No, you’re not seeing things on the second floor of the University of North Dakota’s Northern Plains Behavioral Research Center (NPBRC).
Yes, those are the flashing lights and melodious sounds of a one-armed bandit being played inside a University-owned research facility. The fully operational slot machine casino is probably the most talked-about feature in the brand new NPBRC building.
Jeff Weatherly, UND professor of psychology, is the casino boss, so to speak. But make no mistake: the machines are for gambling addiction research only, and it’s technically a “casino laboratory.”
“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,” Weatherly said. “In every other state, that would be a felony.”
The fact that the slots are in the NPBRC is unusual enough. But what it took to legally get them there in the first place is even more interesting.
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 said. “That doesn’t make for good research.”
During the next legislative session, Sen. Nick Hacker, R-Grand Forks, and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem successfully worked to have the law changed. It’s now legal in North Dakota to have a slot machine for research purposes as long as it’s at a four-year institution under the auspices of the State Board of Higher Education.
Weatherly’s five slot machines are tucked inside a specially designated room that can hold as many as seven. The room also is equipped with a one-way mirror so people can play without somebody in the same room monitoring them.
“Before, we were using a small room upstairs (at Corwin-Larimore Hall), basically a small closet with a couple of slot machines,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t ideal, but it did the trick.”
But with so few machines, it was difficult for Weatherly to determine if research results were being caused by probabilities or if it was something in the machines. More machines allow Weatherly to tinker with the probability settings so that multiple machines can be set to pay out at different rates.
|A member of the UND faculty since 1999, Jeff Weatherly serves as chair of the Department of Psychology and is also serving as the interim chair of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. His main research focus is on factors that contribute to gambling behavior, particularly situational factors. Weatherly received his master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Washington State University. Before coming to UND, he was on the faculty of McNeese State University in Louisiana.
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 percent on a stingier model.
“We’ve found that a lot of people can’t discern that difference in probability,” Weatherly said. “They gamble just as long with either.”