Is Gambling a Good Way to Experience Flow?

Slot machine gambling is akin to prayer, claims psychoanalyst.

Posted Mar 16, 2012

Intermittent reinforcement is an extremely powerful motivator. Push that slot machine button again and again and maybe this time you'll win big. But for now, you only win a little at a time, and lose a little more than you win. Why is that so addicting? Or is it just good clean fun?

According to David V. Forrest, M.D., author of Slots: Praying to the God of Chance, gambling on slot machines is a lot like praying. Forrest, trained in psychoanalysis, is clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Phyicians and Surgeons. As he puts it:

The repeated ritual mantra of the melodically spinning reels of the slot machine, like so many Tibetan prayer wheels being spun again and again, is the slot player's communion with Immensity...


Are our gambling prayers answered with more regularity than the traditional kind? You don't need to be a math whiz to figure out that the answer is no, not for the vast majority of players. Ninety per cent of the approximately $365 billion the casinos take in annually is given back randomly to players. Over time, your odds aren't great to be and stay a winner.

Forrest, though, likes to play the slots occasionally with his wife. He sees no harm in the multiplying of casinos around the country, finding those who play rather congenial. "They tend to be gentle, thoughtful, and pleasant folk," he writes.

In Slots, Forrest traces the history and lingo of slots and casinos, discusses the great variety of bells and whistles being added to machines, and offers numerous intriguing facts to enrich the reader's or slot-player's experience. He runs down myths and superstitions, such as incidents of precognition (advance knowledge that a win will come) and the overdue machine myth.

It's a lighthearted book. For Forrest, gambling is fun! Though at times, I wonder if he doesn't seem a bit Romney-esque in his perception of the wealth level of a lot of those constant gamblers. Sure, he and his wife can afford to have fun with it. Until way later in the book, he downplays the meaning of that 90 percent payback. Over time you will lose. You're playing bad odds and wishing and praying to beat them.


Forrest asserts that playing the slots keeps seniors engaged in work to replace what they have spent, which, he writes, "is good for their health and independence." His example is of a 59-year-old woman who works 60 hours a week as a nurse's aide in order to fund her weekly bus trips to a casino. She's a talkative, likable woman, and "she was lively proof that the benefits of slot play go beyond mere enthusiasm." I suspect there are fallacies in some of Forrest's anecdotal evidence.

A major thesis of the book is that gambling, especially the zoning out that occurs when playing slots, is a form of spirituality, like worshipping in a church. He may be right, but possibly not in the way he means. For instance, in a detailed New York Times Magazine article, we read the following quote from an expert who has studied gambling treatments since 1998:

No other form of gambling manipulates the human mind as beautifully as these machines. I think that's why that's the most popular form of gambling with which people get into trouble.

Forrest does include help on how to recognize when you're playing too much. He even offers alternative activities. Though here he strays into the silliness of many self-help experts by suggesting birdwatching. I'm sure that hobby can be quite engaging, but probably doesn't offer the thrills and chance of a big payout sought by addicted slot gamers.

I used to love playing the nickel slot machines at widely spaced intervals of several years, but then they all turned push-button and began offering the option of playing five coins (or worse, five credits) at a time, so that if you didn't play the maximum, you would see what jackpots you missed because of your cautiousness. And then one day I looked at my last $20 bill and decided I would buy something in the gift shop rather than gamble it. I got a cute overpriced bunny figure and still have that on my shelf many years later.

See Dr. Forrest's two-minute author video here.

For another angle on casinos, see thisNew York Times article.

Copyright (2012) by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.