Psychologists try to figure out what rewards people. Historically, psychology realized that until we know a person’s baseline, we really could not tell what an individual considers a reward. Some people are rewarded by wins, others (strangely) by losses. We really don’t know what someone considers a reward until we know that person.
Reinforcement, on the other hand, refers to anything that increases the likelihood that a response will occur. Reinforcement is defined by the effect it has on behavior; it increases or strengthens the behavior. Think Pavlov’s dog.
Reinforcement might involve praise (the reinforcer) immediately after a child puts away toys (the response). By reinforcing the desired behavior with praise, the child will be more likely to perform the same actions again.
The applications to poker are numerous. I will discuss two: fixing (extinguishing) your leaks and encouraging (reinforcing) opponents’ leaks.
Stacking a win is likely reinforcing, even if the hand was played wrong. Reinforcing their wrong play favors us, so we want to reinforce it. You might say, “Good hand, Sir. Nicely played,” when an opponent played 9-2 off and rivered a flush.
You play a marginal hand, hit the flop, hit the turn and value-bet the river and win. Great, you now have a new favorite hand. You keep playing this hand and you win irregularly and unpredictably; you have been reinforced on a variable or interval schedule of reinforcement. You keep doing this as you go broke. The wise choice is to play correctly and not magically. Extinguish your leaks!
People and poker are complex; we try to simplify things, to manage the enormous number of inputs attacking our senses.
Researcher discovered the schedule with which reinforcement arrives is more important than the reinforcements. When reinforcements arrive at irregular intervals with unpredictable frequency, they’re the strongest. My examples seem simple, but the schedule of reinforcement is important. The strongest reinforcement is variable, partial or interval. You don’t win every time you play your favorite hand, you win unpredictably and you keep playing it.
The paradox and the draw of poker is this variable-partial-interval reinforcement schedule. We continue to play because we win once in a while.
We can increase the number of times we win by training, but for now look at the interval-variable reinforcement your get from playing your favorite hand, especially if it’s marginal and decide if you want to fix that leak. If you keep playing wrong and you win once in a while, you might enjoy yourself but you might also go broke.
As always keep your head in the game.
— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.