Stop Acting Like a Birdbrain

Likes What He Sees

I've been playing poker for longer than I've been a research psychologist. Many of my favorite moments at the table are ones that connect my two worlds.

Near the top on this list are those times where someone does something "superstitious."

They ask for a new setup after taking a really bad beat. Call an early-position raise with Q 9 because it's their "lucky" hand. Mutter something that sounds an awful lot like a prayer at a critical juncture (Jerry Yang could be heard intoning such during every all-in moment at the final table of last year's Jerry Yang may have been on to something.

There is a deservedly famous experiment in psychology that tells us a lot about this. It was run with pigeons some years back by the (in)famous behavioral psychologist, B. F. Skinner.

It went like this - if you're thinking of bailing out on me now by clicking on the closest link, don't. This really is a column about poker.

Skinner took a group of his pigeons and put them in small boxes each equipped with a light, a food hopper and not much else.

Pigeons aren't the smartest of birds, and it's pretty tough to bore one. Skinner had spent years studying how we (pigeons, people, rats) respond to reinforcement. If a pigeon receives food following pecks at an illuminated disk, it quickly learns to peck at disks.

Mark Kroon
It's so weird. Every time I make this face, everyone folds.

No problem, you say. Pigeons can recognize the relationships between their actions and the arrival of food. Indeed, one can imagine a pigeon chirping away with one of its avian buds and saying something like, "You know, man, I've really got this guy conditioned. Every time I peck this key, he gives me food."

From the pigeon's perspective this seems right - though Skinner might demur. We can imagine him chatting with a colleague and saying something like, "You know, man, I've really got this bird conditioned. Every time he hits that disk, I give him food."

There's a bit of a clash here between interpretations. From the pigeon's point of view, the matter couldn't be clearer. He's pretty sure he's in charge and everything that's happened so far supports that view.

Skinner, on the other hand, also appears to be bankable. He's also pretty sure that he's in charge and firmly believes that he's running this show.

Anton Allemann
That seat looks so good to me.

Indeed, both have a virtual lock on reality here. Frankly, I'm not sure that these intellectually challenged bird brains can grasp concepts like "virtual lock," not to mention "reality," but that doesn't matter.

The reason for this epistemic twist is that, without further elaboration, each of them has a world view that accounts for all the data. You may know (or at least be damn sure) that Skinner's point of view is right but that, for the point I'm making here, is irrelevant.

These experiments just set the stage for the really interesting one. One day Skinner decided to program the food hoppers to deliver a couple of grains of food from time to time no matter what the pigeons did.

There was no requirement to peck at a disk or, in fact, to do anything. They could just sit on their feathered haunches if they wished and handfuls of grain would arrive.

Skinner put a half dozen pigeons in their boxes and went home. What do you think he found when he returned?

If you think he had six birds sitting on their haunches in front of the food hopper, you're as wrong as you can be.

Scotty Nguyen
Does whatever it takes to keep the Corona hopper filled.

In one box a pigeon was balancing on one leg and tilting sideways. In another the bird was walking around the cage holding its right wing extended. In the next the pigeon was bobbing its head up and down. In the next ... well, you get the picture.

What was going on? Let's take the pigeon perspective. Skinner closes the lids and leaves. After a bit, they start doing pigeon things, which include stretching their wings, standing on one leg, bobbing their heads, etc.

Now, suddenly, the food hopper fills up. "Hmm," thinks the bird, "I lifted my wing and food showed up. Think I'll try that again." And, indeed, so long as the bird keeps its wing up food does appear.

In his neighbor's box, of course, all this happened while that bird was bobbing its head - leading this beast of little brain to conclude, "Hmm, I've got this guy conditioned again. Now, if I keep bobbing and weaving he sends food down into the hopper."

The next time you even think about calling for a new setup, switching seats because the one you're sitting in doesn't seem to be attracting cards, requesting a table change because you've taken a couple of bad beats or replacing solid poker decision making with chanting and praying, I want you to take five, remember Skinner's experiments and stop acting like a birdbrain.

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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