Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Once you’re in, there’s no getting out: How do casinos keep us gambling?

We encounter influential stimuli everyday that can often cause us to act in ways that we may not actually want to and sometimes leave us wondering, with the power of hindsight, why we ever did so. It has been shown that “a casino’s servicescape has a significant influence on the cognitive and affective satisfaction of gaming customers” (Lam, Chan, Fong, Lo, 2011). Casinos use a wide range of techniques to influence their visitors, enticing them through their doors, keeping them inside and getting them to bet (and inevitably lose) as much money as they possibly can. They manage this whilst also maintaining a healthy number of return customers who, more often than not, don’t even know the extent to which they are being manipulated.

Lights, sounds, activity…

Casinos are colourful hives of activity, lights and sounds. The stimulating environment is designed to keep one’s attention constantly engaged. The brightly coloured machines with their positive noises and lighting give hope to those betting in their quest to win and to entice them to spend more money. In some areas of the casino, softer, repetitive music may be played to create a trance-like mood for patrons, particularly in areas where card games requiring higher concentration may be being played.
When a “big win” occurs within the casino, it is broadcast to everyone and anyone that is listening, this adds to the exciting atmosphere and also may work to influence the behaviour of gamblers through the application of social validation. As individuals will see normal everyday people winning, they are given hope that they too may get lucky and win a jackpot. The announcements of “big wins” also works to carefully balance social validation, building an individual’s belief that they could win with the scarcity effect, whereby individuals find goods and services more attractive with regard to how rare they may be (i.e. jackpot wins; Cialdini, 2007).
It has also been suggested that the presence of extremely garish and ugly carpets in casinos is as a counter measure to any patron attempting to rest their eyes for a moment away from the lights, sounds and hubbub of the betting halls.

Air circulation and aromas…

Research has shown that specific pleasant smelling aromas can cause individuals to spend more time in an area, perhaps as it smells nice (Hirsch, 1995). The same research showed an increase in gambling in these areas however not at the expense of gambling levels in other areas of a casino where the aroma was not circulated – showing the smells in actually increases average expenditure by patrons. It has also been suggested that these aromas may work on a nostalgic trigger, whereby “the associated emotions were affectively congruent with, and enhanced, the gambling mood” (Hirsch, 1992).
Another little known fact is that the air circulated inside casinos is more oxygen rich than normal outside air, in an attempt by casino managers and owners to keep clients awake for longer periods of time so as to increase the amount of time one might spend gambling.

Near misses…

When experiencing a win whilst gambling, dopamine is released by the brain and a positive sensation is felt by the individual. This same feeling and dopamine release can also be experienced in the case of a near miss even though a loss has actually occurred (Oberg, Christie, & Tata, 2011). This feeling can be addictive and games that involve many near misses create more positive feelings within gamblers and casinos use them in an attempt to create increased game engagement.


The reciprocity effect is seen to be exploited by many of the tactics used by casinos, patrons (especially those spending well) are regularly provided with free drinks, food vouchers and in some extreme cases even free rooms. People who have been provided with favours and services etc are more likely to comply with requests (Cialdini, 2007), such as being asked to sit at a blackjack table or being asked to partake in a game of roulette. The casino’s “freebies” are a lot less free than we think they are.

It’s a surprise that people ever come out of casinos with the amount of psychological techniques exploited by management teams and owners. Every last detail of floor plan, interior design and gaming variables are carefully considered in an attempt to maximise the amount of money being spent by gamblers on their floors. Next time you’re about to drop a coin into a slot machine just pause for a second and consider whether you’d still be doing it if you’d just been offered simple odds on increasing your money or whether you too have been pulled under the casino’s enticing spell.


Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Collins.

Hirsch, A. R. (1992). Nostalgia: A neuropsychiatric understanding. ACR North American Advances.

Hirsch, A. R. (1995). Effects of ambient odors on slot‐machine usage in a Las Vegas casino. Psychology & Marketing, 12(7), 585-594.

Lam, L. W., Chan, K. W., Fong, D., & Lo, F. (2011). Does the look matter? The impact of casino servicescape on gaming customer satisfaction, intention to revisit, and desire to stay. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 30(3), 558-567.

Oberg, S. A., Christie, G. J., & Tata, M. S. (2011). Problem gamblers exhibit reward hypersensitivity in medial frontal cortex during gambling. Neuropsychologia, 49(13), 3768-3775. 

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