All living, breathing humans fall prey to some type of cognitive bias, and it’s hard to escape it, especially when you don’t know what you’re up against. And poker players are no exception.
Even the best players out there are bound to stumble over their cognitive biases in poker, which can affect their game more than they imagine. To help you avoid these pitfalls, we’ve created the ultimate list of cognitive biases in poker to steer clear of. So let’s jump into it.
What Is a Cognitive Bias?
Put simply, a cognitive bias is a system error in thinking. It happens when people interpret and process information in the world around them and it affects the decisions and judgments that they make.
Cognitive bias is often the result of a person’s brain trying to simplify information processing and help them make a decision with relative speed. Some biases are related to memory, while others have to do with attention problems.
Subtle cognitive bias can creep in, and easily influence the way we see and think of the world.
The Types of Cognitive Bias in Poker to Steer Clear Of
One way or another, players fall victim to their own biases, which can, unfortunately, cost them the game, and in turn, a lot of money. So here are the most common cognitive biases in poker to be aware of and avoid.
#1 Gambler’s Fallacy
Gambler’s Fallacy, or the Monte Carlo Fallacy, assumes that, since something has happened often or more than expected in the past, it won’t happen as much in the future.
So if in 10 hands, you’ve got just a pair in the last few, you’re assuming it won’t happen again for the remainder of the game. But the reality is, the probability of a future event isn’t affected by what’s already happened.
#2 Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias represents our tendency to find, notice, or remember only the information that confirms our preexisting beliefs.
In the world, if people don’t agree with a politician, for example, they’re more likely to remember their mistakes and shortcomings. But if they believe that the person is brilliant, they probably won’t notice or keep track of their mistakes as much.
In poker terms, players might make a snap judgment on their opponent early in the game, and maintain that opinion, no matter the evidence proving the opposite.
Say that somebody raises the first five hands at a table, you might think that they’re aggressive or rash.
And once you form that opinion, you might not notice how often they’re folding or being passive during the remainder of the game. And worst of all, if you encounter that same player at a different game and at a different date, you’ll still carry with you that confirmation bias.
#3 The Peak-End Rule
A type of cognitive bias that we see very often among poker players is the peak-end rule, which is a human tendency to focus solely on the high or low of a particular experience. It means that you’re not seeing the experience as a whole, but only remembering the best or worst points.
Let’s say that you’ve been steadily losing money over the course of a cash game. Then, you get lucky, outrace an opponent’s QQ with AJ, and take the pot.
That isn’t an indication of solid play, but rather of a peak. When examining a session, don’t make your judgment on a single hand. Evaluate the entire session, all the wins, and losses, and see what you can take away from the experience.
#4 Selective Perception
When the tendency for expectations affects perception, it’s called selective perception cognitive bias. In simpler terms, it’s when players start changing their strategy because of a previous result.
For example, if you have a big win with a pair of nines, you run the risk of overplaying them in the future just because of that one scenario.
Selective perception is a bit more subtle than some of the previous cognitive biases in poker we’ve mentioned. However, it’s still a pretty bad habit that those who want to call themselves the best, need to break.
#5 Conservatism Bias
Poker is an ever-evolving game and falling into the pitfall of always playing the same, no matter what can be pretty dangerous. Conservatism bias happens when players favor older methods and evidence over modern ones, even when they can help their game.
Players tend to stick to their tried-and-true methods only because they’ve worked for them in the past. But what they don’t realize is that they can be missing out on newer, better plays, that can help them improve their game.
#6 Pro-Innovation Bias
On the other side of the spectrum, we have the pro-innovation bias, which represents the belief that innovation should be adopted by the entire society without having to alter it.
In poker, we often see this in 3-bet pots, which can be worthwhile but can also cause excessive optimism toward the new concept, without fully understanding its drawbacks or weaknesses.
#7 Availability Heuristic
When people cherry-pick information and overestimate its importance in debate, they’re experiencing an availability heuristic. It involves over-emphasizing the first example that comes to mind when making a decision.
The heuristic operates on the principle that if you can recall something, it must be important. Or at the very least, it’s more important that the alternative solutions aren’t as easy to recall.
A good example of availability heuristic in poker is when players make a bluff on the river, knowing that it’s hopeless. And even though the situation might have been hopeless, it doesn’t mean that they should’ve even attempted to bluff.
#8 Outcome Bias
A pretty common cognitive bias we see in the poker world is outcome bias. It concerns the tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome instead of basing it on the quality of the decision at the moment it was made.
In some ways, the outcome bias is similar to the illusion of control, and poker players face it almost every session. You can often see it in the form of a hero call or an incredibly aggressive bluff.
#9 Survivorship Bias
A pretty common logical error, survivorship bias distorts a person’s understanding of the world. It happens when people assume that success tells the entire story, and they don’t consider past failures.
A form of selection bias, survivorship bias prevents players from learning from the failure of others. In addition to poker, you can see survivorship bias in the world of business, too. Companies that fail early on are forgotten, while the rare success stories are admired for decades.
#10 The Dunning-Kruger Effect
You’ve probably seen the Dunning-Kruger effect in play more than you know, you just didn’t know its name. This cognitive bias concerns a person’s overestimation of their own skill level.
Unskilled players can suffer the illusions of superiority because they don’t have the necessary skills to recognize their own incompetence. On the other hand, highly skilled players can suffer from low confidence and anxiety. That happens because their skill level allows them to become more aware of every small mistake.
