American media mogul Oprah Winfrey knows exactly what to do when faced with a tough decision:
“When faced with a decision or conflict, your mind may come up with numerous, different and quite logical reasons why you should act as it advises, but if you listen to and trust your heart – however illogical or irrational it may seem – it is usually right and you are happier as a result.”
In contrast, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of neuroscience, believes that “thinking with your heart” is more likely to cause you damage than rational, logical decision-making – particularly when faced with time pressure. That’s not ideal when playing high-paced games of poker or blackjack.
Indeed, Whitbourne also believes that taking risks can be justified – but only when the time has been taken to weigh up the pros and cons of each possible outcome.
Often, our decision-making is affected by things that have happened in the past, specifically where we have made good or bad calls. The problem is that we only tend to remember emotion-led decisions, rather than simple, straightforward choices based on rationality and clear thinking.
“Research on reminiscence shows that we tend to remember the distinctive events in our lives, particularly those that were pleasant,” the doctor continues. “For most people, even traumatic memories tend to fade with time. As a result, we’re almost programmed to go with our heart because we remember the times when it provided the correct guidance.
“The other side of this debate is the fact that your rational decision-making processes can have a pretty good track record. You may not remember the times when you followed logic, because they may not have been as memorable. It’s also possible that when reason prevailed, it told you not to do something; therefore, you have less to remember.”
From the perspective of a casino gamer, how should we be thinking – with our head or our heart? And what role does intuition (AKA gut instinct) play in our success, or otherwise?
Any debate about the decision-making process should start with a quick guide as to how the brain works when faced with a choice.
In everyday life, we are faced with decisions that are in our control – even if we feel as though they are not. When people reach for the biscuit tin or the wine bottle after a tough day at the office, they are making a decision: I want a quick endorphin hit that I know will eventually give way to the same negative feelings that I had before.
Alternatively, you could choose not to reach for that satisfying crutch, and instead focus on changing the issues that are affecting your working life in the first place.
The brain is like a computer: it stores information about past experiences, about people we like and those we wish to avoid, and about satisfying outcomes to situations. The information that we input into our computer may not always be accurate, but it is stored there until the end of time unless we challenge it in some way.
That’s why poker players have a habit of playing hands the same way, and why blackjack enthusiasts will either hit or stand on a specific number – it’s routine.
The frontal parts of the brain are those that store information that we use in problem-solving and decision-making, and it is this cold, calculating process that is more beneficial to casino gamers than the heart.
In games of probability, where defined outcomes can be calculated, we must use our computers to take our decisions based purely on the situation in front of us.
The heart is a weapon
The human heart is not a computer – it is merely an organ that pumps blood around the body.
The metaphorical heart is an emotion-led vessel: when we fall in love, we supposedly give somebody our hearts. When we break up, our hearts are broken.
Is it any wonder that this organ should be distrusted in the decision-making process? Think about some of the words that we can link to emotion: impulsive, aggressive, thoughtless, impetuous, hasty. Of course, there are positives too – caring, loving, sensitive, generous – but these don’t particularly help us at the blackjack table!
We know that emotions can cloud our judgement when betting. Already, poker buffs know about the bad beat, the tilt and the ultra-aggressive bluff, and on the other side of the coin, we know about the endorphin-led highs of the winning streak – and how these can quickly bring us back to earth with a bang when we are too gregarious with our wagering, thinking that we are invincible.
Think of the brain as a computer: reliable, efficient and a storage unit for reams of useful (and sometimes useless) information.
The heart, in contrast, can be like a Tasmanian devil living inside your chest: its intentions are good, but its results are rarely as desired.
Going with your gut
Gut instinct, or intuition, is not a tangible “thing”, and so some people are unable to trust it.
However, scientific research has shown that intuition does indeed exist – and that it can be useful in the decision-making process.
Intuitive feelings aren’t derived in the gut. They are still thought processes that originate in the brain, but these are thoughts that are not backed up by reason or logic – hence the term gut “instinct”.
According to Joel Pearson, associate professor of psychology at the University of South Wales, intuition is about “learning to use unconscious information in your brain”.
“Information subconsciously perceived in the brain will help with decisions if that information holds some value or extra evidence beyond what people already have in their conscious mind,” he concluded.
An example that we can offer is perfect strategy in blackjack. You may learn the basic concepts of this and then be able to make decisions almost in auto pilot mode, based on the teachings of the strategy. This is information stored in the subconscious that can be used positively in our play.
The old saying that knowledge is power runs true, and so in that sense, intuition is a force to be reckoned with at the casino.
Thinking, Fast and Slow
We have stolen the title of a book from the Nobel-winning author Daniel Kahneman here, and many of the principles that he discusses in his tome are relevant to this discussion too.
In his book, Kahneman discusses two “systems” of thinking. System 1 is quicker, based on emotional responses. System 2, meanwhile, is slower, deliberate and rational. Basically, the “heart vs head” debate.
Rationality, logic, reasoned: these are all words that we should be deploying in our gaming. These are processes that are outputs of the mind, rather than the instinctive decisions made by the heart. If you want to be a success at the casino, then slow down your thinking and remove emotions from your decision-making.
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Words: Sean McNulty