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Poker Strategy With Greg Raymer: How The Choice-Supportive Bias Affects Players

Part 7 In A Series On Cognitive Bias

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This is the seventh and final part of a series on how cognitive biases can affect us at the poker table.

Part 1: Self-Serving Bias
Part 2: The Curse Of Knowledge
Part 3: Anchoring Bias and the Availability Heuristic
Part 4: Confirmation Bias
Part 5: Pessimism and Optimism Bias
Part 6: The Survivorship Bias

I’ll finish this long-running series with the Choice-Supportive Bias. When suffering from this bias, once you make a choice, you tend to support that choice no matter what.

This bias strikes especially hard for long-lasting decisions. Once you choose a life partner, a best friend, which house or car to buy, which politician or political party to support, it is very difficult to reconsider such decisions. It is emotionally painful to admit that you made a mistake with such an important choice. It is emotionally easier to find and believe in (even clearly mistaken) reasons to continue to support such important choices.

Of course, when playing poker, you make a choice (bet, check, raise, etc.) and find out rather quickly if that choice was the best one. At least, you find out if it was the best choice, in hindsight, for this specific hand.

It’s kind of like buying or selling a stock. Every day after, you learn if that choice made or saved you money, or if it cost you money. However, in both situations, the fact that a choice was correct in hindsight has very little to do with how smart the choice was at the time it was made.

This bias hurts us the most when it works in combination with selective memory and reinforces bad decisions. For example, let us stipulate that a player, Jim, has decided that it is a mistake to play draws aggressively. Jim believes that the smart play is to just call with every draw until it gets there, and only then start betting or raising with a made hand.

Of course, in hindsight, sometimes Jim will be correct. And in other cases, Jim will have been wrong. But suffering from the Choice-Supportive Bias, he will more strongly remember the times he was right, since those hands support his choice to play all draws passively. This will result in Jim never learning how to determine when to play a draw aggressively. He will be stuck in his misguided strategy, since to acknowledge any alternate strategy would mean having to admit he had been wrong.

And that is the root cause of the Choice-Supportive Bias. It protects our ego. By focusing on data that supports our choice, and minimizing data that contradicts our choice, we protect our ego from learning we were wrong.

It can be painful to admit you made a mistake. All of us can blithely say, “of course I don’t know it all, I’m wrong all the time.” But in reality, how often do we confess, even to ourselves, that we were wrong? Even more so if the mistake is of any consequence. And how often do we confess this to other people? That is even harder to do. It is much easier to let this bias take over, and protect ourselves from our own failings.

The problem is, if we permit this bias to control us like this, we will find it almost impossible to learn and improve. If we fool ourselves into believing we play perfectly, we won’t be motivated to put in the work to improve our game. Our skill level will stagnate, or even decline, rather than get better.

Here is a story showing how far people will go, rather than admit a mistake. I used to be a card counter and played a lot of blackjack. One night there was an older gentleman at the table, probably in his mid-70s. He had bet $10, and was dealt 9-8.

When the dealer got to him, he put out $10 more next to his original bet. It was fairly obvious his vision was less than perfect, and he thought he had 8-8 or 9-9. The dealer told him he could only split pairs. He became flustered, and realized his mistake.

However, rather than admit he had not seen clearly, he now said he wanted to double-down. On a hard 17! The dealer tried to talk him out of it, as did the pit boss. But he insisted it was his money, and he could do what he wanted. So, rather than admit to failing eyesight, he instead chose to double-down in a spot where he was a 9:4 favorite to bust, which would cost him $20.

It was amazing to observe, that he would prefer to burn money, rather than admit his vision was less than perfect. Even more interesting, it seemed he would prefer to do something blindingly stupid, rather than admit to a minor physical flaw. Personally, my ego would be harmed more by being seen as stupid, as compared to being seen as having imperfect vision.

For everything I have discussed in this series, you need to monitor your mindset, to make sure you aren’t letting any of these biases influence your thinking. It requires a discipline of constant awareness, continually guarding against the encroachment of these biases. Only when this awareness becomes habit will you have permanently removed them from your game. More likely, it is something you will overcome, then fall prey to, and need to overcome again. It is something we all have to work on forever, if we wish to avoid these traps. I know I do.

Have fun and play smart!

Greg Raymer is the 2004 World Series of Poker main event champion, winner of numerous major titles, and has more than $7 million in earnings. He is the author of FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, available from D&B Publishing, Amazon, and other retailers. He is sponsored by Blue Shark Optics, YouStake, and ShareMyPair. To contact Greg please tweet @FossilMan or visit his website.