result in better outcome? For one thing is sure; the way you see, and long have seen, gives no support to base your future hopes, and no suggestions of success at all. To place your hopes where no hope lies must make you hopeless. Yet is this hopelessness your choice, while you would seek for hope where none is ever found. (T-25.II.2)

By placing our faith in the world, we are locked in to a guaranteed “loss” … a state of perpetual hopelessness intertwined with brief moments of respite that we mistakenly call good fortune.

There is no joy that you can seek for here and hope to find. (T-31.I.7)

However, by choosing a different thought system – one that restores our awareness of the infinite oneness of which we are all a part – then our experiences are instantly transformed into peaceful bliss and true happiness. Regardless of where the wheel stops on the slot machine of the world.

Join us in Monday’s class where we’ll explore the nature of addiction and our incessant attempts at seeking for happiness – particularly how we can make a different choice that leads to continual joy. I look forward to seeing you then.

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