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How casinos distract

My father lived in Las Vegas for most of my teenaged years. While I never lived there with him, my step-grandparents (who raised me during that time) loved going there. Unsurprisingly, this meant that I spent a fair amount of time in Vegas growing up.

My grandparents, they were "old school" Vegas tourists. My step-grandfather was quite a gambler and played in a weekly poker game with his friends until his Parkinson's kept him from doing so. We used to stay in the Sands Hotel, made famous because the original Ocean's Eleven was filmed there.

The place was cool. At least, so I gathered. By the time I was staying there with my grandparents in the 90s it was old and somewhat dreary. But I was a kid and I loved plugging quarters into the claw crane games. One night I played on the same machine for so long that a waitress brought over a trash bag for me to put all my "winnings" (i.e., tiny stuffed animals) into. When I ran out of money, people were giving me a few bucks to let me keep going.

I cleaned out the entire machine. No shit. Probably the pinnacle of my life for about 25 years there.

Sadly, the Sands was famously demolished in June 1996 to make way for the Venetian:

So the Sands got old, but Vegas is still cool. Or, at least, it draws a hell of a lot of tourists... Clark County gaming and hotels did $19.5 billion in revenue in 2011.

How does this happen? Everyone knows that the odds are in the House's favor.

Well first, casinos rely on basic statistics to earn them piles and piles of cash. Even if the house has just a 1-2% advantage, the law of large numbers always prevails. The casinos don't need to do anything other than keep an eye out for cheats and they can just sit back and watch the money pour in.

But why stop there? We humans are easily manipulated, we are distractible, and we are limited by our brains.

Sure, the House has a statistical edge, but they also have a psychological edge. We're playing on their turf, in their stadium. They've got a major home-field advantage and you can bet your ass (haha) they take advantage of it.

Of course there's one obvious weapon in the arsenal used to break your will: alcohol. But even if you're a teetotaler your decision-making skills are certainly being manipulated. It's these more subtle manipulations that I'm going to talk about.

This post is conjecture by its nature: I've never worked for or with a casino so I don't know what they're actually doing. However, as a neuroscientist who studies the physiology of human attention and memory, I'm going to write about what I'd do if I were running a casino. (Caveat lector, read Kevin T. Keith's comment below: this is how I would do things, but does not necessarily reflect the reality in every casino.)

And remember, as a hypothetical casino-maker I don't care if you specifically aren't susceptible to any one of these given effects. Hell, I don't even care if the manipulation has the opposite effect on you than is intended. All I care about is the law of large numbers and the knowledge that, for a whole mass of people, there will be a shift in behavior on average that is in my favor.

First, you ever notice how round everything is on the casino floor? The tables are round, the chairs are round, the chips are round, the lighting designs are round, the patterns on the floor are round, and so on.

Basic psychological research shows that people consider rounded shapes to imbued with more positive emotional qualities (see this Dave Munger post for a primer on relatively recent research).

The goal here is to soften you up to actually get you to sit down and play. The House has an advantage, but it can't make use of it unless you actually throw down some money in the first place.

We've shown how casinos soften people up using visual cues such as shape. But of course, shape isn't the only thing we see. Look at the colors in the aforementioned Venetian:

(Edit: greenlight pointed out in the comments that the original image in the post was from the Venetian in Macau. The updated image is actually from the Vegas Venetian, but they have a similar color scheme. And this new image is way more amazing looking.)

Green card tables with white and gold everything else.

Let me introduce you to Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions:
Notice how green and gold are right next to one another in that loving, optimistic, submissive, ecstatic upper-left quadrant? Those are the exact emotions I want my marks customers to be feeling when they open their wallets.

Again, this doesn't have to be true, just good enough on average.

If I were running a hotel, I'd try an experiment: give every guest $20 in chips that can only be used on one specific game. Make sure the game is really simple to play, and give the House only the barest minimum of an advantage--say 0.1%. But make the game boring so no one really wants to play it. Make it so the game gives lots of little pay-outs.

We want to take advantage of the hot-hand fallacy to get people thinking they're on a roll, but we don't want the game to be any fun--we don't want people who don't have the free chips to actually play it.

We just want people to start playing.

So we've got our players hooked and wanting to play. Using visual cues we've got them optimistically excited, receptive, and in a generally good mood. Now what?

