Liv Boeree was supposed to talk to us about rational decisions in poker and politics.
It turned out to be a sociological discussion of society's most pressing problems.
With all the beach activities at the EPT Barcelona cancelled due to strong winds Boeree found some time to sit down with us and talk about something more serious than coin flips.
Pot Committed Is a Myth
PokerListings: Do you consider rational decision making a scientific discipline?
Liv Boeree: I believe it can be. The way our minds work is inherently flawed. Everybody has what are called cognitive biases.
A quick Google will give you extensive lists of them. Biases are mostly a result of evolution; a slow and largely inefficient process over the short-term.
Many of these biases arose either as a result of limited mental capacity, or as a way to make faster decisions in situations where speed was more important than accuracy, such as the classic "flight or fight" scenario.
Whilst the latter has its benefits these biases mean we often make mistakes when making complex decisions. For example, humans are often more risk-averse than they are pleasure-gaining.
This stems from past times when many mistakes you made could cost you your life. We are very rarely in that same situation anymore but a major part of our brain (often known as the lizard brain) is still wired from that time.
When we find ourselves in a stressful situation the lizard brain can take over and it's just not helpful at all. When in a tough hand the stress level rises, the heart rate goes up and it's hard to think clearly.
It’s been proven that the heart rate determines when the part of our brain that is responsible for rational decisions shuts down and we resort to fight-or-flight mode.
This sucks when you're on the river and deciding whether to call a huge jam and you consult your brain and all you get is white noise.
You end up making a snap decision just to end it, and it may turn out to be right, but it wasn't the result of optimal reasoning. It’s about learning to control your physiological and emotional reactions and understanding how to get the 'smart part' of your brain to work properly.
PL: So it is possible to learn how to make deliberate, rational decisions?
LB: Yes. We all have these cognitive biases which are deviations from the rational decision making. Fortunately there are a number of websites and organizations that teach rational decision making such as LessWrong.com and the Center For Applied Rationality.
One of the most common ones is the status quo bias. It’s the inherent resistance to deviate from the way things currently are.
For example there are people who strongly oppose the introduction of gay marriage. A status-quo biased argument they sometimes give is: "gay marriage has never existed before, and society is fine the way it is."
They then fall prey to the "pessimism bias" by overestimating the likelihood of something bad happening because of gay marriage, e.g. complete societal breakdown or God getting angry and bringing forth Judgment Day.
Another example which is applicable to poker is the sunk-cost-fallacy. This happens when you invest something, be it time or money, and keep with the investment even though you know it is very likely -EV.
For example, say you have red aces and the board is 7-8-9 of spades and the turn is the jack of spades and you're getting a ton of action and want to fold, but you’ve already invested more than half your stack.
The board's gotten worse and worse and you know that you’re very unlikely to be good, but you just can't find a fold.
Now of course there will be a generally correct solution of what to do in the situation but people deviate from it because of emotional reasons. They become so mentally attached to the hand that they don’t want to let go, even though mathematically they should.
If the decision you’re about to make is –EV, you shouldn’t take it.
PL: So the phrase 'I’m pot-committed' is a myth?
LB: Essentially, yes. Of course you need to take odds into account, and if you’re getting absurd odds and you think there's any chance your opponent is bluffing, it might still be profitable to call.
But that should be your reasoning; not the fact that a ton of YOUR hard-earned chips are in the pot already.
PL: Growing numbers of refugees are daily headlines all over Europe at the moment. Politics have failed, but people who flock to the streets demonstrate against the refugees. Is that an example of deviation from rational decision making?
LB: The status quo & pessimism biases certainly raises their heads here. Now there can definitely be rational arguments against letting more and more refugees into Europe.
If it's likely to cause massively soaring crime rates or cause public services to collapse then these are legitimate concerns for unrestricted migration. But very often the likelihood or impact of this is low, and yet people overvalue the statistical chances.
What shocks me most is the level of hatred and malice that comes from people's irrationally over-weighed fears. It's not uncommon to see comments online regarding the migrant crisis that are nothing short of sadistic.
For example the word-for-word Nazi propaganda that was posted as an experiment on the Daily Mail. They simply changed the words "Jew" to say "migrant"... and those comments were hugely supported and "upvoted!"
It's terrifying that so many people from "civilized" western society so easily fall into a fascist mindset when they're faced with a social dilemma such as this.
In this instance people tend to exaggerate the negatives, fall into irrational tribalism and reject solutions that prevents the most amount of suffering (i.e. are the best for the most number of people), especially if they predict some kind of cost to their own personal wealth/happiness, no matter how minimal.
PL: So what would a rational response be?
LB: Sadly, it doesn’t usually help to tell someone they’re being irrational. Nobody responds well to that. It is necessary to explain and to educate people as much as possible on all topics, especially one like this.
The world has changed so rapidly in the last hundred years that we can’t stick rigidly to all of the rules of the past. And the sooner people understand this the more they can be open to having balanced, sensible discussions about difficult issues.
Education is unbelievably important. The more people understand, the less fear of unlikely outcomes they’re going to have.