When players first pick up poker, they often feel invincible after only winning a few hands. But when they look back on their old plays, they tend to realize that they didn’t win because of skill, but luck.
#11 The Ostrich Effect
Also known as the ostrich problem, this cognitive bias describes how often people avoid negative information. That includes the feedback that could help them monitor their own goal progress.
Instead of dealing with the situation or the play at hand, people bury their hands in the sand, like ostriches. Of course, the avoidance usually makes the situation worse and incurs costs that players might not have had to pay had they faced things head-on.
The ostrich effect can be a terrible problem for poker players since they often need to pick up on the smallest pieces of information. That information is exactly what could make or break their game.
#12 Availability Cascade
A real-world example of the availability cascade is when people say “The longer you repeat something, the better chances it has of becoming the truth.”
It is the effect people experience when following the crowd or going by mob mentality rules. It’s often a driving force behind the strategies that filter down from the top of the game. And once more people start copying it, it becomes more widely accepted.
To become truly the best, poker players need to avoid the availability cascade and evaluate every new strategy. Among micro players, you’ll often see that poor strategy becomes disguised as common wisdom.
#13 Illusion of Control
Even though poker has a big element of luck, many players believe to be in total control when they sit down at a table. The illusion of control is the reason many poker players lose their cool during the game. They can’t accept that perhaps, today just wasn’t their day, and it had nothing to do with skill.
Accepting bad luck is part of poker, and most other casino games, in fact. Players need to be able to move on from that game and put it in the past if they want to succeed. So as soon as you can accept that sometimes, the game is just out of your hands and that luck is a fickle mistress, you’ll feel better.
#14 Self-Serving Bias
Another type of cognitive bias we use to protect ourselves by cherry-picking information is the self-serving bias. For example, if we lose a game, then it was just bad luck. But if we win a game, it’s all thanks to our incredible skills, and luck had nothing to do with it.
The self-serving bias leads to blaming failures on the circumstance but accepting all credit for the successes. And while it can be helpful sometimes to avoid having people be too harsh on themselves, it’s harmful as well. By not being able to stand back, and look at the situation objectively, we can never truly see the facts as they are.
#15 The Curse of Knowledge
Among the many cognitive biases in poker, we often see the curse of knowledge, which causes players to believe that others know what they know. It’s a big issue in poker because players expect their opponents to make the same decisions for the same reasons.
Those who want to become better at reading their opponents have to get out of their heads. Not every player is the same, which means that they’re not relying on the same strategies. Some are more advanced and some are less, which is why staying objective and level-headed is crucial.
#16 Pessimism and Optimism Bias
The pessimism and optimism biases are also pretty common, even though they’re the opposite of one another. The pessimism bias is a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes, while optimism makes you overestimate the likelihood of positive ones.
They’re two sides of the same coin, and make people assume the next result will follow the recent pattern. But the truth is, as we mentioned earlier on, past results have nothing to do with the current play. You never know when your luck will kick in or wear out, and it’s best to avoid the extremes.
#17 Insensitivity to Sample Size
Many newcomers to the game underestimate how much time and how many hands they need to play to get to the top. Playing a couple of hundred hands each month doesn’t really give you a big enough sample size to accurately judge a level of play.
In fact, those looking for backers need hand histories in the range of 20,000 to 50,000 just to get an estimate. And if you have a 100,000 hand history, your estimate is going to be much more precise.
Of course, recreational players don’t need that high a number to judge their play, but they should never underestimate the importance of a solid sample size.
#18 Negativity Bias
A type of cognitive bias that affects many people all over the world, the negativity bias results in adverse events having a bigger impact on a person’s psychological state than positive events. It occurs even when both positive and adverse events are of the same magnitude, e.g. winning or losing the same amount of money.
In poker, negativity bias impacts a player’s risk aversion even though losing is all just part of the game. However, when a player lets their strong emotions drive their plays, they’re more likely to make irrational decisions.
#19 Recency Bias
The recency or availability bias is a cognitive error because of which people incorrectly believe that recent events will happen again soon. It’s an irrational tendency and it obscures the true probabilities of events happening. In turn, people make rash decisions, which often turn out to be poor.
You can see the recency bias not only in poker but also in the world of finance. A gambling example would be believing that just because someone flipped the coin in their favor 9 times, they’ll do it a tenth. And in finance, it’s when people start panic selling and bubble buying.
#20 Sunk Cost Fallacy
Finally, we have the sunk cost fallacy, which we see in the poker world far too often. It describes people’s tendency to follow through on something if they’ve invested time, money, or effort into it, whether or not the cost of following through actually outweighs the benefits.
It happens because our brains choose the easy way out, as it does with other types of cognitive bias. Our minds prefer to keep the inertia of previous decisions and remain consistent. Even though our priority is to be logical, our brain is just trying to preserve energy.
Overcoming the Cognitive Bias in Poker
Cognitive bias can affect anyone, at any time, no matter the situation. However, letting these biases make decisions for you and lead you down the wrong path can cost you a lot.
And while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to overcoming your bias, the first step is to be aware. Recognize what’s happening at the moment, and be present. Consider the current factors that are influencing your decisions, and reflect on the past to see where and how they might have started.
When it comes to poker, your best bet would always be to keep practicing. Practice until you feel yourself being more sure of your decisions and the reasons behind them.
And where better to practice your newfound skills than CoinPoker? With high traffic, huge promotions, and even bigger tournaments, there’s always something new to learn, play, and win at CoinPoker.