How We Decide - Jonah Lehrer (2009)
Chapter 8. The Poker Hand
Michael Binger is a particle physicist at Stanford. His specialty is quantum chromodynamics, a branch of physics that studies matter in its most elemental form. Binger is also a professional poker player, and he spends most of June and July sitting at felt-lined card tables in a Las Vegas casino, competing in the World Series of Poker, the most important gambling event in the world. He is one of thousands of poker players who make the pilgrimage every year. These card sharks might not look like professional athletes—the tournament is full of overweight chain smokers—but that's because they are athletes of the mind. When it comes to playing poker, the only thing that separates the experts from the amateurs is the quality of their decisions.
During the days of the World Series of Poker, Binger quickly settles into a mentally exhausting routine. He begins playing cards around noon—his preferred game is Texas hold'em—and he doesn't cash in his chips until the wee hours of the morning. Then it's back to his hotel room—past the strip clubs, penny slots, and the $7.77 all-you-can-eat buffets—where Binger tries to coax himself into a few hours of fitful sleep. "You get so wired playing poker that it's not easy coming down," he says. "I tend to just lie in bed, thinking about all the hands I played and how I should have played them differently."
Binger began playing cards as a college student, when he was a math and physics major at North Carolina State University. One weekend, he decided to learn how to play blackjack. He quickly grew frustrated by the amount of luck involved—"I hated not knowing when to bet," he says—and so he taught himself how to count cards. He practiced in loud North Carolina bars so that he could learn how to focus amid the noise and revelry. Binger is blessed with a quantitative mind—"I was always the nerd who did math problems for fun," he confesses—and counting cards came naturally to him. He quickly learned how to keep a running tally in his head, giving him a crucial advantage at the table. (For the most part, Binger relied on the Hi-Lo card-counting system, which provides the player with a 1 percent edge over the house.) Before long, Binger was traveling to casinos and putting his quantifying talents to work.
"The first thing I learned from counting cards," Binger says, "is that you can use your smarts to win. Sure, there's always luck, but over the long run you'll come out ahead if you're thinking right. The second thing I learned is that you can be too smart. The casinos have algorithms that automatically monitor your betting, and if they detect that your bets are too accurate, they'll ask you to leave." This meant that Binger needed to occasionally make bad bets on purpose. He would intentionally lose money so that he could keep on making money.
But even with this precaution, Binger started to put numerous casinos on alert. In blackjack, it's supposed to be impossible to consistently beat the house, and yet that's exactly what Binger kept doing. Before long, he was blacklisted; casino after casino told him that he couldn't play blackjack at their tables. "Some of the casinos would ask politely," Binger says. "A manager would come and tell you to take your winnings and leave. And some casinos weren't so polite. Let's just say they made it clear you weren't welcome anymore."
After he started graduate school in theoretical physics at Stanford, Binger tried to shake his card habit. "The low point for me was getting kicked out of six Reno casinos in one day for counting cards," he says. "That's when I realized maybe I should focus on physics for a while." He was drawn to the most difficult problems in the field, studying supersymmetry and the Higgs boson particle. (The elusive Higgs is often referred to as the "God particle," since finding it would help explain the origin of the universe.) "There's no doubt that the analytical skills I learned in cards also helped me with science," Binger says. "It's all about focusing on the important variables, thinking clearly, not getting distracted. If you lose your train of thought when you're counting cards, you're screwed. Physics is a little more forgiving—you can write stuff down—but it still requires a very disciplined thought process."
After a few years of working diligently toward his PhD, Binger began to miss his beloved card games. The relapse was gradual. He started playing a few rounds of small-stakes poker with his friends, just a casual game or two after a long day spent contemplating physics equations. But it didn't take long before Binger's friends refused to play with him; he kept taking all of their money. And so Binger began playing poker tournaments, driving out on the weekends to the card rooms near the San Francisco airport. After a few months, Binger was making more money on the part-time poker circuit than he made as a postdoc. He used his winnings to pay off his student loans and start a modest bankroll. "I realized that I'd never be able to really focus on physics until I gave poker a shot," he says. "I needed to know if I could make it." That's when Binger decided to try his luck as a professional gambler.
THE WORLD SERIES of Poker (WSOP) is held at the Rio Hotel, a Brazilian-themed casino that's across the highway from the Strip. For the most part, the Latin motif is confined to the silly costumes of the staff, the syrupy cocktails, and the ugly carpets, which are a swirl of Carnival colors. The hotel itself is a generic tower of reflective purple and red glass. During the WSOP, the lobby of the Rio accumulates the litter of the tournament: cigarette butts, empty water bottles, registration papers, fast-food wrappers. Anxious players collect in the corners, sharing stories of bad beats and lucky breaks. Even the hotel gift shop is stocked for the event, carrying a wide selection of poker primers right next to the nudie magazines.
Most of the tournament takes place in the Amazon Room, a cavernous warehouse-like space with more than two hundred card tables. Security cameras dangle from the ceiling like ominous disco balls. Compared with the rest of Vegas, the atmosphere inside the huge room is starkly sober and serious. (Nobody would dare litter in here.) Even when it's filled with poker players, the enormous area has moments of startling calm, when all you can hear are the shuffling of cards and the perpetual hum of the air-conditioning system. Outside, it's 114 degrees.
Binger is tall and lean, with a face made of angles. His hair is boyishly blond, and it's usually styled with copious amounts of gel so that it sticks straight up. At every poker tournament, he wears the same outfit: a backward baseball cap, opaque Oakley sunglasses, and a brightly colored button-down shirt. Such consistency is typical of poker players, who are creatures of habit and rigid believers in routine. (A common quip on the pro circuit is "It's unlucky to be superstitious.") Some professionals wear the same sweatshirts day after day, until the reek of their nervousness precedes them. Others develop bizarre eating rituals, like Jamie Gold, who orders scrambled eggs for breakfast even though he's allergic to eggs.
