The Poker Shrink - Vol 31 - Absolute Threshold and Signal Detection Theory
Absolute threshold is a very specific psychological and sensory term. Absolute threshold refers to the smallest intensity of a stimulus that has to be present for the stimulus to be detected. The most common example of this involves sensitivity to heat. Think of an electric burner on a stove. You place your hand on the burner and then turn it on low. At first you won't feel anything because it is takes time for the coils to heat up. Eventually it will get warm enough for you to detect heat; there is some temperature that is just hot enough for you to notice it. In this case your absolute threshold is the point at which it is just hot enough for you to detect the presence of the heat. Now for someone else the absolute threshold could be higher or lower; sooner or later. In psychology such a variation in perception or feeling is referred to as a threshold.
A threshold simply implies that there are different levels of response or perception to certain stimuli, which varies among people. We all have different levels of response to heat, light, sound, color and dozens of other sensory inputs. Your particular response or perception of a stimulus is your threshold. It is possible to measure when you become aware of something and often your awareness precedes your conscious recognition of the stimulus. You know when someone says: "The noise from those fluorescent lights is driving me crazy." You hadn't even noticed the annoying buzz but now that someone has mentioned it, you can't stop hearing it. Did you actually not hear the noise before? Or was your absolute threshold for the noise reset?
OK, what's the application of absolute threshold to poker? Very simple. Your skills of observation at the table not only can be improved but can actually be reset. This means that you can detect and utilize more vital information from your opponents by resetting your threshold of awareness.
There is another interesting concept in psychology called signal detection theory which says that our ability to observe is not an absolute quantity but rather depends on situational and motivational factors. Simple example, you learn more about your poker table opponents when you are paying attention and are not tired, distracted or drunk. Seems obvious but wait there is something much more subtle and valuable to your game and your bankroll going on here.
Let's say that you are looking at the player in seat two when he tables his AKo to pick up a pot, which is to say you are watching the action instead of the cocktail waitress as she walks away from the table. Because you are watching the table, you also hear the player in seat seven say: "Played big slick a bit faster that time." And the seat two player responds: "Well I was in early position this time." Now you have three pieces of information instead of one and you have also reset your threshold to a higher level to receive more information. How?
Here is the point. Absolute threshold can be reset to receive more information ("to feel the heat sooner") simply by paying attention. Signal detection is enhanced by paying attention to more information and the ability to remember the information and access it later in the game is also increased by both paying attention and having more information available. Notice that nowhere have we mentioned remembering the information or storing the memory. In fact, studies have shown that with absolutely no attempt to increase memory or use any memory tricks whatsoever, an individual will recall more information simply by paying closer attention to events as they unfold. The additional information actually makes you more sensitive to more subtle clues you would have missed previously.
By resetting your thresholds higher, you remember more of what you see and hear even with no conscious effort on your part to save those memories. It is a proven function of threshold behavior that as you make more refined observations, you simply retain more information. The simply truth at the poker table is: 'Paying Attention Pays'.