Judging the poker face for what it is

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Which of these faces at the left induces the most mistakes by opponents and gets them to make bad decisions?

A lot has been made of tells, reading opponents, keeping a “poker face,” talking and not talking at the table.

Psychologists have known for years that people make rapid first impressions and then base a good deal of future decision-making on these first impressions. This is a combination of the primacy and halo effects. Making decisions at the poker table based upon a first impression is only useful before you can gather enough information to make a good decision. It’s best to learn to test out how accurate your first impressions are. This is a skill you need to be aware of and work on to make fewer mistakes.

My best advice is to be aware you are forming a first impression that will probably last if you don’t train yourself to think differently. You should be treating these first impressions as “untested hypotheses” and then try to disprove your hypotheses.

Psychologists have found our impressions come from how we read a person’s face. You know the saying, “Keep a poker face.” For years we thought a neutral face was best, that people couldn’t read us. Wrong. Good people-readers can read you’re putting on a poker face and so-called “poker” might not be the impression you want to convey.

Well, the scientific community is beginning to weigh in on the topic. Poker is getting the attention of researchers. What that means is some of the information we’ll be getting will have science behind it and not just be the anecdotal-, folklore- or hunch-based information we’ve relied on for years.

A group of researchers at Harvard published, Human wagering behavior depends on opponents’ faces. Yeah, we knew that, but their more detailed findings might prove interesting.

They concluded: “The impressions of trustworthiness also influence impressions of many other attributes that correlate with wagering decisions. Therefore, a more general conclusion is that common avoidance cues (dominant, angry, masculine) lead to more aggressive wagering decisions (i.e., increased calling); whereas approach cues (happy, friendly, trustworthy, attractive) tend to lead to conservative wagering decisions (i.e., increased folding).”

What that means is, if opponents think of you as trustworthy, they will fold more often because they trust you and you might be influenced to fold to a trustworthy opponent.

Their conclusion: “Contrary to the popular belief that the optimal poker face is neutral in appearance, the face that invokes the most betting mistakes by our subjects has attributes that are correlated with trustworthiness. This suggests that poker players who bluff frequently may actually benefit from appearing trustworthy, since the natural tendency seems to be inferring that a trustworthy-looking player bluffs less. More generally, these results are important for competitive situations in which opponents have little or no experience with one another, such as the early stages of a game, or in one-shot negotiation situations among strangers where ‘first impressions’ matter. … Mistakes against trustworthy opponents resulted from increased loss aversion, suggesting that participants believed trustworthy opponents were betting with hands of greatervaluethan neutral and untrustworthy opponents.”

Another group of researchers, this time at Princeton, tried to define what a trustworthy face might be. They tested a variety of computer-generated faces and found a trustworthy face looks like this: The expression seems to have a slight smile and the eyebrows turned up slightly. One finding said, “Humans seem to be wired to look to faces to understand the person’s intentions.” One of the researchers, Alexander Todorov, who has spent years studying the subtleties of the simple plane containing the eyes, nose and mouth, said, “People are always asking themselves, ‘Does this person have good or bad intentions?’ ”

One of the conclusions that can be drawn is untrustworthy and neutral expressions had no effect on the participants’ decision-making process but the trustworthy face gave the participants problems.

When confronted with the trustworthy face, participants took longer to decide and made less optimal decisions.

So maybe the intense stare of Phil Ivey, the sunglasses and face cover-up of Phil Hellmuth and the repetitive cover-up by Chris Ferguson should be replaced with friendly, outgoing and trustworthy-looking guys, maybe more like Daniel Negreanu. I doubt it, but it certainly is an interesting thought.

Being aware of your facial impressions, opponents’ facial impressions and learning how to deal with first impressions will help keep your head in the game. Oh yeah, the pictures! At the start of the column I asked which face induces the most mistakes. It’s the one on the left. These examples show computer-generated faces displaying the common features the Princeton researchers’ test subjects rated as trustworthy: from most trustworthy at left; to neutral in the middle; to least trustworthy at the right.

— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. His column will give insight on how to achieve peak performance using poker psychology. Email questions for him at editor@anteupmagazine.com.