Binger actually eats his eggs. His breakfast routine consists of one egg over easy, sandwiched between a lightly toasted English muffin. After eating that, he drinks a small glass of orange juice and then a strong cup of tea. He digests for "approximately ten to twelve minutes," and next drives to the gym, where he performs an extremely regimented workout. "All these habits probably sound a little crazy," Binger says, "but when you're playing in a tournament it's crucial to not distract yourself with thinking about what to order for breakfast or how many laps to swim. The routine keeps it simple, so all I'm thinking about is poker, poker, poker."
At the 2006 WSOP, Binger was one of 8,773 players who each paid $10,000 to enter the main event, a no-limit Texas hold'em competition stretching over thirteen days. Since 1991, when the prize money for the WSOP first exceeded a million dollars, the poker tournament has been more lucrative for its winners than Wimbledon, the PGA championship, and the Kentucky Derby. Since 2000, it has become the most valuable sporting event in the world, at least for the winners. (More than 90 percent of entrants won't "make the money," which means that they'll lose their entire entry fee.) In 2006, the top prize for the main event was expected to exceed twelve million dollars. To make an equivalent amount of money playing tennis, you'd have to win Wimbledon ten times.
The rules of Texas hold'em are simple. Nine players gather around a card table, each of them determined to assemble the best possible poker hand. The game begins when each player is dealt two cards, face-down. The two players to the left of the dealer are then forced to make blind bets, wagering their money before they even look at their cards. (These bets ensure that there's some money at stake in every hand.) The remaining players have three options: they can match the bet, raise it, or fold. If a player has strong hole cards—a pair of aces being the best possible duo—he or she will make an aggressive bet. (Unless, of course, the player wants to act weak, but that's another story.) A bad hand is a good reason to fold.
After the first round of betting is over, three community cards are dealt, face-up, in the center of the table. These cards are called the flop. There is now another round of betting, as players adjust their wagers in light of this new information. Then two more community cards are dealt, one at a time, with another round of betting after each. (The fourth card is called the turn, and the fifth card is called the river.) Each player then assembles the most valuable hand possible by combining the two hole cards with any three of the five community cards shared by the entire table. So let's say you're dealt the ace and the ten of hearts. The best possible set of community cards would contain the jack, queen, and king of hearts, since that would give you a royal flush, the perfect poker hand. (A royal flush is dealt approximately once every 648,739 poker hands.) If you got the jack, queen, and king of different suits, then you'd have a straight. (Odds: 253 to 1.) You'd also be thrilled with three heart cards of any value, since that would give you a flush. (Odds: 507 to 1.) A more likely scenario is that you end up with a single pair (odds are 1.37 to 1), or you might get absolutely nothing, in which case the highest-ranking card, the ace, is your entire hand.
At its core, poker is a profoundly statistical game. Each hand is ranked according to its rarity, so having two pairs is more valuable than having one, and a straight flush is more valuable than a straight or a flush. A poker player who can parse his hole cards into possible probabilities—who knows, for example, that being dealt a pair of fours means that there's a 4 percent chance of getting dealt another four on the flop—has a distinct advantage over his competitors. He can make bets informed by the laws of statistics, so that his wagers reflect the likelihood of winning the hand.
But the game isn't just about the cards. The act of betting is what makes poker so infinitely complicated. It's what turns Texas hold'em into a black art, a mixture of stagecraft and game theory. Consider the act of raising the bet. Such a move can have a straightforward meaning: a player is demonstrating confidence in his hole cards. Or it can signal a bluff, as a player tries to steal the pot by intimidating all the other players into folding. How does one distinguish between these different intentions? That's where the skill comes in. Professional poker players are constantly trying to read their opponents, searching for the minor tells of deceit. Does this bet fit into a behavioral pattern? Has the player been consistently "tight" or aggressive all night? Why is his left eye twitching? Is that a symptom of nervousness? (Those who are easy to read are known as ABC players.) Of course, the best poker players are also the best liars, able to keep their opponents off balance with sincere bluffs and unpredictable bets. They know that the most important thing in poker is not what cards they actually have, but what cards people think they have. A lie told well is just as good as the truth.
IN THE BEGINNING of the tournament, Binger played patient poker, using his extraordinary math skills—a talent he honed in grad school—to methodically figure out which hands he should enter. Nine times out of ten he immediately folded, and he risked his money only when he had hole cards with decent statistical odds, such as a high pair or an ace-king combo. "The opening rounds of every tournament are always full of players who probably shouldn't be there," Binger says. "These are the rich guys who think they are much better than they actually are. At this stage of the game, the most important thing you can do is not make a big mistake. You don't want to take unnecessary risks. You just want to stay alive. This is when I'm making sure that I'm always doing the math."
Look, for example, at one of Binger's early hands at the WSOP. He was dealt an immaculate pair of aces, a hand so good it has its own name (it's called American Airlines). Naturally, Binger decided to raise. Although it was a modest raise—Binger didn't want to scare anybody off—everyone at the table decided to fold, except for a well-groomed older man wearing a canary yellow polo shirt with big sweat stains in the armpits. He pushed his short stack of chips to the center of the table. "I'm all in," said the man in yellow. Binger assumed that the man had either a high pair (like two kings) or two high cards of the same suit (like the king and queen of spades). Binger paused for a moment and contemplated his odds. If he correctly read the other player's hand—and that was a big if— then he had somewhere between an 82 and 87 percent of winning. Binger decided to match the bet. The man nervously turned over his cards: the ace and jack of diamonds. The flop was dealt but it was a meaningless collection of number cards. The turn and the river were more of the same. Binger's pair of aces prevailed. The man in the yellow shirt winced and walked off without a word.
As the days pass, the weak players are ruthlessly culled from the tournament. It's like natural selection on fast-forward. The tournament doesn't end for the night until more than half of the players have been eliminated, so it's not unusual for the nights to last until two or three in the morning. ("Learning how to become nocturnal is part of the challenge," Binger says.) By the fourth day, even the skilled survivors are beginning to look a little worn out from the struggle. Their faces are masks of fatigue and stubble, and their eyes have the faraway look of an adrenaline hangover. The smell of stale cigarette smoke seems to be a popular deodorant.
