These days, in a lab at a university, you can experience the flashing lights and melodious sounds of a one-armed bandit being played, as scientists study gambling addiction.

University of North Dakota sychologist Jeff Weatherly says, “We have a unique opportunity in this state because, to my knowledge, it is the only state that allows researchers to own slot machines and to allow people to actually play with real money. In every other state, that would be a felony.”

He should know: There was a brief period when Weatherly’s experiments actually were considered illegal. State law prohibited the general ownership of non-antique slot machines for the purpose of gambling, or wagering anything of value on a probabilistic outcome.

“I was first notified by the University’s legal counsel and the state attorney general that I was committing a felony,” Weatherly says. “That doesn’t make for good research.” During the next legislative session, Sen. Nick Hacker and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem successfully worked to have the law changed.

Now Weatherly’s five slot machines are tucked inside a room equipped with a one-way mirror so people can play without somebody in the same room monitoring them.

The machines can be set to pay out at different rates. Over the years, Weatherly has learned that the probability of winning on a machine can be altered with little difficulty and that players’ gambling behavior does not seem to vary much when such an alteration is made. Probabilities can range from as high as a 98% percent payout on a generous slot machine to as low as 80% on a stingier model.

“We’ve found that a lot of people can’t discern that difference in probability,” Weatherly says. “They gamble just as long with either.”

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Will they add cocktails and scantily clad waitresses to the lab next? You can’t ever tell what will happen in the future (well, we can!) Thank goodness, at least the future is now on sale!

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