Caveat lector: This blog is where I try out new ideas. I will often be wrong, but that's the point.

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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