We need to befuddle them. Remember, the House advantages that you see for games like craps (~1%), roulette (2-5%), or blackjack (0.5%) are for optimal play. Our goal as the House is to induce sub-optimal thinking and behavior. Optimal play costs us money.

The trick? Distraction.

There's a well-known study by Shiv and Fedorikhin showing that if you tax people's working memory by making them remember a 7-digit string of numbers, people are more likely to make a less-optimal decision (they chose to eat chocolate cake versus the more healthy fruit salad option).

What most people don't report is that this effect only held true if the participants had to make a quick, snap-decision. If they had time to think about it then they were more likely to choose the healthy option despite the memory load. We need to keep people distracted.

The Shiv experiment is an example of cross-domain cognitive resource interaction. To unpack that: cognition is usually broken up into different domains, including emotion, decision-making, attention, working memory, cognitive control, and so on.

Now mind you, these are just poorly-defined semantic categories--placeholders for some underlying neural phenomena.

But the idea is that we have a limited amount of "cognitive resources" and that if I tax one--such as my working memory by having me remember 7 arbitrary digits--then my cognitive control and decision-making faculties will be impaired because my overall "pool" of resources is lowered due to the memory task.

According to brainSCANr, distraction is closely related to memory, attention, emotional regulation, and cognitive control. So in theory, we can manipulate any of those things to aid in distraction.

In my new post-doc lab, we study (among other things) the effects of distraction on cognition. One of my colleagues, Peter Wais, has shown that using a natural auditory distractor--ambient cafe noise as opposed to white noise--disrupted visual memory. In another study out of my lab, Wes Clapp (co-founder of NeuroScouting) found that the effects of distractors or interference on working memory occurs very quickly, within 100ms.

What this all means is that, in order to make the House more money, people need to make worse bets. To get them to make worse bets, we need them to make worse decisions and exert less cognitive control.

While we can manipulate decision-making and cognitive control directly through alcohol we can also use other tricks. The most reliable, simple way would be to tax memory or attention.

Why do you think there are so many bright lights and loud noises in casinos?

Why do you think slot machines make so much sound when they pay out? These noises are relevant distractors. They capture your attention, they charge up your emotions, and they get you to think that you too can win big! They get you to play more fast and loose.

Well, not me, of course.

I most certainly have never drunkly blown $40 on three-card Monte during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I'm far too smart for that.

Pavlova M, Sokolov A, & Sokolov A (2005). Perceived dynamics of static images enables emotional attribution. Perception, 34 (9), 1107-16 PMID: 16247880
Shiv, B., & Fedorikhin, A. (2002). Spontaneous versus Controlled Influences of Stimulus-Based Affect on Choice Behavior Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 87 (2), 342-370 DOI: 10.1006/obhd.2001.2977
Wais PE, & Gazzaley A (2011). The impact of auditory distraction on retrieval of visual memories. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18 (6), 1090-7 PMID: 21938641
Clapp WC, Rubens MT, & Gazzaley A (2010). Mechanisms of working memory disruption by external interference. Cerebral Cortex, 20 (4), 859-72 PMID: 19648173


Gladwellified Writing

What X can teach us about Y

So I noticed a trend today while reading through some articles wherein titles follow the above format with surprising frequency. A little Google digging shows that this is all over the place, and that I'm not the only one that's noticed!

What's amusing is that my first thought when I noticed this was "GLADWELL!!!!" ::shakes fist::

The Salon author also mentions Gladwell and Freakonomics as likely causes for this cliche. What is it about these "connections" that get people so excited and draws them in?

As proof, here's a Gladwell piece following the WXCTUAY format:

Okay, okay, here's real proof:
Troublemakers: What pit bulls can teach us about profiling

I'm just going to go ahead and add WXCTUAY to my list of things I wish journalists would stop doing. No, scientists don't really "pinpoint" stuff, no, you don't need to add neuroscience nonsense to your story to "sex it up", and no, X doesn't teach us anything about Y, because X is an inanimate object or ephemeral concept.

WXCTUAY abounds, with 126 books on Amazon using it.

