Partial Reinforcement Part 1

Good Reinforcement

OK, we're going back to my (second-) favorite haunt today, the classroom.

It used to be first, but then I discovered the deep and abiding joys of retirement and my new and improved favorite: playing poker, somewhere.

But, no matter. If you visit here every week, you know I'm still stuck with my professor's robes and can't resist a lecture. Today's is the first of two on reinforcement and reward.

If by "reward" you're thinking of something like taking down a monster pot or outlasting 350 of the locals to win the "Weekend Madness" tournament, you're not far off. But not quite right either.

What I'm thinking of is more mundane but psychologically more interesting. It's those small, routine reinforcements, the ones that come with a hand well played or a bluff run successfully, the ones that accompany a long session of struggles that ends by breaking even.

And, yes, even those moments that arrive on the wings of a prayer, like the suck-out that saves you after a bonehead call or the piece of a bad beat jackpot you catch.

The term "reinforcement" was coined by early psychologists because they weren't sure what it was that made things rewarding. It takes only a bit of thought to realize that the notion of a "reward" as something good or pleasant wasn't going to work because you couldn't always tell what was going to be "rewarding."

Most people find being flayed with small rawhide whips distinctly unpleasant ... but not all. Some people find roller-coasters a fabulous mixture of terror and exhilaration ... but not everyone.

Phil Hellmuth
When good reinforcement goes bad.

If you don't know whether something will be "rewarding," you're going to need another concept. They came up with "reinforcement," which stands for anything that functions to "reinforce" (i.e., support) whatever went before - whatever led to this state of affairs.

One of the first things these early researchers discovered is that the schedule with which reinforcements arrive is more important than the reinforcements themselves.

The second thing they realized is that when reinforcements arrive at irregular intervals and with unpredictable frequency they have an utterly compelling quality to them. And, they make the behaviors they "reinforce" very strong and very robust.

Look, suppose you've been getting a soda from a machine for lunch every day. You show up one day, put in your money and nothing. No soda. What do you do?

Well, you may put in another couple of coins, but if no soda shows up, you're done with this "game."

Now, instead of a soda machine you're standing in front of a slot machine. Same thing. You put in a coin. Nothing. You put in another. Nothing. Another ... Unlike with the soda machine, you'll keep shoveling in coins for a long time.

In fact, both machines could be broken but it'll take you a much longer time to realize that in the case of the slot machine than the soda.

The reason is that, historically, the soda machine has been "paying off" on a continuous schedule of reinforcement. Every "play" gets reinforced. When it stops, you stop rather quickly.

Jacquelyn Scott
Slots pay off in the long run. It's a scientific fact.

The slot, on the very other hand, has been paying off erratically, on a highly variable schedule, which results in highly repetitive behavior. You just keep shoveling coins in.

The difference between these two situations is called the "partial reinforcement effect," and it is one of the strongest of psychological principles. When reinforcements, or rewards, arrive at unpredictable moments they have a dramatic impact. Whatever it is you're doing is going to become a highly desirable activity that you want to do and, importantly, don't want to stop.

To give you a better sense of what I'm talking about, here's a thought experiment. Let's assume, not unreasonably, that in your game A-K is a winning hand. Let's assume that you play relatively low stakes and that in this fantasy world, every time you pick up A-K you win exactly $1.

There are no surprises, no suck-outs, no magical cards. Just a dead simple win of one coconut every time you pick it up. Got it?

Okay, now here's another scenario, a different game. In this one, on average you win $1. But sometimes you get thumped when your opponent makes his straight; other times you take down a big pot when the board is A-K-K-8-6 with four hearts. On other occasions you win a tiny pot 'cause everyone folds to your raise and, yes, every once in a while you muck it pre-flop after a couple of all-ins from a couple of rocks.

Which of these two games would you like to be part of? Me, I'll take the second - and I doubt there is a poker player in the world who wouldn't.

Scotty Nguyen
Some people only see things in cash-money terms.

On the surface this seems simple. It isn't. Both have exactly the same expected value in cash-money terms. They both leave you with a single dollar in profit every time you pick up the hand. But the second one is manifestly more alluring, and the "partial reinforcement effect" is the reason.

Recently, in a discussion of quitting, we noted the impact of the neurotransmitter dopamine. When you win one of those big hands, it's like opening the dopamine spigot in your brain. In fact, just imagining or anticipating one of these magical moments has an impact, but only because they are rare and unpredictable events.

In short, the real power of reinforcement only appears under these "partial" reinforcement settings. If you were to win the same amount every time you picked up a big starting hand, the spigot would barely open, and the game of poker would lose a lot of its allure - it wouldn't be nearly the fun it is.

So, today's take-home message: The real, bottom-line, bankroll issue is trickier than you may have thought. It isn't just the amount you win; it's the circumstances under which it was won.

Next week, another message: The partial reinforcement effect can also help us understand why bad players often stay bad players. Come back then.

Update: Check out part two of this article here.

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semiretired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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