Binger is gradually getting more aggressive at the poker table. It's as if his betting instincts have a dial, and he's slowly turning up the volume. He's still folding the vast majority of his hands, but when he does decide to make a bet, he doesn't equivocate. In these situations, his table manners follow a well-rehearsed script. Binger takes a second glance at his hole cards and flexes his jaw muscles. He then adjusts his reflective sunglasses, pressing them tight against his eyes, looks at his cards again, and pushes an intimidating pile of chips to the center of the table. His face radiates self-assurance. He's done the calculations and knows the odds. Most of the time, the other players respond by folding.
This fiercely disciplined strategy pays off. By the end of the fifth day of the tournament, Binger is in fourth place, with $4,920,000 in chips. Fourteen hours later, he's got $5,275,000. After seven exhausting days, he's amassed a pile of nearly $6,000,000 in chips. And then, on the eighth day, Binger makes the final table. When play begins, the Hollywood producer Jamie Gold has a commanding chip lead over the other players. Gold has been playing smart poker, but he's also been enjoying a staggering run of good luck. As one poker professional later told me, "[Gold] has an amazing ability to pull cards out of his ass. And somehow he always pulls the exact right card."
After a few hours, Gold begins to eliminate some of the remaining players. His big chip lead means that he can turn each hand into a potential trap. Gold can also bluff with abandon, since calling his bluff means the other player has to go all in. Binger is playing conservatively—"I just wasn't getting the right cards," he said later—and so he waits, and watches. The big antes are gradually bleeding away his chips, but he's getting a better sense of his competition. "After a while, you just get these feelings about people," he says. "You'll watch them make a certain bet and then scratch their nose or whatever and all of a sudden you'll realize that they've got nothing, that you can take the hand." There are no certainties in poker, which means that anything that can narrow the uncertainty is extremely valuable, even if it's just a subtle hunch. These psychological interpretations aren't quantifiable—you can't summarize a person in a probability—but they still inform Binger's betting decisions.
When there are only five players left, Binger begins to make his move. "It started when I got dealt a pair of kings," he says. "I decided right then and there to make a rather aggressive bet." A few hours before, Binger had bluffed one of the five, a player named Paul Wasicka, out of a big pot. Although Binger had been dealt a poor hand, his aggressive bet convinced everyone else to fold. Binger could tell that Wasicka was still seething. "I knew Paul thought I was just trying to bluff him again," Binger remembers. "He thought that I only had a small pair. But I had pocket kings."
Binger wanted to draw Wasicka deeper into the hand. In tactical moments like this, poker transcends its probabilities. The game morphs into a deeply human drama, a competition of decision-making. Binger needed to make a bet that would convince Wasicka he was trying to steal another pot, that he was once again making an aggressive bet with nothing but a low pair. "I decided to go all in," Binger says. "By overplaying my hand—by pretending to act strong—I was actually acting weak, at least in his eyes. I then tried to exude weakness, but without making it obvious, because then he would know that I was only pretending to bluff, which is a sure sign that I've actually got a good hand." Binger's best friend and brother were both watching the tournament on closed-circuit television. The best friend was convinced that Binger was bluffing and that he was about to get knocked out of the tournament. The signs of repressed anxiety were unmistakable: Binger's fingers were manically tapping on the table, and his teeth were digging into his lower lip. "Only my brother knew better," Binger says. "I guess he knew how to read my face. He said I looked too weak, so I must be strong."
Wasicka took the bait. He was so certain that Binger was bluffing that he ended up betting millions of chips on a weak hand. Binger won the pot and doubled his chips. "That bet had nothing to do with math," Binger says. "I'd gotten high pairs before, and not done much with them ... But at that moment, as soon as I saw my cards, I knew what I needed to do. To be honest, I don't know why I went all in on that hand. If I'd really thought about it, I might not have done it. The bet was damn risky. But it just felt like the right thing to do. You can do all the probabilistic analysis in the world, but in the end it all comes down to something you can't quite explain."
Professional poker players are a fatalistic bunch. They live in a deterministic world shaped by mysterious forces. Everything is possible, and yet only one thing ever happens. You might get the card you need on the river, but you might not. There's a possibility you'll make the straight, but you probably won't. Poker is a game of subtle skill and exquisite odds, but it's also a crapshoot.
This undercurrent of chance is the defining feature of the game. It's what makes the psychological aspects of poker—the subtle reads, the convincing bluffs, the inexplicable intuitions—so essential. Chess, by contrast, is a game of pure information. There are no secrets or shuffled decks or hidden cards; the moving parts of the game are all perfectly visible, right there on the chessboard. As a result, computers can consistently beat grand masters; they can use their virtually unlimited processing powers to find the perfect move. But poker isn't so amenable to microchips and mathematics. Great poker players aren't just gambling statisticians. They need to bring something else to the table, to possess that inexplicable talent for knowing when to risk everything on a pair of kings. "Poker is a science, but it's also an art," Binger says. "To be good, you have to master both sides of the game."
What Binger is alluding to is the fact that there are always two ways to look at a poker hand. The first approach is mathematical. It treats every hand like a math problem and assumes that winning the game is simply a matter of plugging the probabilities into a sophisticated equation. According to this strategy, poker players should act like rational agents, looking for bets that minimize risk and maximize gain. This is what Binger did during the opening rounds of the WSOP, when he was only betting on high-percentage hands. Making money was just a matter of getting the odds right.
But Binger knows that poker isn't merely a set of math problems. When he talks about the art of the game, he's alluding to everything that can't be translated into numbers. The laws of statistics couldn't have told Binger how to lead Wasicka into his trap, or whether he should bluff with a middling pair. Even the most carefully calculated odds can't eliminate the unpredictability in a shuffled deck of cards. This is why the best poker players don't pretend that poker can be solved. They know the game is ultimately a mystery.
The difference between math problems and mysteries is important. In order to solve a math problem, all you need is more rational thought. Some poker hands, of course, can be played by relying on the math: if you're dealt a pair of aces, or get a straight on the flop, then you're going to make an aggressive bet. The odds are in your favor, and a little statistics will lead you to make the correct decision. But this rational approach can't be applied to the vast majority of poker hands, which are utter mysteries. In these situations, more statistical analysis won't help the player make a decision. In fact, thinking too much is part of the problem, since all that extra thought just gets in the way. "Sometimes, I have to tell myself to not focus on the math," Binger says. "The danger with the math is that it can make you think you know more than you do. Instead of thinking about what the other player is doing, you end up obsessing over the percentages." The first part of solving a mystery is realizing that there is no easy solution. Nobody knows what card is coming next.