Here are some quick ones from around the web:
What The Wizard of Oz Can Teach Us about Bullying
What Frank Herbert's Dune Can Teach Us About the Power of Positive Thinking
What Bartleby Can Teach Us About Occupy Wall Street
What Sweden can teach us about nuclear waste
2 Things Charles Dickens Can Teach Us about Successful Presentations
What Mel Brooks Can Teach Us about "Group Flow"
Managing the Clock: What Sports Can Teach Us About Life
What the Scots can teach us about England's radical soul
What Pictures Can Teach Us About Walkability

Amusingly, though Salon called out this trend, they're quite enamored with WXCTUAY as well! Two quick examples:
What "Star Wars" can teach my son about life
What students can teach us about iPhones

Anyone out there seen any especially silly ones?


Basic science is about creating opportunities

Did you know that US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor runs a website called "YouCut" that encourages citizens to submit "questionable" NSF grants that should lose their funding?

Step One: Look for Questionable Grants
Click here to open the National Science Foundation website. In the "Search Award For" field, try some keywords, such as: success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus, etc. to bring up grants. If you find a grant that you believe is a waste of your taxdollars, be sure to record the award number.

First, check out those suggested key words. "Social norms", "culture", "success"...? Do these terms hold some secret, coded meaning among the anti-science crowd that I just don't get?

What's wrong with this? What's wrong with cutting funding to projects such as "shrimp walking on a tiny treadmill" and "a robot folding laundry"? Saving taxpayer money is a good thing, and I genuinely respect efforts to do so.

But these "frivolous" projects don't exist in a vacuum.

You can't legislate innovation and you can't democratize a breakthrough. You can, however, create a system that maximizes the probability that a breakthrough can occur.

We scientists stand on the shoulders of giants. The more research you fund, the more giants we get, and the pyramid of giants standing on giants grows ever larger. (Okay, that metaphor broke down at the end there...)

Scicurious did a good takedown of one of Tom Coburn's "Wastebook" listed projects over on the Scientific American blogs, but I want to compile a whole list of projects.

Here is my list of "really stupid, frivolous academic pursuits" that have lead to major scientific breakthroughs. If you know of any more, I'd love to hear about them. I'd like to compile a list to use as ammunition in the future, because Cantor certainly isn't the first--nor will he be the last--federal politician to play this game.

• Studying monkey social behaviors and eating habits lead to insights into HIV (Radiolab: Patient Zero)
• Research into how algae move toward light paved the way for optogenetics: using light to control brain cells (Nature 2010 Method of the Year).
• Black hole research gave us WiFi (ICRAR award)
• Optometry informs architecture and saved lives on 9/11 (APA Monitor)
• Certain groups HATE SETI, but SETI's development of cloud-computing service SETI@HOME paved the way for citizen science and recent breakthroughs in protein folding (Popular Science)
• Astronomers provide insights into medical imaging (TEDxBoston: Michell Borkin)
• Basic physics experiments and the Fibonacci sequence help us understand plant growth and neuron development:

Here's a link to a Google Doc for these projects! Please feel free to add more, and remember to reference it in the future.

What I love about these is that so many started from canonical "wasteful spending" types of "pointless" research: astronomy and black holes, studying algae, SETI, etc.

The ideas spawned from these basic projects could never have been anticipated. We don't do the research that will lead to the best immediate applications, we do the research that is interesting because it is interesting. The possibility for a breakthrough can't exist if we stop supporting basic research because it "feels" silly.

Science shouldn't be seen as a zero-sum game.

(h/t to Ecogirl & Cosmoboy's blog for the astronomy stuff!)



I made a thing this morning. It's a Markov text generator of PubMed papers. Messing with PubMed for to make best science.

Here's the tumblr for it, and its twitter.

For the first one I used the seed term "elegans:

Functional genomics, to gain insights into the maternal pool

The recombinant protein could recognize excretory-secretary antigens from Angiostrongylus cantonensis third-stage larvae (L3). Also, the antiserum can recognize larval soluble antigens of L4 coming from mice (nonpermissive host) infected with virulent Legionella strains were exposed to chlorpyrifos. Hence, the loss of ifg-1 p170 mRNA was caspase (ced-3) and apoptosome (ced-4/Apaf-1) dependent. These findings demonstrate that overexpression of mir-84. Mutations in the egg laying-deficient (Egl-d) and hyperactive egg laying (Egl-c). The defect in the nematode C. elegans offers the prospect of being adopted in the CNS of HFD animals possibly contributing to the head and tail.