Tilt as Moral Outrage and Limbic Override

This blog is about the intersection between poker, rationality, and life. Poker is hard far out of proportion to the strategic complexity of the game, because it is so good at invoking our irrationalities and biases. This makes it an area where the relatively rational have a competitive advantage, as well as a great training ground for rationality. So I’m going to post a series of articles covering different biases invoked by poker, how good poker players learn to overcome them, and how this transfers to life.

We’re going to start with tilt, which is one of the largest and most obvious of these biases. Today, I’ll cover what it is, why I believe poker invokes it, and how it affects the performance of poker players. In the next post, I’ll talk about minimizing tilt at the table, as well as understanding “life tilt” and how to reduce it.

Wikipedia states:

Tilt is a poker term for a state of mental or emotional confusion or frustration in which a player adopts a less than optimal strategy, usually resulting in the player becoming over-aggressive…

Placing an opponent on tilt or dealing with being on tilt oneself is an important aspect of poker. It is a relatively frequent occurrence due to frustration, animosity against other players, or simply bad luck. Experienced players recommend learning to recognize that one is experiencing tilt and avoid allowing it to influence one’s play.

The most likely origin of the word “tilt” is as a reference to tilting a pinball machine. The frustration from seeing the ball follow a path towards the gap between the flippers can lead to the player physically tilting the machine (in an attempt to guide the ball towards the flippers). However, in doing so, some games will flash the word “TILT” and freeze the flippers, causing the ball to be lost for certain. The metaphor here being over-aggression due to frustration leads to severely detrimental gameplay.

I think of tilt as being a state where a person is overwhelmed by emotion – the limbic system has taken over from the neocortex. It’s the adult version of a kid’s temper tantrum, and it is (unfortunately) antithetical to rationality. As a LW commenter said (emphasis added): “People with sufficient limbic system activation (rage, disgust, sexual arousal, etc.) literally cannot think in a rational or sophisticated manner. Their ability to control and direct their behavior becomes impaired, and they tend to act impulsively.” This definition shows us how crucially important tilt is to rationality, since tilt is a physical phenomenon in which it becomes difficult or impossible to be rational.

You can read about the common causes & manifestations of tilt in standard poker references, so here I’m going to stick to our blog’s core topic and focus on how it relates to human psychology & bias. One can imagine many causes for anger and frustration, but in my experience, the most common cause of tilt (certainly one of the top) is when a player – let’s call him Alex – has his opponent Betty play poorly and get lucky, outdrawing Alex.   This is leads to manifestations of tilt like Alex (who may normally be a mild-mannered person) chatting

"u fu**ing donk, u suck, i cant believe you called with that horsesh**"

Now, why would this particular situation be such a common trigger for anger?

One key clue is the fact that Alex did not merely suffer due to bad luck, but bad luck whose agent was another human. And not merely that, but another human (Betty) who made a bad decision, who “did something they shouldn’t have”. Yes, people do sometimes tilt over losing pots even if they weren’t unlucky, and they do tilt over losing pots to players who played correctly, but the strongest trigger appears to be when Betty made a mistake and then got lucky to win. Or when Alex can at least find some line of reasoning (using a biased search) via which Betty “should have known” that she was behind, and folded so that Alex would have won the pot.

If we draw the parallel from poker to life, we can see why this situation is so triggering. Essentially, Alex has suffered a loss of resources due to someone else’s actions, actions which he perceives as wrong. This makes it not merely a whim of fate, but a moral failing committed by Betty that resulted in Alex’s suffering. Is it any wonder that Alex gets angry?   Surely one of the core functions of anger is to take revenge against those who have harmed us due to their immoral actions, and by doing so to establish a reputation for punishing those who harm us – especially if they did so by breaking the rules of the tribe.

For example, the recalibration theory of anger “proposes that anger (as an emotion program) was designed by natural selection to nonconsciously orchestrate the individual’s responses to interpersonal conflicts of interest so that the individual bargains effectively”.

This definition fits our situation, and explains why tilt is so much more common in poker than other games of chance.  For example, when a video poker player gets a great royal flush draw (Ah Kh Qh Jh XX) on a 25-play machine and misses every one, it is very frustrating, but in my experience anger like this against inanimate objects (or the whims of fate) is both less common and more transient[1]. This makes sense given the evolutionary origin of anger as a tool to  influence the behavior or other humans.