This is where feelings come into play. When there is no obvious answer, a poker player is forced to make a decision using the emotional brain. And so that vague intuition about his hand, that inexplicable hunch about his opponent, ends up becoming a decisive factor. This decision won't be perfect—there's too much uncertainty for that—but it's the best option. Mysteries require more than mere rationality. "I know that my mind assimilates many more variables than I'm actually aware of," Binger says. "Especially when it comes to reading other players, I'll often make strong and accurate reads without knowing what signals I'm picking up on. And as I've gained experience, I've felt my poker instincts just get better and better, to the point where I almost never doubt them. If I get a strong feeling, then that's what I go with."
Remember Damasio's card-playing experiment? In that gambling game, players had to turn over about eighty cards before they could consciously explain which card deck was the best option. Their conclusions were rational, but they were also rather slow. It takes a while to do the math. But when Damasio measured people's emotions, he discovered that their feelings were able to identify the good decks after only ten cards. Whenever people reached for the risky decks, they experienced a surge of nervousness, even though they couldn't say why they felt so nervous. The subjects who trusted their emotional brains—who listened to their sweaty palms—made the most money.
The different strategies used by poker players illuminate the benefits of having a mind capable of rational analysis and irrational emotion. Sometimes it helps to look at cards from the cold perspective of statistics, to bet on hands only when the odds are on your side. But the best poker players also know when not to rely on the math. People aren't particles. To play the game is to accept the limits of statistics, to know that numbers don't know everything. Binger realizes that in certain situations, it's important to listen to his feelings, even if he doesn't always know what they're responding to. "As a physicist, it can be hard admitting that you just can't reason your way to the winning hand," Binger says. "But that's the reality of poker. You can't construct a perfect model of it. It's based on a seemingly infinite amount of information. In that sense, poker is a lot like real life."
Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, had a scientific breakthrough while shopping for a car. Like most consumers, Dijksterhuis was slightly overwhelmed by the variety of makes and models. There were just so many alternatives to consider. Before he could find the right car, Dijksterhuis needed to take a dizzying number of variables into account, from fuel economy to trunk space. And then, once he made up his mind, Dijksterhuis had to figure out which options he wanted. A moon roof? A diesel engine? Six speakers? Side air bags? The list of possibilities seemed endless.
That's when Dijksterhuis realized that buying a car exceeded the limits of his conscious brain. He could no longer remember whether the Toyota or the Opel had a bigger engine, or if it was the Nissan or the Renault that offered the attractive lease. All the different variables were blurred together; his prefrontal cortex was confused.
But if Dijksterhuis couldn't keep track of the different cars, then how could he ever make a decision? Was he destined to pick the wrong car? What was the best way to make a difficult choice? To answer these questions, Dijksterhuis decided to conduct a practical experiment; it was later published in Science. He got several Dutch car shoppers and gave them each descriptions of four different used cars. Each of the cars was rated in four different categories, for a total of sixteen pieces of information. Car number 1, for example, was described as getting good mileage but having a shoddy transmission and a poor sound system. Car number 2 handled poorly but had lots of legroom. Dijksterhuis designed the experiment so that one car was objectively ideal, with "predominantly positive aspects." After showing a subject these car ratings, Dijksterhuis would give him a few minutes to contemplate the decision. In this "easy" situation, more than 50 percent of the subjects ended up choosing the best car.
Dijksterhuis then showed a different selection of people the same car ratings. This time, however, he didn't let each of them consciously think about the decision. After he gave the automotive facts, he distracted the subject with some simple word games for a few minutes, then interrupted the fun and suddenly asked the person to choose a car. Dijksterhuis had designed the experiment so that the person would be forced to make a decision using the unconscious brain, by relying on his or her emotions. (Conscious attention had been focused on solving the word puzzle.) The result was that these subjects made significantly worse choices than those who were allowed to consciously think about the cars.
So far, so obvious. A little rational analysis could have prevented the "unconscious choosers" from buying a bad car. Such data confirms the conventional wisdom: reason is always better. We should think before we decide.
But Dijksterhuis was just getting warmed up. He repeated the experiment, only this time he rated each car in twelve different categories. (These "hard" conditions more closely approximate the confusing reality of car shopping, in which consumers are overwhelmed with facts and figures.) In addition to getting information about the quality of the transmission and the engine's gas mileage, people were told about the number of cup holders, the size of the trunk, and so on. Their brains had to deal with forty-eight separate pieces of information.
Did conscious deliberation still lead to the best decision? Dijksterhuis found that people who were given time to think in a rational manner—those who could carefully contemplate each alternative—now chose the ideal car less than 25 percent of the time. In other words, they performed worse than random chance. However, subjects who were distracted for a few minutes—those who were forced to choose with their emotions—found the best car nearly 60 percent of the time. They were able to sift through the clutter of automotive facts and find the ideal alternative. The best car was associated with the most positive feelings. These irrational choosers were the best decision-makers by far.
But perhaps this data is an artifact of the lab, an effect of making people choose cars under artificial conditions. So Dijksterhuis ventured out into the real world. He began by surveying shoppers in a variety of different stores, asking them what information they considered when making their decisions. Based on these responses, he assigned a "complexity score" to a list of consumer products. Dijksterhuis found that some products, such as cheap kitchen tools (can openers, vegetable peelers, oven mitts, and so on) and home accessories (light bulbs, toilet paper, umbrellas, and so on), were relatively easy for shoppers to select. People didn't weigh many variables when making up their minds, because there weren't that many variables to consider. Since most stores carried only a few different brands of vegetable peelers and toilet paper, shoppers were able to quickly focus on the most important factors, like price. Making these simple consumer choices was the equivalent of choosing a car after learning only four attributes.
