Behavioral Economics, Politics and Poker

Allen Cunningham

Economics, politics and poker have a lot in common: leverage, measured aggression, bluffs, traps, fakeouts, big holdings, a lot of hoping and (in some dire situations) praying.

Psychologists have known for some time that these various elements are deeply interwoven, but for the most part, economists and politicians haven't - primarily because they haven't fully grasped the fact that basic psychological principles form a common foundation for all.

So, it was with interest that I saw an article in The New York Times by conservative columnist David Brooks arguing that one reason why we're in this economic mess right now is the failure of economists and politicians to pay attention to simple things that psychologists know.

I thought this was cool and nothing short of remarkable, 'cause journalists just don't go down these kinds of scholarly paths.

What Brooks did not do (and who can blame him; after all, this was The New York Times) was push the envelope on this analysis and use it to examine poker.

I suspect Brooks doesn't appreciate it, but the list of "Things" he presented ties directly into our game.

So, let's take a look at Brooks' list, examine its connections to poker and, of course, see if we can't learn something that'll give our games a boost upwards.

In what follows, we're the "We" as Pogo, the immortal Sage of the Swamp, put it: "We have met the enemy and they is us."

1. We allow perceptual biases to distort thinking.

If we have been primed for anger, we tend to see people as angrier than they are.

Xenophobes think all foreigners are dangerous. The young fail to recognize wisdom in their elders; the elderly fail to appreciate the insights of the young.

Glen Macdonald
What can I say? Don't judge a book by its cover!

We have decided that the guy on our left is a backwoods hayseed who couldn't spell "poker" if we spotted him the "p-o-k." We think this because he is dressed in a cowboy shirt with fake mother-of-pearl buttons, a hat with dirty thumb smudges on the brim and worn jeans over a pair of shit-kicker boots.

We will, once having formed this image, fail to recognize that a "weak" fold was actually a classy laydown and that this fugitive from a pig farm is actually a pretty solid player.

The next couple of hours will not be pretty.

2. We tend to search for data that confirm our prejudices rather than data that contradict them.

A nonpoker example will help us see this.

I've got a rule for producing numbers. Here's an example that fits my rule: 2,4,6, __. Try to find out my rule by filling in the blank. I'll give you feedback.

Almost everyone picks 8 here.

I say, "Yup, that's right."

"Ah," you say, "the rule is ascending even numbers."

"Nope," say I.

Then you try 10 as an answer. "Also right," I say.

"OK, the rule is add the last two."

"No, again."

"All right, so let's try 12."

"Yup," I say.

"Aha," you say, "add all the preceding numbers."

"Nope." ...

See the problem? You're trying to confirm your hypothesis. Almost no one tries to disconfirm. (My rule? "Any bigger number," which is really hard to discover unless you try something like 5.)

Dario Minieri
Dario? Overaggressive?

In poker we frequently fall upon this fallacious sword, most often when we continue to play in a manner that is nonoptimal because we tend to find confirmation when it works and fail to appreciate the downside when it doesn't.

Loose, overly aggressive players are the ones most prone to fall into this trap.

3. We overvalue recent events when anticipating future possibilities.

As memories of the past fade, current events stand out in sharp relief. This bias is seen most often in our shifting vision of ourselves based on how we've been running lately.

If we've had a good session or two we see ourselves as solid, professional-level players; a couple of thumpings and our confidence and sense of self take a pummeling.

We have a lamentable tendency to downplay the significance of the historic relative to the contemporary. The best way to counter this is to keep accurate records, which will help keep you from getting derailed by recent developments.

4. We spin concurring facts into a single causal narrative.

Oh, the self-serving myths we manufacture. The tales we tell that mirror our hopes and desires and truth be damned. Poker players vie with golfers and politicians in the use of this one.

Self-referenced narratives are seductive because they are almost always laudatory; few delude themselves into thinking they are bozos when they aren't.

They can also be devastating because of their fragile ties with the real world. We see them used most often by the "contributors" who weave complex tales of their supposed skills in the face of reality.

The trick to preventing this is as simple (and as difficult) as just knowing yourself and accepting who you are.

If you're a basically decent player who just about breaks even, then wrap this mantle about your shoulders and wear it proudly. It actually puts you in a rather select company.

Phil Hellmuth
Phil spends a lot of time applauding his own supposed skill.

5. We applaud our own supposed skill in circumstances where we've actually benefited from dumb luck.

This one comes from what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. We have an unhappy, but perfectly understandable, tendency to misattribute the causes of the good and bad things that happen to us.

The fundamental attribution error is a general principle. It states that we tend to attribute causes to internal, personal factors rather than recognize the roles of external, contextual and chancy elements in the world about us.

And, of course, it's closely related to #4 above. It's very much a part of the tales we tell ourselves.

Think about your mental state after your last tournament. How much of your success (if you cashed) did you attribute to your brilliance versus good old dumb luck? How much of your failure (if you got sent packing early) did you attribute to lucky draws by "idiots" versus your own ineptitude?


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 semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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