God, Why Did I Call That? (A Brief Overview of Common Decision-Making Errors).

Chris Grove

Admit it – there’s been a time or two where you’re at the poker table and found yourself asleep at the wheel. Your mouth opens, your hands move, and before you know what’s happened, you’ve made a bet or called a raise with no rhyme or reason. Every once in awhile these blunders work out for the best, but more often than not they end up being the plays we berate ourselves over for hours – sometimes days. If you’re anything like me, the frustration isn’t driven so much by the fact that you made a poor decision as by the fact that you feel like you didn’t make a decision at all.

Thankfully, it’s impossible to not make a decision in poker. every time you commit to a course of action, you’re making some decision on some level, even if you’re not aware of it. The trick then becomes to unearth the decision-making process you employ in pressure situations and to pick out the flaws in that process that are leading you into what Gabe Kaplan, in an episode of last season’s High Stakes Poker, called ‘The Poker Twilight Zone.’

There are books written about the reasons why our brains malfunction, especially during times of stress, but I’ll save you the time of finding, buying and reading said books. Instead, we’ll walk through a few common errors that are uniquely likely to spring up during the course of a poker hand. For more details on the errors below along with a decent bibliography of decision error theory, visit the Theories About Decision Errors Section of ChangingMinds.org.

Error One: The Endowment Effect
This error is based on the simple premise that we tend to overvalue things that we own. If a thing is ours, we will overestimate it’s value; the corollary is that we tend to underestimate the value of things owned by others, especially if we own a similar thing. In poker this effect manifests mainly in two ways: first, we tend to overvalue our chips [for some, the value gets exaggerated when their chips are in the pot; for others the value is hiked when they are forced to risk some chips with a marginal hand] resulting in play that is alternatively too loose or too conservative. Second, we tend to overvalue our hands, so much so that we actually get attached to them (“I can’t believe you cracked my aces”) and, as a result, end up overplaying in situations where we should be able to fold.

Error Two: Representativeness Heuristic
This error isn’t nearly as fancy as it sounds. Basically, when we’re faced with the task of defining the probability of an unfamiliar event, we will base our decision on the most representative [similar] model in our personal experience. For example, if you go to a new grocery store, you’re likely to guess the position of the deli based on where the deli is in your local grocery. At the table, we use the representativeness heuristic to fill in the blanks when we’re facing a player we don’t have a lot of information about; we’ll compare them to a class of player we’ve developed in our minds [weak tight, etc], a person who they resemble physically, or even sometimes the last player who was in their seat. The issue isn’t so much that this method leads us to incorrect conclusions (although that’s certainly a risk). The real problem is that we often default to a comparison model because it’s the easiest way to get an answer – and while taking this path of least resistance, we often fail to consider all of the unique information available at the time.

Error Three: Availability Heuristic
This error is probably a familiar one to most of you. The Availability Heuristic asserts that when we attempt to explain a given situation, we tend to give pieces of evidence weight based largely on recency – and the more recent a piece of evidence is, the more weight we give it. Beware of this flaw when weighing a call – it tends to make us overestimate the chance that a recent bluffer is bluffing us again.

A few final thoughts on these and other common errors. Remember that you’re not the only person who falls into these traps – they’re pretty much universal. As a result, you can use them against your opponents – especially those who seem prone to make quick, impulsive decisions. Also, keep in mind that the more often you make these errors in your thinking away from the table, the more likely you are to be employing them to make poor decisions at the table. These types of errors amount to cognitive shortcuts – tactics your brain employs when it’s placed under pressure to generate a quick decision. Recognizing your tendency to rely on such shortcuts when you’re not in tough situations and developing strategies for avoiding them is your best bet for not slipping into bad habits – or the Poker Twilight Zone – when the pressure gets turned back on.

Article by Chris Grove.

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