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Thinking Versus Feeling

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Mar 01, 2017


“How could I be such an idiot?” was the title of my last column, and that question began Jason Zweig’s fascinating book, Your Money And Your Brain. It was written for investors, and poker is a form of investing.

It said we have two brains; the reflexive brain feels, and the reflective brain thinks. Their operating principles have been called “intuition, “gut reactions,” “logic, “analysis,” and several other terms. The reflexive brain evolved millions of years before the reflective one, acts much more quickly, and is much more powerful.

This book and a mountain of research directly contradict the classical economists’ position that we’re primarily rational thinkers who carefully analyze all our alternatives and select the best one. The reflexive brain evolved first and acts more quickly because we couldn’t survive without quickly recognizing and reacting to threats by fighting or running away. If we took the time to carefully analyze dangerous situations, we’d get killed.

“The reflexive system works so fast that you often finish responding before the conscious part of your brain realizes that there was anything to respond to. (Think of the times you’ve swerved to avoid a hazard on the highway before you could even identify it.)”

The reflexive brain doesn’t act first only in dangerous situations. It “gets first crack at making most judgments and decisions’… We count on our intuition to make initial sense of the world around us – and we tap into our analytical system only when intuition can’t figure something out.”

Don’t Make Quick Decisions About Complicated Situations.

Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book, Blink, disagreed with that recommendation. He claimed: “Decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”

Occasionally, he’s right, but “when it comes to investing, his argument is downright dangerous. Intuition can yield wondrously fast and accurate judgments, but only under the right conditions – when the rules for reaching a good decision are simple and stable… in a modern world, where life is full of much more complicated problems than just immediate threats, it’s not adequate and is likely to get us into trouble.”

The reflexive system is “kind of like a guard dog. It makes rapid, but sort of sloppy decisions. It will always attack the burglar, but sometimes it might attack the postman, too.” That’s why “blink” thinking can get investors into trouble. “If all you do is ‘blink,’ your investing results will stink.”

That principle applies to our complicated game. Unless you analyze situations carefully, you probably can’t make good decisions. A major difference between experts and weaker players is that experts thoroughly analyze situations before deciding, while weaker players jump to conclusions. If all you do is ‘blink,’ your poker results will stink.

Long before reading this book, I encouraged my readers to rely on logic rather than intuition, even though Doyle Brunson wrote: “Stick to your first impression. Have the courage of your convictions.”

It obviously works for Doyle, but, unless you’ve got his immense talent and experience, his advice is “as silly as telling a young basketball player that he should develop Michael Jordan’s reflexes. Those reflexes are a gift that he will never have. He has to work with the abilities he has, just as you and I have to work within our own limitations… If we don’t have that gift, nobody can teach it to us. We must rely on what we can develop: careful observation and systematic logic.” (The Psychology of Poker, p.7)

The Reflective Brain

“This function resides largely in the prefrontal cortex … ‘the CEO of the brain.’ Here, neurons … draw general conclusions from scraps of information, organize your past experiences into recognizable categories, form theories about the causes of change around you, and plan for the future… you use it largely for solving more complex problems … The reflective brain can intervene when the reflexive brain encounters situations it cannot solve by itself.”

Zweig asked a rude question: “If You’re So Smart, Why Do You Act So Stupid?” He answered: “The reflective brain is hardly infallible… people who rely blindly on their reflective systems often end up losing the forest for the trees – and their shirts as well.” They get so involved in the details and numbers that they miss the big picture.

This sort of thinking caused two enormous losses: “in 1987 … arcane computer programs called ‘portfolio insurance’ did not fully protect giant investors from losses [during] the U.S. stock market’s record plunge of 23 percent in a single day. It happened again in 1998, when the … Nobel Prize winners and other geniuses who ran the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund measured everything imaginable … assuming that markets would remain ‘normal.’ When the markets went crazy, LTCM went under.”

As Keynes put it: “Markets can remain irrational for longer than you can remain solvent.” That principle applies more forcefully to poker because:

Individual players are much more irrational than markets.

Luck has such huge short-term results. Drunks beat champions, and weak players win large tournaments.

Extremely logical players can’t read irrational players. They’re sure an opponent couldn’t have a straight because nobody would cold-call a raise with five-three, but that’s exactly what he has.

Extremely logical players are relatively easy to read.

The bottom line is that their more intuitive opponents can often read them, confuse them, and outplay them.

You Need Both Intuition And Logic.

Because logic is limited, it’s better to use both. “Acting like the coldly rational Mr. Spock from the old Star Trek TV series is no more practical than” acting only on intuition. “Since both systems have their strengths and weaknesses, the challenge for you … is to make your reflective and reflexive sides work better together, so that you can strike the right balance between thinking and feeling.”

That recommendation hit me hard. Like most scientifically-trained people, I was taught to revere solid evidence and rigorous logic and to distrust intuition. Evidence and logic dominate everything. If I had relied on intuition, I would have flunked out of Berkeley’s Ph.D. program. The rule there and at other great universities is: If you can’t prove it, don’t believe it.

Rigorous logic is essential for scientific research, but not for poker. Because I overemphasize logic, some apparently weak opponents read me better than I read them, so they outplay me.

To balance logic and intuition, Zweig gave ten commandments. Occasionally, we should trust our gut, but he recommends relying primarily on our reflective brains. “The first letters of these ten commandments form the words THINK TWICE. Whenever an emotional moment … threatens to sweep you away, check your first impulse.”

That recommendation brings us back to the original question, “How could I be such an idiot?” The answer is usually that we acted too quickly. After making a stupid, costly mistake, we sometimes say to ourselves, “If I had just taken a few seconds to think, I would ….” To avoid feeling like and even being an idiot, think twice, both logically and intuitively. ♠

Alan Schoonmaker“Dr. Al” ( coaches only on psychology issues. For information about seminars and webinars, go to He is David Sklansky’s co-author of DUCY? and the sole author of four poker psychology books.