And, sure enough, when Dijksterhuis studied people shopping for modest cooking accessories, he discovered that spending more time thinking about their decisions led to more satisfaction later on. In general, people did best when they carefully compared all of their options and reasoned their way to the best vegetable peelers. They tended to regret their impulse purchases, since they'd end up with kitchen tools they didn't want or like. When buying easy consumer products, it's a good idea to take a few moments and reflect on the purchase.
Dijksterhuis then studied a more complicated shopping experience. His survey found that choosing furniture is one of the hardest consumer decisions, since it involves so many different variables. Consider a leather couch. First, you need to figure out if you like the way it looks and feels. (As Timothy Wilson demonstrated with strawberry jam, simply deciphering one's own preferences can be a very difficult cognitive task.) Then, you need to think about whether the couch will work at home. Will it clash with the coffee table? Match the drapes? Will the cat scratch the leather? Before you can make a good decision about the couch, this long list of questions needs to be answered. The problem is that the prefrontal cortex can't handle this much information by itself. As a result, it tends to fix on just one variable that may or may not be relevant, such as the color of the leather. The rational brain is forced to oversimplify the situation. Look, for instance, at the doctors who relied on MRIs to diagnose the causes of back pain; because the MRI provided them with so much anatomical data, they ended up focusing on spinal disc abnormalities, even though these abnormalities probably weren't the cause of the pain. This resulted in a lot of unnecessary surgery.
After shadowing shoppers at IKEA, the furniture warehouse, Dijksterhuis found that the longer people spent analyzing their options, the less satisfied they were with their decisions. Their rational faculties had been overwhelmed by the furniture store, and they ended up choosing the wrong leather couch. (IKEA offers more than thirty different kinds of sofas.) In other words, furniture shoppers did best when they didn't think at all and just listened to their emotional brains.
Remember the experiment involving the fine-art posters and the funny cat posters? In that study, led by Timothy Wilson, sub jects were less satisfied with their choices when they consciously thought about what to choose; analyzing their own preferences caused them to misinterpret those preferences. Wilson concluded that for selecting things like posters or strawberry jam, people are better off listening to their initial instincts. One of Dijksterhuis's most recent experiments involved replicating Wilson's study, but with a twist: he wanted to see if letting people engage in unconscious decision-making—they looked at posters and then were distracted by a series of anagrams for seven minutes—could lead them to make even better decisions.
The answer, it turns out, is a resounding yes. Consciously contemplating the posters once again led to the worst decisions—these people were the least satisfied with their choices when they were interviewed three weeks later. But the most satisfied subjects were those who let the poster options marinate in their unconscious brains for several minutes and then chose on the basis of which poster was associated with the most positive emotions. Dijksterhuis speculates that art posters benefit from such subterranean thought processes because they are complex choices requiring people to interpret their own subjective desires. It's not easy to figure out if you prefer van Gogh to Rothko, or if you'd rather look at an Impressionist landscape than an abstract expressionist canvas. "Imagine being at an art auction in Paris," Dijksterhuis says. "There's a Monet for sale for a hundred million, and a van Gogh for a hundred and twenty-five million. How should we make this choice? The best strategy may be the following: First, take a good look at both of the paintings. Then leave the auction and distract yourself for a while (which is easy to do in Paris), and only then decide."
These simple experiments shed light on a very common problem in everyday life. We often make decisions on issues that are exceedingly complicated. In these situations, it's probably a mistake to consciously reflect on all the options, as this inundates the prefrontal cortex with too much data. "The moral of this research is clear," Dijksterhuis says. "Use your conscious mind to acquire all the information you need for making a decision. But don't try to analyze the information with your conscious mind. Instead, go on holiday while your unconscious mind digests it. Whatever your intuition then tells you is almost certainly going to be the best choice." Dijksterhuis argues that this psychological principle has far-reaching consequences and can also be applied to decisions that don't involve shopping. Anyone who is constantly making difficult decisions, from corporate executives to poker players, can benefit from a more emotional thought process. As long as someone has sufficient experience in that domain—he's taken the time to train his dopamine neurons—then he shouldn't spend too much time consciously contemplating the alternatives. The hardest calls are the ones that require the most feeling.
At first glance, this idea might be a little difficult to accept. We naturally assume that such choices require the analytical rigor of the rational brain. When trying to decipher a complicated situation, we believe that we need to consciously reflect on our options, to carefully think through the different car models or compare all of the possible couches at IKEA. Simple situations, on the other hand, are generally deemed suitable for emotions. You might trust your gut to choose a main course for dinner, but you wouldn't dream of letting it select your next car. That's why the average American spends thirty-five hours comparing automotive models before he or she makes a decision about which car to purchase.
But the conventional wisdom about decision-making has got it exactly backward. It is the easy problems—the mundane math problems of daily life—that are best suited to the conscious brain. These simple decisions won't overwhelm the prefrontal cortex. In fact, they are so simple that they tend to trip up the emotions, which don't know how to compare prices or compute the odds of a poker hand. (When people rely on their feelings in such situations, they make avoidable mistakes, like those due to loss aversion and arithmetical errors.*) Complex problems, on the other hand, require the processing powers of the emotional brain, the supercomputer of the mind. This doesn't mean you can just blink and know what to do—even the unconscious takes a little time to process information—but it does suggest that there's a better way to make difficult decisions. When choosing a couch, or holding a mysterious set of cards, always listen to your feelings. They know more than you do.
Michael Binger started winning poker tournaments once he realized that the game was more than a math problem. Although he's a physicist, trained to spot the quantitative pattern in the most stochastic of systems, Binger eventually discovered that he couldn't just crunch the numbers and expect to win the hand. He also needed to know when the numbers weren't enough. "I've been able to figure out the odds of poker hands for a while now, and yet, until recently, I never did very well in the World Series," Binger says. "I guess what you get better at is everything else, all the stuff that can't be quantified."
This epiphany allowed Binger to see the card game as it was, not as he wanted it to be. He no longer pretended that there was some universal solution to the problem of poker. The game was too complicated and unpredictable to summarize with statistics. Binger came to understand that different situations required different modes of thought. Sometimes he had to play the odds. And sometimes he had to trust his gut.
