A slot is a narrow opening in something, especially one that allows insertion of something else. It is also a term for a place in a schedule or program, especially one that can be booked ahead of time, like a visit to a museum or an appointment with a doctor. The word can also refer to a specific position in a machine, such as the space for a coin or paper in an ATM machine.
In gambling, a near miss occurs when feedback for a loss approximates a win. For example, when a slot machine displays “cherry-cherry-lemon,” that would be considered a near miss. It is widely believed that near misses reinforce gambling behavior. This belief stems from the theory that slot machines exploit learning processes, particularly conditional reinforcement, that evolved to detect contingent (i.e., non-random) outcomes.
However, there are several important flaws in this logic that preclude its application to real-world slot machines. First, it is not clear why near-miss stimuli should be assumed to have a conditioning function. Traditional chained procedures that successfully produce conditional reinforcement require a contingency between the putative conditional reinforcer and subsequent unconditional reinforcer. A classic slot machine, by contrast, provides random outcomes that do not provide any logical predictability about the likelihood of winning.
Another problem is that the design of modern slot machines makes near-miss reinforcement extremely difficult to control. For example, each spin of a slot machine’s reels generates a unique set of values, which are then associated with correlated positions on the reels. When a symbol line is formed, the software selects a sequence of values from this set, which are then displayed on the screen. If the selected values correspond to a winning combination, the player is awarded credits based on how much he or she has bet before.
The solitary nature of slot machines, combined with their ability to deliver large sums of money in short amounts of time, make them a powerful seductive force. In fact, Schull suggests that almost nothing in a modern casino is more carefully engineered to entice people to gamble than the slot machines. It is no wonder, then, that so many people lose themselves in these addictive games. As the ubiquity of video gambling grows, it may be time to consider stricter regulations, perhaps even including a ban on these games in some jurisdictions. But until then, we’ll have to learn how to play with more discipline. After all, if we can’t do that, what is the point of playing?