Self-Serving Bias in Poker

Self-serving bias – the tendency to attribute success to internal or personal factors but attribute failure to situational factors beyond our control.

You ever notice how people who are late never say ,”Sorry I’m late. I’m lazy and irresponsible.” No. They say, “It was raining.” or “My alarm didn’t go off.” or “Traffic was awful today!” People will use any excuse to try and dodge failure. When failure occurs, they want it to seem like they had as little control over the outcome as possible. By rejecting that they had causal influence, they also reject the blame that would come along with it. How could someone be responsible for a state of affairs they couldn’t even influence? This wouldn’t be so bad, but people actually believe the excuses they’re giving others. It’s not an excuse to them — it’s the truth.

You know that little voice in your head that immediately and automatically offers excuses when things go wrong? That’s your self-serving bias. It reliably searches out the best excuse and presents that to your higher mind as the most likely reason why failure occurred. It happens in an instant — too quick to notice. And if your mind doesn’t believe the reason right away, it will keep repeating it to you as many times as it needs to. Eventually, it will convince you that it must be the truth. It’s our minds way of shielding us from outside consequences but also to protect our psyches from the pain of being failures.

What’s the harm in not wanting to feel like a failure? Isn’t it good to feel good about yourself? To a degree, yes. But the problem with avoiding this sort of pain is that it only insures that whatever influence you did have over the situation will never come to bear in preventing failures in the future. How can you improve your behavior if you don’t believe you have control over the outcome?

Much as in life, when people get beat in poker, they rarely accept responsibility. When they lose, instead of immediately saying to themselves, “How could I have played better?”, they instead have a deeply emotional reaction. Anger highjacks them and their self-serving bias kicks into high-gear. A reasonable sounding story bubbles out of their subconscious for why they’re blameless. In poker, the standard outside circumstance is luck. “I played it perfect but got unlucky!” Others will actually blame their opponents when they lose. “I bet all-in but this idiot called me!” or even “What a horrible call! Stupid donk!”

If you make excuses for your failures in poker, you can’t get better. All growth ceases and your game stops improving. How could it? If you listen to your self-serving bias, you’ll already know that there’s nothing you can do to improve your outcomes when you lose.

For now, just know that self-serving bias is your main opponent in poker (and not the others sitting with you at the table). In my next post, I’ll be detailing how to correct for this bias. As you learn to overcome self-serving bias in poker, you’ll also begin to see parallels to real life and learn to generalize this solution to other situations as well.

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6 Responses to Self-Serving Bias in Poker

  1. Divide says:

    That’s strange. I seem to have an exactly opposite bias, ie. I tend to attribute failure to internal or personal factors but attribute success to situational factors beyond my own control. Any thoughts on how to correct for that?

    • Louie says:

      Your case is rare but familiar to me. Have you heard of depressive realism? It turns out that people with mild depression actually have a more accurate perception of reality than “normal” people. However, the way the in-built biases are offset in the depressed help them to make accurate predictions about everything around them except themselves! They tend to severely underestimate their abilities, the time it will take them to complete work, their capacity to improve, their ability to be loved, etc…. even though they are able to more accurately predict the abilities, capacities, and tendencies of those around them.

      Now that I think of it, depressive realism seems like it would give people an overwhelming advantage in poker. Hmm…

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        Having suffered from depressive realism, I don’t think it would give a major advantage. Attributing all of your successes to good luck means you won’t be learning lessons from what you did right. Furthermore, you may also be demotivated to learn from your failures, since you think you’re a hopeless case and will just keep making more mistakes regardless.

      • Louie says:

        Yeah, that does sound bad after all. The trick is to be able to hold as extreme a perspective on your play as possible. Most people who are self-serving naturally are incorporating that positive information about how they play well all the time… even when it’s not true. A depressed player would have to learn to mindfully look for good in all his play the same way a more typical player needs to look for mistakes in their play. From my current perspective, depressive realism seems like an advantage because it naturally offers the perspective that I find more challenging to hold.

        Perhaps the “best” natural disposition for a poker player would be manic-depressive? Then you’d understand both perspectives naturally. Dutch Boyd and Mike Matusow spring to mind as obvious existence proofs for this theory.

      • conchis says:

        I too suspect that I tend to overestimate my personal responsibility for outcomes,* but the degree to which I do so seems to interact strongly with my pre-existing competence in the area. In line with the Dunning-Krueger effect, I tend to assign more personal responsibility the better I understand the processes involved, because I better understand what I could have changed / done better. When I don’t understand what I could have done better, the outcome tends to feel more like random chance.

        This puts you in a bit of a catch 22 when it comes to learning new areas of competence… although I guess that’s the point of coaching.

        *Of course, it’s possible I’m wrong about about this: I observe that I assign more personal responsibility to myself than others do, but it’s possible I still underestimate my own responsibility. I’m not sure I have solid evidence that that I’m actually biased in the other direction, rather than merely being less biased than others.

      • John C. says:

        I think I disagree. I can’t prove this but I suspect that when I’m in one of those introspective periods where I am playing bad one of the first adjustments I feel like I need to make is usually to play tighter. I play less hands and for some reason also play them more passively. Obviously this isn’t optimal. Do you think that depressive realism contributes to less aggressive behavior?

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