This insight doesn't apply to poker alone. Look, for instance, at the financial markets. Wall Street is often compared to games of chance—like Vegas, it's a place where luck can be as important as logic—and when it comes to decision-making, the parallels can be illuminating. Both poker and investing are inherently unpredictable enterprises, requiring people to act with incomplete information. Nobody knows how the market will respond to the latest economic data or what card will appear on the river. Nobody knows if the Federal Reserve is going to lower interest rates next quarter or if the player with the big pile of chips is bluffing. In such situations, the only way for anyone to succeed over the long term is to use both brain systems in their proper contexts. We need to think and feel.
A few years ago, Andrew Lo, a business professor at MIT, wired ten currency speculators and stock traders at a brokerage firm with sensors that monitored their heart rates, blood pressure, body temperature, and skin conductivity. These bodily signs correlate with emotions: intense feelings make for fast pulses. By the end of the day, the traders had made more than a thousand financial decisions, wagering over forty million dollars. If these professional investors were perfectly rational agents, as economic theory assumes, then they should have had perfectly calm bodies. When Lo looked at the data, however, he found that the decisions of the traders were the stuff of sweaty palms and spiking blood pressure. Most financial transactions were accompanied by surges of feeling.
This wasn't necessarily a bad thing. The vast majority of emotional decisions turned out to be profitable. Just because traders had nervous hands, or frightened amygdalas, didn't mean they were acting "irrationally." Rather, Lo discovered that the traders made the worst decisions when their emotions were either silent or overwhelming. In order to make the right investment decisions, the mind needs emotional input, but those emotions need to exist in a dialogue with rational analysis. Investors who got too worked up or who tried to rely on logic alone tended to make dramatic mistakes. "One of the implications of our experiments," Lo says, "is that strong emotional reactions to financial gains or losses can actually be counterproductive. On the other hand, too little emotional reaction can also be dangerous. There's an ideal range of emotional responses that professional securities traders seem to exhibit, and that's an insight that we think individual investors can benefit from." The best investors, like the best poker players, are able to find that crucial mental balance. They constantly use one brain system to improve the performance of the other.
Just look at Binger. On the one hand, he's always using his pre-frontal cortex to interrogate his emotions, to consciously question his unconscious brain. This doesn't mean he's ignoring his feelings—he's not making the strawberry-jam mistake—but it does mean that he's making sure to avoid any obvious emotional errors, what poker players refer to as tilt. "The way I look at it," Binger says, "is that it can't hurt to think for a few seconds about what I'm feeling. Most of the time, I'll still go with my instincts, but occasionally I'll catch myself doing something dumb."
Consider this poker hand from the first day of the tournament. Binger was trying to play it safe, but he ended up losing a big pile of chips when someone beat his pair of jacks on the river. Fortunately, Binger was self-aware enough to realize that such losses can trigger a dangerous set of feelings as the effects of loss aversion settle in. "You want your chips back," Binger says, "and that's when you find yourself taking risks you probably shouldn't take." At moments like this, Binger's prefrontal cortex reasserts control of his gambling decisions, preventing him from making an impulsive mistake: "I'll remind myself to play tight, to focus on the odds." You don't go all in if you've only got one out.
Situations like this demonstrate the importance of the prefrontal cortex. The rational parts of the brain are uniquely able to monitor feelings, using the reins of cognition to keep the horses from running wild. Ironically, it's those moments when emotions seem most persuasive—when the brain is completely convinced that it's time to go all in—that you should take a little extra time to reflect on the emotional decision. Make yourself consider alternative possibilities and scenarios. This is why the Israeli intelligence services added yet another analytical branch after the Yom Kippur War. "If the game seems simple or obvious, then you've made a mistake," Binger says. "The game is never simple. You've always got to wonder: what am I missing?"
Binger's ability to alternate between emotions and rationality has one important effect: it forces him to always think about how he's thinking. Because Binger has an array of cognitive strategies to choose from, he is constantly reflecting on which strategy he should use at any particular moment. This sort of mental flexibility is an essential feature of good decision-making. Look at the Philip Tetlock study of political pundits that we talked about in the last chapter. Although the study is best known for its demonstration of expert failure—the vast majority of pundits failed to predict better than random chance—Tetlock also found that a few performed far above average.
Tetlock explained the difference between successful and unsuccessful pundits with an allusion to an ancient metaphor made famous by historian Isaiah Berlin in his essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox." (Berlin's title is a reference to the ancient Greek expression "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.") In that essay, Berlin distinguished between two types of thinkers, hedgehogs and foxes, and Tetlock used those same categories to describe the pundits' methods of decision-making. (Tetlock did not find any significant correlation between political ideology and thinking style.) A hedgehog is a small mammal covered with spines; when attacked, it rolls itself into a ball so that its spines point outward. This is the hedgehog's only defense. A fox, on the other hand, doesn't rely on a single strategy when threatened. Instead, it adjusts its strategy to fit the particulars of the situation. Foxes are also cunning hunters. In fact, they are one of the hedgehog's few predators.
According to Tetlock, the problem with a pundit who thinks like a hedgehog is that he is prone to bouts of certainty—the big idea is irrefutable—and this certainty causes him to misinterpret the evidence. If the amygdala contradicts one of his conclusions—it's worrying about some bit of evidence that doesn't support the pundit's accepted worldview—then the amygdala is turned off. A diversity of brain regions isn't brought to bear on the problem. Useful information is deliberately ignored. The inner argument is badly argued.
A successful pundit, on the other hand, thinks like a fox. While the hedgehog reassures himself with certainty, the fox relies on the solvent of doubt. He is skeptical of grand strategies and unifying theories. The fox accepts ambiguity and takes an ad hoc approach when coming up with explanations. The fox gathers data from a wide variety of sources and listens to a diversity of brain areas. The upshot is that the fox makes better predictions and decisions.
But being open-minded isn't enough. Tetlock found that the most important difference between fox thinking and hedgehog thinking is that the fox thinker is more likely to study his own decision-making process. In other words, he thinks about how he thinks, just like Binger.* According to Tetlock, such introspection is the best predictor of good judgment. Because foxes pay attention to their inner disagreements, they are less vulnerable to the seductions of certainty. The fox doesn't tune out his insula or ventral striatum or nucleus accumbens just because it contradicts his preconceptions. "We need to cultivate the art of self-overhearing," Tetlock says, "to learn how to eavesdrop on the mental conversations we have with ourselves."
