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Part 1: Self-service bias
Part Two: The Curse of Knowledge
Part 3: Establishing Bias and Availability of Heuristics
Part 4: Confirmation Bias
Continuing my series on cognitive biases, here are two other familiar biases we all recognize from playing poker, the pessimistic bias and the optimism bias.
The interesting thing about these two biases is that they are both very common, yet they seem to be completely opposite to each other. As you might assume, the pessimism bias is a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes, while the optimism bias is the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes.
There is a lot of variation in poker. And often, even when you play a hand correctly, you don’t win the pot. Or, you’d lose more pot with your correct play, while a different (lower) streak would have at least lost less. Conversely, it is also common to misplay a hand and still win the bowl. Or, again, you make a mistake in playing a hand and you win more than if you played well.
Humans have evolved to notice patterns, especially short-term patterns, and we tend to give these patterns a lot of weight in our decision making. Often times, they weigh more than they deserve.
If you play many draws hard, miss them all, and get called, you will notice this short-term pattern. This is the time when bias can creep into pessimism. Now you start to think that you can’t make any draws. Hence, decide to either fold these draws or play them passively to reduce your losses.
Of course, this is not always the best way to play a lottery. Sometimes you have to play it passively, but other times a more aggressive streak is better. However, your pessimism bias now leads you to underestimate all your drag. This means that you don’t pay enough attention to all the other factors that would indicate whether you should play the current draw passively, aggressively, or even just fold it. Instead of weighing all the factors and using this information to choose the best line, your bias is the choice for you. And the choice you make is often not the smartest option.
On the other hand, you may have played a series of raffles hard, did them all, and as a result, won the maximum each time. Perhaps at one of those times, you missed a tie, but you bet again on the river, and you made the opponent pull out. Now not only did you win some bigger pots, but you also managed to win a pot that you would otherwise lose.
This is when the optimism bias will connect you. Now you start feeling like you can’t miss it, and keep playing all your draws hard. This may lead you to ignore the warning signs that the opponent is not going to collapse. And by continuing to dash toward that opponent, you’re doing nothing more than throwing chips into the pot, hoping for a lucky card.
Basically, these two biases are opposite sides of the same coin. These biases are the result of overemphasizing recent past outcomes, and assuming that the next outcome will follow the latter pattern. The truth is that the latest results make absolutely no sense. Just because you made the last 4 flush draws has no effect on your odds of making the next draw. You are neither more nor less, you are likely to make number five.
Of course, these biases don’t just apply to withdrawals. It applies to our entire game. Whenever you play poorly, it is easy to overestimate the chances of something bad happening on the next hand you play. If this becomes your way of thinking, you will be playing a less than optimal hand, because you are too concerned about the “bad thing” that you think is likely to happen.
And when you run great, win a lot of pots, and hit every board, you can easily go for Happy Tilt. You expect to keep getting these great results, and start playing with the hands you should have folded. And trying to deceive the call station and other bad decisions caused by your overly optimistic mindset. You become emotionally convinced that you are destined to win every bet, and fail to apply the brakes even when it is clearly a smart move.
The main reason for these two biases, and most of the others we’ve discussed in this series, is emotion. Because the recent findings are so recent in our memories, they have a huge emotional impact on our mood, and thus our mentality. The more you learn to become emotionally detached from the outcomes when you play, the less likely you are to fall prey to the pessimism bias and the optimism bias.
Instead of focusing on the number of chips you won or lost, focus on the quality of each decision. If the smartest choice was made, but it did not work out, then there is no need to be pessimistic. Instead, be optimistic, because you are making the smartest choices. And if you make a decision that works out well, but realize that in fact it wasn’t the smartest choice, use that knowledge to guide you to make the smartest choice next time.
Don’t go on the happy mile, and then keep making bad decisions. Minimize emotions and maximize quality in analysis! Enjoy and play smart! ♠
Greg Raymer is the 2004 World Series of Poker Main Event Champion, won several major titles, and has earned over $7 million. He is the author of FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, available from D&B Publishing, Amazon, and other retailers. Sponsored by Blue Shark Optics, YouStake, and ShareMyPair. To connect with Greg, please Tweet @FossilMan or Visit his website.