Cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll, an associate professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, has spent a lot of time explaining slot machine ergonomics and casino layouts since the 2012 release of her book Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas—but there’s one takeaway that continues to startle her interviewers. For most slot machine addicts, Schüll says, it’s the reassuringly numbing routine, not the excitement of a jackpot, that keeps them hooked. “I heard repeated stories of people who would actually get angry or frustrated or irritated when they won, because it would freeze up the machine,” she tells Brad Plumer in a March 1 interview on the website Vox.
Schüll spent 15 years in Vegas, where she studied the ways casinos leverage advances in psychology and technology to encourage players to enter a kind of trance, spending maximum money while losing their connection to time and place. With electronic gambling legal in 39 states—and slot machines present not just in casinos but at racetracks, bars, and restaurants—Schüll’s observations apply to a wider swath of people than timeworn stereotypes might lead you to expect. In fact, if you’re one of the 93 million folks who have downloaded Candy Crush onto your smartphone, her research may hit closer to home than you think, as Schüll recently attested on NPR.
Schüll is also the director and producer of a documentary, Buffet: All You Can Eat Las Vegas. Her next book, forthcoming in 2016, is Keeping Track: Personal Informatics, Self-Regulation, and the Data-Driven Life—a topic she has discussed this past year at the MIT Media Lab and in MIT Technology Review.