That's also the lesson of Michael Binger's success. Although Jamie Gold went on to win the 2006 WSOP, Binger's third-place finish earned him a consolation prize of $4,123,310. The next year, in the 2007 WSOP, Binger tied the all-time record for most cashes in a single tournament. (To cash means to win money.) He began 2008 by winning one of the main no-limit Texas hold'em events at the LA Poker Classic, earning another six-figure payday. He is now regarded as one of the best players on the professional poker circuit. "What I love about poker," Binger says, "is that when you win, it's always for the same reason. You might lose because you got unlucky, but you never win because of luck. The only way to win is to make better decisions than everyone else at the table."
We can now start to sketch out a taxonomy of decision-making, applying the knowledge of the brain to the real world. We've seen how the different brain systems—the Platonic driver and his emotional horses—should be used in different situations. While reason and feeling are both essential tools, each is best suited for specific tasks. When you try to analyze a strawberry jam or feel your way to a vegetable peeler, you are misusing your machine. When you're certain that you're right, you stop listening to those brain areas that say you might be wrong.
The science of decision-making remains a young science. Researchers are just beginning to understand how the brain makes up its mind. The cortex remains a mostly mysterious place, an extraordinary yet imperfect computer. Future experiments will reveal new aspects of human hardware and software. We'll learn about additional programming bugs and cognitive talents. The current theories will undoubtedly get complicated. And yet, even at the dawn of this new science, it's possible to come up with a few general guidelines that can help us all make better decisions.
SIMPLE PROBLEMS REQUIRE REASON. There isn't a clear line separating easy questions from hard ones, or math problems from mysteries. Some scientists, such as Ap Dijksterhuis, believe that any problem with more than four distinct variables overwhelms the rational brain. Others believe that a person can consciously process somewhere between five and nine pieces of information at any given moment. With practice and experience, this range can be slightly expanded. But in general, the prefrontal cortex is a sharply constrained piece of machinery. If the emotional brain is a fancy laptop, stuffed full of microprocessors operating in parallel, the rational brain is an old-fashioned calculator.
That said, a calculator can still be a very useful tool. One of the drawbacks of emotions is that they contain a few obsolete instincts that are no longer suited for modern life. This is why we are all so vulnerable to loss aversion, slot machines, and credit cards. The only way to defend against such innate flaws is to exercise reason, to fact-check feelings with a little arithmetic. Remember Frank, the unlucky contestant on Deal or No Deal? If he'd taken the time to rationally evaluate the offer, to plug the proposal into a calculator, he would have ended up with €10,000. Instead, he walked away with €10.
Of course, it's not always obvious which decisions are simple. Picking a strawberry jam or breakfast cereal might seem like an easy task, but it's actually surprisingly complicated, especially when a typical supermarket stocks more than two hundred different varieties of each. So how can anyone reliably identify the simple problems that are best suited for the prefrontal cortex? The best way is to ask yourself if the decision can be accurately summarized in numerical terms. For example, since most vegetable peelers are virtually identical, not much is lost when the various peelers are sorted by price. In this case, the best choice is probably the cheapest: let the rational brain take over. (Especially since the emotional brain might be misled by spiffy packaging or some other irrelevant variable.) And if someone really doesn't care about strawberry jam—he or she just wants something to put on a peanut butter sandwich—then this deliberate decision-making strategy can also be applied to jam. Or wine. Or brands of cola. Or any domain in which the details of the product aren't particularly important. In these situations, remember what we learned about expensive wine in chapter 5, and don't spend too much money on overpriced items that won't be appreciated. (After all, cheaper wines often taste better than more expensive ones in blind taste tests!) If the decision doesn't matter all that much, the prefrontal cortex should take the time to carefully assess and analyze the options.
On the other hand, for important decisions about complex items—leather couches, cars, and apartments, for example—categorizing by price alone will eliminate a lot of essential information. Perhaps the cheapest couch is of inferior quality, or maybe you don't like the way it looks. And should anyone really choose an apartment or a car based on a single variable, such as the monthly rent or the amount of horsepower? As Dijksterhuis demonstrated, when you ask the prefrontal cortex to make these sorts of decisions, it makes consistent mistakes. You'll end up with an ugly couch in the wrong apartment. It might sound ridiculous, but it makes scientific sense: Think less about those items that you care a lot about. Don't be afraid to let your emotions choose.
Likewise, there's a whole subset of everyday decisions—those mundane choices that don't really matter—that could benefit from a little more conscious deliberation. Too often, we let our impulses make the easy decisions for us. A person will pick a vegetable peeler, laundry detergent, or boxer shorts on a whim and automatically trust his instincts when he gets an obvious poker hand. But these are precisely the sorts of emotion-driven decisions that might benefit from rational analysis.
NOVEL PROBLEMS ALSO REQUIRE REASON. Before you entrust a mystery to the emotional brain, before deciding to let your instincts make a big bet in poker or fire a missile at a suspicious radar blip, ask yourself a question: How does your past experience help solve this particular problem? Have you played poker hands like this before? Seen blips like this before? Are these feelings rooted in experience, or are they just haphazard impulses?
If the problem really is unprecedented—if it's like a complete hydraulic failure in a Boeing 737—then emotions can't save you. Stop and think and let your working memory tackle the dilemma. The only way out of a unique mess is to come up with a creative solution, like Al Haynes did when he realized that he couldn't steer the plane in the ordinary way but that it was possible to steer the plane with the thrust levers. Such insights require the flexible neurons of the prefrontal cortex.
However, this doesn't mean that our emotional state is irrelevant. Mark Jung-Beeman, the scientist who studies the neuroscience of insight, has shown that people in good moods are significantly better at solving hard problems that require insight than people who are cranky and depressed. (Happy people solve nearly 20 percent more word puzzles than unhappy people.) He speculates that this is because the brain areas associated with executive control, such as the prefrontal cortex and the ACC, aren't as preoccupied with managing emotional life. In other words, they aren't worrying about why you're not happy, which means they are free to solve the problem at hand. The end result is that the rational brain can focus on what it needs to focus on, which is coming up with a solution for the unprecedented situation that you've found yourself in.
