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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.

Net advantage: Another brief look at the psychology of online poker

From everything that I’ve observed over the last decade in the gambling world, the one thing that has caught my eye more than anything else is the number of online gambling stories – particularly about the rise of online poker. Clearly, online poker and traditional poker are not synonymous. As I outlined in one of my previous blogs, a very useful psychological tool in poker is to ‘read’ a player through their body language and their verbalisations. When playing online poker, a gambler is denied this advantage. Poker players must therefore seek to manipulate their poker-playing opponents by using the psychological tools at their disposal. One of my colleagues who has researched this area (Dr. Adrian Parke), believes that in a ‘SunTzu’-type way, an online poker player must take their weakness (in this case, not being able to physically see other players) and turn it into a positive strength. Put simply, a player must use the non-transparency inherent in the situation to their advantage.

Online poker permits players to create a false identity. As a player you could portray the façade of being a young attractive novice female player when in fact you are actually a very experienced recognised pro. On a psychological level, the key to a ‘hustle’ or manipulating other players in poker is by projecting a character and hiding your identity. Essentially it is about representing a façade, whether it is for one hand or the whole of the game. While playing poker online, a player can adapt any ‘character’ they wish to suit any game in which they engage in. For instance, if you are playing with novices it may be profitable to portray an experienced professional in order to intimidate players into submission.

Using the messaging systems provided, it is easier for online poker players to develop their persona(s). The tone and pitch of what a player “says” is not revealed in the text on the screen. At a fundamental level all players are acting with their most unemotional ‘poker face’. In these situations, players can exude confidence as they go all in on a psychological bluff, when in reality they may have shaking hands and be sweating like a pig. The key to winning on a psychological level is by inducing emotional reactions from other players, so with knowledge of the opponent, it is possible to ‘tailor’ interactions to induce the desired response.

Social interaction at the online poker table is not confined to adversarial chastising. It is also possible to develop amiable relationships between players. Online poker – particularly at low stakes tables – is often more about entertainment than making profits. In poker it is not necessary to reveal your hand if nobody calls (i.e., pays to see it). Without seeing cards it is more difficult to understand player behaviour. However, at more sociable tables, players will reveal what they had to opposing players, if nothing else but to indulge the observers. Creating false ‘alliances’ is a way of ascertaining more information about your opponents and improving your ability to ‘read’ them.

From a psychological perspective, there are also some things to be aware of in the online gambling world. At a basic level, what separates professional gamblers and novice (or problem) gamblers is the factor of self-control. The rule of thumb is to avoid becoming emotionally involved in the game. Inducing emotional rather than logical reactions from gamblers is what makes the gambling industry so profitable. By remaining unemotional gamblers can protect themselves from recklessly chasing losses and avoid going on ‘tilt’. People gambling online are particularly at risk from engaging in chasing losses for the simple reason that they have 24-hour convenient access from their home or workplace and have the potential to be constantly subjected to temptation. What’s more, in this asocial world, they often lack friends acting as a “social safety net” to give objective appraisals of the player’s behaviour.

The best ways of avoiding becoming emotionally engaged online is to have (i) reflective time outs and (ii) an objective attribution of outcomes. Having reflective time-outs simply refers to playing slowly, making gambling decisions with accrued knowledge (for example, knowledge of probability and of opponents). It is advisable after a ‘bad beat’ to be disciplined enough sit out one or two hands to regain composure before playing again. Determining objective attributions of outcomes occurs at a psychological level and concerns the gambler’s locus of control. For the gambler, this means having an external locus of control when assessing the cards they have and an internal locus of control regarding what they do with the cards available.

The mantra of poker players is that ‘You can only play the hand you were dealt’. All players will experience streaks of both desirable and poor hands, and it is how a player responds to these streaks that will determine their success. It is very easy to become frustrated while in a negative streak. Likewise, it is easy in a positive streak to become narcissistic and complacent. It is the knowledgeable player that understands probability and who realises that over a continuous playing period, positive and negative streaks are inevitable and transient.

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.