Disinhibition In Vegas: Casino Design and Human Behavior

Disinhibition in VegasCasino design is fascinating. Casinos are one of the few places with the dual goals of engaging people in their immediate environments while completely obscuring the visibility of any other environment. Casinos don’t just want you to gamble with them: They want you to eat, drink, sleep, watch entertainment, and gamble until you’re broke inside their facility, without even thinking about wandering outside to find another one. They want you fully disinhibited, and are full of mechanisms to get you there.

Disinhibition occurs when people are freed from normal behavioral restraints such as social judgment or rules. We know from research that people who are disinhibited will do all kinds of things they wouldn’t normally, from bullying others online to overeating (one good reason not to dine in front of the television, which removes  many of the visual and physical signals that help us gauge fullness). Casinos want people to mindlessly put more money on the blackjack table or in the slot machine. Their disinhibition tools include:

The Physical Environment

Inside the Paris casino--it's not only hard to tell what time of day it is, you feel like you're outdoors.
Inside the Paris casino–it’s not only hard to tell what time of day it is, you feel like you’re outdoors.

Two things casinos in Las Vegas never have: Windows and clocks. Why not? Well, if you know what time of day it is, you might use that information to make decisions like, “It’s late and I should go to bed.” Or, “I’ve been playing this game for hours. It’s time to quit.” Signals about what time it is are exactly the sorts of guideposts casinos don’t want to expose their players to.

Many casinos are also massive and disorienting. On my trip to Vegas a few months ago, I got lost inside a casino pretty much once a day, and I have some experience navigating casinos. That feeling of a massive space can also be disinhibiting because you lose a sense of groundedness and place.

The Player Card and Activity Tracking

Many casinos have some type of rewards program that helps them identify their most frequent players and provide incentives for repeat play. These cards also allow casinos to track players’ every move. Not only are they collected at table games and machines, but they might be scanned when a person eats at a restaurant in a casino or makes a purchase.

These cards do at least two things that are disinhibiting. One, they are designed to reward behavior that might normally be considered less than praiseworthy: Spending a lot of money. The more you play, the more rewards you get, and the more those rewards are targeted to the behaviors you’ve exhibited. Being rewarded for something subtly tells us to repeat the behavior and breaks into the normal thoughts we might have about it. Player cards also have another twist: Although everything you do is meticulously tracked, you very rarely see what your point totals are. That would reveal how much your spending has accumulated, and provide guidance if it’s time to quit. Not providing that helps casinos disinihibit people.

Free-Flowing Drinks

Mmm . . . beer, cigarette butts, and video blackjack.
Mmm . . . beer, cigarette butts, and video blackjack.

If you want to drink for “free,” take a seat at a blackjack table and pony up some chips. Most casinos in Vegas and elsewhere have staff constantly circulating to bring alcoholic beverages to players free of charge (although you should tip!). Why? Because people who are tipsy are also people who worry less about money, who are less accurate at tracking their money, and who are less sharp at gambling. Your free drinks are all about the casino lowering your defenses.

The Gang’s All Here

Viva Las Vegas
Viva Las Vegas

Although casinos are huge and sprawling, they also have design elements to ensure it’s always easy to find a crowd of people having a good time. Getting to a destination inside a casino such as a restaurant or theater requires walking through the gambling areas. The number of open tables is calibrated to current activity levels so that you don’t see many lone gamblers at tables, and the open tables tend to be closest to the highly trafficked areas for maximum observation potential. Any casual observer would conclude from walking through a casino that a) gambling here is really fun and b) it must be socially acceptable because lots of people are doing it. These crowd-management techniques also help normalize gambling behavior and disinhibit typical routines.

The Ultimate Gamification Is a Game

Finally, it can’t be overlooked that gambling is at its heart a game. It has a winner and a loser, and the outcome provides value to the winning party. The elements that designers borrow to gamify their programs exist quite naturally in a casino game. Users are able to exercise autonomy by choosing to hit or stand; they see their competence grow or wane along with their pile of chips; and playing alongside fellow cardsharks provides a level of relatedness support that hooks people. By putting games at the heart of the experience, casinos have created the ultimate sticky experience.

Have you ever done anything because you were disinhibited and only realized later? (It’s ok if that story stays in Vegas!)