Group to conquer: The social psychology of poker

In today’s blog I am going to try and apply some relatively simple social psychology to playing poker. Unlike some of my previous articles that may have bordered into ‘pop’ psychology territory, this article uses some very well researched psychological phenomena and examines to what extent they can improve your game and aid skilful poker playing.

Over in the US, Professor Matthew Martens at the University of Albany is a psychologist who has consistently applied his psychological knowledge to his love of poker. He has written very persuasively on how social psychology is used and abused in gambling situations. Like me, his own students are fascinated by the idea that academics use their passion for an academic subject and use it to aid them in non-academic situations. It is also somewhat ironic that we spend far more time analysing others’ behaviour rather than our own (probably because we don’t get paid for self-analysis!).

Like Professor Martens I have little time for Freudian psycho-babble and much prefer to believe that by understanding some fundamental psychological principles, poker players can make more rational, better decisions when playing at the tables. Professor Martens has highlighted three particular principles from traditional social psychology that he believes have high psychological relevance at the poker table. These are (i) the fundamental attribution error, (ii) group conformity, and (iii) social loafing. I shall examine each of these briefly in turn.

The fundamental attribution error (FAE) is a fairly simple concept to understand. What’s more, there is a mass of worldwide evidence showing its existence in a wide variety of behaviours, situations and contexts. In its most simple terms, the FAE boils down to the tendency for us as individuals to attribute other people’s behaviours to internal rather than external causes. The flip side of the coin is that as individuals we also have a tendency to attribute our failures to external rather than internal causes. So what does this mean in relation to poker?

Firstly, players may assume that opponents are weak or poor players when they make unfavourable decisions. At the same time, players may also believe their own poker play is simply ‘unlucky’ when things don’t go their way. In essence, the FAE makes players less objective in their thinking when evaluating both their own play and that of their opponents. The underlying message is that you shouldn’t view opponents as ‘weak’ players just because they made what looked like a few poor decisions. Similarly, as a player you must be honest about the quality of your play and try not to attribute poor playing outcomes to external events like ‘unlucky’ or ‘bad’ cards.

Another well-known phenomenon in social psychology is group conformity. In group situations (such as playing a game of poker), there is a psychological tendency to conform to the behaviour of other group members. Professor Martens gives the example of a player getting seated at a wild table where everybody is betting and raising with any two cards, and realizing four hours and 50 big bets later that the player had no idea why they chose to call three bets cold with Queen-7 suited and Ace-6 offsuit. In this situation, and to their detriment, the player has perhaps subconsciously conformed to the behaviour at the table. There is a fine line between adjusting your play to maximize the specific game situation that you face, versus adjusting your play to simply ‘fit in’ with everyone else at the table. The former will generate profit over the long run, the latter will probably ensure that you will at best break even.

This final social psychology principle that Professor Martens highlights is social loafing. However, there is one caveat – it only applies to poker tournaments. More specifically, this occurs when players are in a position that knocking out someone will result in a major benefit to all other players, such as getting in the money or making the final table. The underlying principle of social loafing is that people in group settings often sit around and wait for other people to do the work, so that they can get all the reward with little or no work. In tournament poker, this would translate to individuals choosing not to risk their chips in an effort to knock someone out, instead waiting for someone else to do the dirty work.

Professor Martens argues that by understanding these three principles of social psychology, and recognizing when they are occurring in the poker game that you are playing, players are better able to make winning decisions and evaluations about their play. It’s probably also true to say that the three particular social psychological phenomena discussed in this article are an inherent part of our day-to-day human nature. Put more simply, it is our natural human inclination to engage in these behaviours often and in a wide variety of situations (including poker playing). Therefore, it takes a little work to recognize when these phenomena are negatively affecting your game, but overcoming them should provide profitable benefits in the long run.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Biolcati, R., Passini, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). All-in and bad beat: Professional poker players and pathological gambling. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). What differentiates professional poker players from recreational poker players? A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 243-257.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Parke, A., Griffiths, M., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.

Recher, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory qualitative study of online poker professional players. Social Psychological Review, 14(2), 13-25.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008). Why Swedish people play online poker and factors that can increase or decrease trust in poker websites: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 80-97.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on November 24, 2015, in Competitions, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Gender differences, Online gambling, Poker, Problem gamblng, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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