Saturday, June 27, 2009

Zimbardo and Time (and poker)

If you haven't discovered TED yet, I think you should really check it out: It's a collection of lectures by various scientists, philosophers and others and many of them are really, really cool.

Tonight, after dinner and before the movie that's starting at 9 (Forgetting Sarah Marshall - is it any good?), we surfed to the TED website and checked if there were any new talks that we hadn't seen. We watched three; one of them about the gecko's tail (which was cool) and then this, by Phil Zimbardo:

Incidentally, Philip Zimbardo was the leader of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which he talked about at some length in the second talk by him we watched. That talk was also very interesting, especially if you haven't heard about it before and I recommend it. But I wanted to draw a brief parallel between his take on time perspectives (from the video linked above) and the healthy attitude for a poker player to have.

He says, and I'm paraphrasing, that there are three different time perspectives we as humans can take: Past, present and future. All of us balance all three perspectives simultaneously, and what matters is how we shift these balances. For each of the three perspectives there are two sub-groups:
  • Past-positive and past-negative; remembering the good times and agonizing over the bad events respectively.
  • Present-hedonistic and present-fatalist; enjoying the moment and taking a "whatever will be, will be" outlook respectively.
  • ... and future, which I forget how he labelled but they came down to setting goals and anticipating results (career, family, etc.) and living your life for the (religious) afterlife respectively.
I won't repeat his thoughts on the pitfalls and benefits of the different perspectives, because I think you should watch the video yourselves (it's only a little over five minutes long). But watching this talk and getting to comment on it in the blog was a freebie for me because I was already thinking about writing about past-focused people so now I get to work that in. I apologize for this brief detour before returning to poker:

The phrase "bättre förr" ("better before" in direct translation) is common in Swedish, but the sentiment is, it seems to me, common everywhere. People roll their eyes at "today's youth" they scoff at the decline of society, about how everything's just getting worse and how much better and easier everything used to be. These people are, at least in this regard, delusional.

If you're using any kind of sensible yard stick to measure whether or not it's better now than it used to be (with some rare exceptions), your conclusion really has to be that yes - it's better now than ever before. Even if we ignore civil liberties (women's vote, black vote, gay rights, etc. etc.) and technological gadgets (do you remember the time when, if you had forgotten what you were supposed to get at the store, you had to go home and ask and then go back to the store?) and even medicine (hello higher life expectancy, better quality of life for seniors and drastically reduced infant mortality rates), then the quality of life still has gone up universally. Not for everyone, but on average. For the vast majority of humans, we have improved transportation, improved housing, cleaner water, cheaper food, more time to spend with our family and friends and we are safer than ever before.

The idea that it was better before is bullshit. Anyone who thinks so is either extremely naïve, extremely forgetful about how it really was, or an asshole who longs for the days when whites were the master race or they were 82nd in line for the British throne. Or so.

Anyway, that's what I wanted to write about before watching Zimbardo's talk on time perspectives and now I've gotten that off my chest. Detour done. Back to Zimbardo. Back to poker.

I saw a parallel to poker players when I watched his talk (which, by the way, I really wished the organizers would have allocated more than just five minutes for; the topic certainly deserved not to be hurried through the way it was) because ideally, a poker player should make his decisions future-oriented. What I mean by that is this:

Being past-oriented when it comes to poker is, essentially, being results-oriented. With the balance heavily towards the past-negative perspective, we become overwhelmed by memories of bad-beats past. If we're prone to past-positive, we might overestimate our chances with certain hands ("I just love 96s, I can't seem to lose with it!") because they're "our favorites."

Being a present-oriented poker player has other dangers. If we're "present-hedonistic" we might call because it's "fun." Or because we want to spite-call the guy who's we're pissed off at. Or because we "feel lucky" or any other spur-of-the-moment reason to make a certain move that in reality is not the best for the situation at hand. Or maybe we're "present-fatalist" and don't properly analyze the situations and instead just decide that if we lose it's because we were unlucky. That the cards determine who wins and loses.

Future-oriented is the appropriate perspective for the poker player. The mindset of making moves not based on what we think will happen this particular time we play the hand, but in the long run. Not letting the results we had in this hand cloud our judgment for the next time we're in a similar situation. Focusing on the long term expected value, setting goals for the hours we play and how we play them, being disciplined enough not to move up to some high stakes game chasing losses, clearing our mind of the bad beats we've been dealt recently and always, always looking for ways to improve our win-rate.

As it were, being too heavily balanced towards the future perspective in life in general is not a good thing; it can drive people to work long hours, become married to their job and not spend enough time enjoying themselves, missing opportunities to hang out with friends and family. But for when you're playing poker, the future is where your mind should be. And when you're not playing poker, it should at least most definitely not be in your poker-playing past.

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