Not only is tilt common, it is very important to poker results. For example, Mike Caro’s “Law of Least Tilt” states that among similarly skilled poker players, the one who tilts the least often will do the best. Stated this way it is tautological, but it has practical significance because it is much easier to lose money in poker than to win it. A good player can make +1-2 BBs/hr on average, whereas someone on tilt can easily make a single decision in a single hand where they call a bet with almost no chance to win, which is a decision whose expected value is -1 BB – an hour of good playing gone in a single second.[2]

So minimizing tilt, playing correctly despite tilt, untilting rapidly, taking breaks when tilted, and similar techniques are very important to becoming a winning player. If you are able to never tilt, or never play tilted, this alone will give you a substantial edge all the way through the middle limits.

Next post, I’ll talk about some techniques for minimizing tilt, what “life tilt” looks like, and how we can address life tilt in ourselves and others.

Reminder – if you enjoyed this post, please tweet it, Facebook it, respond to it, comment on it, and email it to your friends – we are a brand new blog with an awesome mission and we need your help to build an audience! Thanks – Patri

[1] If true, this means that the scientific worldview is inherently less tilty, because we no longer believe that bad luck happens when powerful human-like entities decide to screw with us.  When rain is caused by atmospheric patterns instead of gods, for example, undesired rain patterns no longer have a moral or spiritual element that would invoke outrage and anger.

[2] The smart reader, who understands that poker is zero-sum, will notice a potential contradiction here. Every -1 BB decision by someone on tilt must benefit the other players by 1 BB in EV. Therefore if the other players made -1BB decisions often (20x an hour), it must be that a good player could earn more than +1BB/hour. In practice, tilty decisions cost less than a bet, and most players (even bad ones) spend much of their time off tilt. Still, a reasonable model of poker when players are all moderately and similarly skilled is that they take turns going on tilt and making decisions worth -$X, which is divided up among the other players.

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8 Responses to Tilt as Moral Outrage and Limbic Override

  1. anatman says:

    here is an article from the hammock physicist on a related subject.

    survival of the stupidest

  2. jeff says:

    I’ve noticed a lot of tilt around wealth disparity. If you have $5 to bet and you’re playing on a table where there are people who have $1000 to bet, it feels totally unfair when they can put you all in without hesitating or even considering it worth their time to decide. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on dealing with that kind of disparity when playing.

    • DavidLS says:

      I think it depends on the bet amount at the table. If it’s a 0.01/0.02 table, it shouldn’t make a difference — you both have more than enough for as much betting as you’d like.

      If it’s NL, or if the stakes are higher you probably don’t want to play that table — any edge you have will only be realized over a large number of hands (think 1000+). The likelihood that even someone playing optimally will go bust is very high.

  3. anyeon says:

    Well, we (me + a couple of friends) really appreciate what you’re trying to do with this blog. When it was announced on LW it actually inspired us to really start learning poker – as opposed to just playing it once or twice a year for fun. If all goes well, in a few months, I’ll even start playing for the real bucks instead of just play money, and then you’ll receive a little bit of evidence on how all these x-rationality-based poker is holding up. 😉

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Taylor says:

    An interesting corollary to this is that when you see a player take a bad beat like the one described here with no discernable reaction, that player is probably very good and not someone you want to be playing against. Though this applies mostly to live poker.

  5. DavidLS says:

    Cool post! I think this is a great way to model tilting — also a fun, actionable model of the preconditions for tilting. I’ll mess around with it and see how it performs.

    Quick question though: why do poker players talk in terms of BB per hour. Wouldn’t measuring it in BB per 100 hands give us a better metric?

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

    • Xelaie says:

      That’s a really good point I didn’t think about. My guess is $/hr is just how people quote their salary (for these types of jobs) so it makes sense. But when talking about self-improvement it’s certainly better for you to measure $/hand.

    • Paul says:

      It actually is more common to measure in BB/100. However, this only works for online poker — no one sits at a poker table actually counting their hands every session. 😉

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