EMBRACE UNCERTAINTY. Hard problems rarely have easy solutions. There is no single way to win a poker hand, and there is no guaranteed path to making money in the stock market. Pretending that the mystery has been erased results in the dangerous trap of certainty. You are so confident you're right that you neglect all the evidence that contradicts your conclusion. You fail to notice that those Egyptian tanks on the border aren't merely engaging in a training exercise. Of course, there's not always time to engage in a lengthy cognitive debate. When an Iraqi missile is zooming toward you or when you're about to get crushed by a blitzing linebacker, you need to act. But whenever possible, it's essential to extend the decision-making process and properly consider the argument unfolding inside your head. Bad decisions happen when that mental debate is cut short, when an artificial consensus is imposed on the neural quarrel.
There are two simple tricks to help ensure that you never let certainty interfere with your judgment. First, always entertain competing hypotheses. When you force yourself to interpret the facts through a different, perhaps uncomfortable lens, you often discover that your beliefs rest on a rather shaky foundation. For instance, when Michael Binger is convinced that another player is bluffing, he tries to think about how the player would be acting if he wasn't bluffing. He is his own devil's advocate.
Second, continually remind yourself of what you don't know. Even the best models and theories can be undone by utterly unpredictable events. Poker players call these "bad beats," and every player has stories about the hands he lost because he got the one card he wasn't expecting. "One of the things I learned from counting cards in blackjack," Binger says, "is that even when you have an edge, and counting cards is definitely an edge, your margin is still really slim. You can't get too cocky." When you forget that you have blind spots, that you have no idea what cards the other players are holding or how they'll behave, you're setting yourself up for a nasty surprise. Colin Powell made a number of mistakes in the run-up to the Iraq war, but his advice to his intelligence officers was psychologically astute: "Tell me what you know," he told his advisers. "Then tell me what you don't know, and only then can you tell me what you think. Always keep those three separated."
YOU KNOW MORE THAN YOU KNOW. One of the enduring paradoxes of the human mind is that it doesn't know itself very well. The conscious brain is ignorant of its own underpinnings, blind to all that neural activity taking place outside the prefrontal cortex. This is why people have emotions: they are windows into the unconscious, visceral representations of all the information we process but don't perceive.
For most of human history, the emotions have been disparaged because they're so difficult to analyze—they don't come with reasons, justifications, or explanations. (As Nietzsche warned, we are often most ignorant of what is closest to us.) But now, thanks to the tools of modern neuroscience, we can see that emotions have a logic all their own. The jitters of dopamine help keep track of reality, alerting us to all those subtle patterns that we can't consciously detect. Different emotional areas evaluate different aspects of the world, so your insula naturally takes the cost of an item into account (unless you're paying with a credit card), and the NAcc automatically figures out how you feel about a certain brand of strawberry jam. The anterior cingulate monitors surprises, and the amygdala helps point out the radar blip that just doesn't look right.
The emotional brain is especially useful at helping us make hard decisions. Its massive computational power—its ability to process millions of bits of data in parallel—ensures that you can analyze all the relevant information when assessing alternatives. Mysteries are broken down into manageable chunks, which are then translated into practical feelings.
The reason these emotions are so intelligent is that they've managed to turn mistakes into educational events. You are constantly benefiting from experience, even if you're not consciously aware of the benefits. It doesn't matter if your field of expertise is backgammon or Middle East politics, golf or computer programming: the brain always learns the same way, accumulating wisdom through error.
There are no shortcuts to this painstaking process; becoming an expert just takes time and practice. But once you've developed expertise in a particular area—once you've made the requisite mistakes—it's important to trust your emotions when making decisions in that domain. It is feelings, after all, and not the prefrontal cortex, that capture the wisdom of experience. Those subtle emotions saying shoot down the radar blip, or go all in with pocket kings, or pass to Troy Brown are the output of a brain that has learned how to read a situation. It can parse the world in practical terms, so that you know what needs to be done. When you overanalyze these expert decisions, you end up like the opera star who couldn't sing.
And yet, this doesn't mean the emotional brain should always be trusted. Sometimes it can be impulsive and short-sighted. Sometimes it can be a little too sensitive to patterns, which is why people lose so much money playing slot machines. However, the one thing you should always be doing is considering your emotions, thinking about why you're feeling what you're feeling. In other words, act like the television executive carefully analyzing the reactions of the focus group. Even when you choose to ignore your emotions, they are still a valuable source of input.
THINK ABOUT THINKING. If you're going to take only one idea away from this book, take this one: Whenever you make a decision, be aware of the kind of decision you are making and the kind of thought process it requires. It doesn't matter if you're choosing between wide receivers or political candidates. You might be playing poker or assessing the results of a television focus group. The best way to make sure that you are using your brain properly is to study your brain at work, to listen to the argument inside your head.
Why is thinking about thinking so important? First, it helps us steer clear of stupid errors. You can't avoid loss aversion unless you know that the mind treats losses differently than gains. And you'll probably think too much about buying a house unless you know that such a strategy will lead you to buy the wrong property. The mind is full of flaws, but they can be outsmarted. Cut up your credit cards and put your retirement savings in a low-cost index fund. Prevent yourself from paying too much attention to MRI images, and remember to judge a wine before you know how much it costs. There is no secret recipe for decision-making. There is only vigilance, the commitment to avoiding those errors that can be avoided.
Of course, even the most attentive and self-aware minds will still make mistakes. Tom Brady, after the perfect season of 2008, played poorly in the Super Bowl. Michael Binger, after a long and successful day of poker, always ends up regretting one of his bets. The most accurate political experts in Tetlock's study still made plenty of inaccurate predictions. But the best decision-makers don't despair. Instead, they become students of error, determined to learn from what went wrong. They think about what they could have done differently so that the next time their neurons will know what to do. This is the most astonishing thing about the human brain: it can always improve itself. Tomorrow, we can make better decisions.