The 4 Main Psychological Principles That Shape Your Poker Play
Poker and psychology go together like peanut butter and jelly. While a lot of psychological principles are intuitive, there are some more advanced ones that have a much larger impact on your play than you might think.
Additionally, some biases can stunt or plateau your long-term progression as a player. We're about to look at 4 of the most significant psychological phenomenon that you need to be aware of.
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1. Perceptual Biases
Are people born with preconceived biases? The research clearly says no; it is a learned trait.
As you grow and develop as a human, you start learning behaviors from those around you. Furthermore, you also start to identify certain traits with certain people that will shape your opinions for the rest of your life.
Picture a cowboy at a poker table - perhaps a young Doyle Brunson. Automatically, 99% of players assume he is a wild and aggressive player, without even seeing a hand. Similarly, a cute old granny would be assumed to be honest and straightforward.
While you can clearly see where these biases come from, they can get you in a lot of trouble. In a competitive game like poker, players will go out of their way to act or look a way that does not represent their true nature.
How to protect yourself: Treat every person as a blank slate. Form their player profile based on hands you actually play with them. While this takes practice, consciously recognizing your preconceived biases is the first step to correcting them.
2. Confirmation Bias
People are stubborn creatures. Have you ever known that one of your friends or family members is dead wrong when it comes to a particular subject, and even though they can't back up their viewpoint with a cohesive argument, they still defend their viewpoint vehemently?
While you may not be as bad, all people are a victim of confirmation bias to a degree.
This phenomenon is based on the fact that people look for events and data that support their opinions, while easily dismissing contrarian viewpoints as outliers, no matter how common.
An example at the table would be this: You see a player fold his first 20 hands in a tournament, which really may be just because he had no good hands. However, you label him as a tight, nitty player. Once you reach a later round of the tournament you see him win a big hand with a strong hand like pocket aces, confirming your initial judgment.
Even if this player starts opening up, or getting a normal run of cards, you are likely to dismiss all of those actions as insignificant compared to your assessment of his play.
This can obviously hurt you. If you end up playing against this player in a pot, you are apt to give him more credit than he deserves. You will get less value out of your medium-strength hands because you are afraid, and you will often fold the best hand to bluffs.
How to counter confirmation bias: Instead of seeing an action or event and thinking "I'm right, of course", simply think of it as a piece of information. Add it to your collection of information on that player.
The easy way to do this online is with a stat-tracking program like Hold'em Manager, which automatically takes into account new hands and adjusts its 'reads' on players. Taking this holistic view of players is another skill that can be developed over time with conscious effort.
3. Valuing Recent Events Over the Past
Another phenomenon that most players exhibit is placing too much emphasis on the most recent events and results. You may see a player go on a hot streak and win big in a few sessions, and all of a sudden think that he has become a much better player. In 99% of cases, however, they haven't.
The consequence of this is that you may give a player too much or too little respect. You will make poor decisions against them because you are dealing with inaccurate information.
The solution? Similar to the solution to confirmation bias, you need to learn to view events holistically. Each event is no more important that one before it from a statistical viewpoint. Use all of your data to profile an opponent.
Now of course there are some exceptions, as players do change a bit over time, but not as much as most expect.
4. Fundamental Attribution Errors
The fourth and final phenomenon is the fundamental attribution error. At its essence, a fundamental attribution error is made to protect our egos.
The principle states that people are likely to associate a good result for themselves as the result of skill or hard work, whereas they are more likely to associate a good result for someone else as luck, or undeserved.
If you constantly make fundamental attribution errors, you will not progress as a player. You will skip over valuable learning opportunities by believing you were unlucky to lose and your opponent was lucky to win. Similarly, you won't examine big pots you win, even if you made a poor decision and lucked out, because you'll reason that you deserved it.
Combating fundamental attribution errors: To start reducing these errors, you must first be aware of them. If you feel that you understand this principle, begin by consciously asking yourself if you really made the best decisions you could during hands you won, and by asking if your opponent got lucky against you, or just made a good play.
One extreme method is to review past hands, but cover up names and avatars on the screen so you're not sure which player is which. After completing a full unbiased analysis, you can then reveal the names.