The social psychology of Las Vegas is incredible, if you think about it.

I was just in Las Vegas for about eight days. I’d classify Vegas as — at best — a 72-hour city, so eight days was a lot. I was a mix of sober, drunk, exhausted, over-worked, experiencing leg pain, getting lost on the Strip, and attempting to analyze a whole different series of contexts and emotions. Here are a couple of thoughts.

1. I checked in on a Friday at about 10:10am local time. I hadn’t been to Vegas in about four years at the time I was checking in, so when I saw two guys approach the check-in desk at 10am and each were double-fisting Coronas, I kind of did a double-take. Then I realized, “OK, yea, this is Las Vegas.” Those guys were maybe 22-24, so it made sense — they either landed that morning or got in last night, and regardless, they didn’t appear to be on any “clock” (wearing team jerseys and shorts), so whatever, it’s a Friday off. Who among us hasn’t pounded drinks early on a Friday off? It happens.

Then in the line behind me were two married couples from Iowa, vacationing together — about late 50s, all of them — and one of the two husbands brings about four G&Ts into the line and passes them out. These people were just checking in. It was maybe 10:15am. Now they were all pounding G&Ts. A whole host of memories of Vegas flooded back to me at that moment.

2. Other oddly-timed drunk story: at 2pm that same day, I saw a dude being carried to the elevator bank by four other dudes. When the security guard asked what was wrong, one of the friends said “Bachelor party.” Again, this was 2pm on a weekday.

3. Think about this one for a second: how many cities in the world are truly unique? You could probably rattle off about 10-20, right? Paris is probably right up there. New York City. London. Buenos Aires. Beijing. Moscow. Rome. Etc, etc. I’m missing a ton. Each place in the world is totally unique in its own regard — I do fervently believe that — but start thinking about it a little differently: London and New York are different in terms of layout and water and culture, but they have a vaguely similar ethos. Same with a couple of European cities you could cross-pollinate, and same with some Asian cities. Buenos Aires is an original, but it bears some similarity (some being the key word) to Santiago and Lima.

Now: is there any place in the world truly like Las Vegas? You hear dozens of languages on the Strip. People are walking around drinking at all points of the day. At 3am last Saturday night, it was challenging to get from one hotel to another on the Strip because the streets were jammed. At 3am. On a Saturday. I lived in New York for over 20 years all in and I’ve never seen that, not even in the East/West Village.

I wouldn’t necessarily make this argument, but you could make the argument that, on some measure, Las Vegas is the most unique city in the entire world. It definitely has the infrastructure to bring in the world. We know that.

4. Had a friend tell me while there, “Las Vegas to me is like Vietnam. You can’t possibly go in as yourself, and you’re not coming out the same person you were before.” Had another friend tell me, “I honestly believe the first thing you pack when you leave for Vegas is a different personality.” You can describe Vegas in a ton of different ways — “hedonistic playground,” “Sin City,” whatever you want to call it — but this is an interesting aspect. It’s a city in the middle of a desert that attracts world conferences. There’s no legitimate context for why there should even be a city there, and it’s a city hosting 100K people at a time. That’s weird to think about, because in a way, nothing about Vegas is real. How many people out there for 3-4 days are truly acting like themselves, as they would be back in Des Moines or Boston or Charlotte? Probably very few. It’s kind of a perpetual state of suspended animation from a psychological standpoint.

5. I actually stayed at the Bellagio most of the time I was out there. The Bellagio is an amazing property in a number of ways — think about it like MLB ballparks. In MLB, a new ballpark is always being built, and that becomes “the thing.” Same with Vegas. Since Bellagio first went up, dozens of new spots have gone up. And yet, Bellagio is still a major mainstay / stand-by for people on The Strip. (Kind of like Camden Yards in MLB, I guess.) Why? Well one reason is how they design the gaming areas:

Finlay refers to Thomas’s environments as “adult playgrounds,” since they provide an atmosphere in which people are primed to seek pleasure. “These casinos have lots of light and excellent way-finding,” she told me. “They make you feel comfortable, of course, but they also constantly remind you to have fun.”

She went on, “The data is clear. Gamblers in a playground casino will stay longer, feel better, and bet more. Although they come away with bigger losses, they’re eager to return.”
Finlay notes that the effectiveness of such designs comes at the expense of the guests, who have been persuaded by flowers and nice furniture to squander money on games that are rigged in favor of the house. According to her findings, Thomas’s designs have a particularly marked efect on those guests who normally don’t gamble. The seduction of his décor, perhaps, is that it doesn’t feel like a gambling environment. The beauty is a kind of anesthesia, distracting people from the pain of their inevitable losses.

Seduction of decor? Everything about Las Vegas goes back to basic human psychology, and how to play within it.

6. The El Rancho Vegas was actually the first hotel to appear on “The Strip,” for any and all history buffs. That’s where it all began.

7. Bottom line on all this: just a very interesting, unique place with an amazing connection back to the human experience, human behavior, and psychology in general. The world does pass through there — I’d honestly guess the only other places with nearly the amount of not-necessarily-just-business-travelers are NYC, Paris, London and maybe Toronto (very diverse populace up there) — so almost any decision you make needs to take into account how people might perceive it in the context of being in Vegas and disconnecting from their “real” selves (hence the adult playground stuff above).

Can you all think of a more interesting social psychology city than Vegas?

Ted Bauer