Evaluating Tilt in Poker: A Study By Cognitive Scientist Jussi Palomäki

Phil Hellmuth

“A brilliant player can get a strong hand cracked, go on tilt, and lose his mind along with every single chip in front of him.”Mike McDermott, Rounders

Tilt. It’s a behavioral phenomenon that every poker player experiences from time to time. Poker can be a frustrating game, and despite doing everything in your power to play the best game that you possibly can, a bad beat or tough situation at the table can put a damper on your mood and send you spiraling downward into the despair of a losing session.

While some players are doing their best to dodge bad beats in an attempt to avoid tilt, others are trying their best to understand what causes this emotional behavior. Recently, one such player by the name of Jussi Palomäki conducted and published a study entitled New Perspectives on Emotional Processes and Decision Making in the Game of Poker — with Special Emphasis on the Tilting Phenomenon. Palomäki, whose research was compiled and completed at the University of Helsinki in Finland, sought to evaluate psychological emotional processes and their correlations with decision-making in poker.

In his thesis, Palomäki defines tilting as “losing control due to strong negative emotions elicited by elements of the game, and the resulting reduced quality of poker-decision making.” Through his work, Palomäki aimed to produce hard, scientific knowledge on emotions and decision making within the game of poker.

In the first of his studies, Palomäki found several recurring themes regarding tilting. The first of which was a theme of dissociation, in which a significant monetary loss, usually following a bad beat, elicited feelings of emptiness, numbness, and disbelief. Relating to that was a theme where losing felt unfair. This feeling was associated with chasing behavior, which was a process in which a player would suffer a bad beat and then attempt to "restore a fair balance of wins and losses, in light of the player's expectations." In situations like this, a player would end up experiencing tilt and then making what could have quite possibly been poor decisions in order to win their money back.

Palomäki found that these behaviors resulted in feelings of depression, anxiety, sadness, and sometimes even sleeping problems. Overall, tilting led to a feeling of disappointment in one's self or an overall feeling of remorse.

Another aspect of Palomäki's study sought to examine the differences in how tilt affects inexperienced players versus experienced players. Over the course of his study, Palomäki found that "inexperienced players often reported that bad luck (e.g., bad beats) was the direct cause of negative emotions, commonly anger." Conversely, experienced players who participated in his study generally felt that "self-made mistakes were a direct cause of negative emotions, whereas bad luck as interpreted as 'merely variance,' and regarded impassively."

Evaluating Tilt in Poker: A Study By Cognitive Scientist Jussi Palomäki 101

Essentially, Palomäki's study draws the conclusion that experience can help to lessen the effects that tilt may have on a player. Palomäki states that "a consequential difference between experienced and inexperienced players seems to be the ability to differentiate the circumstances one can control from those one cannot, and this ability may only grow by experience." Poker requires players to actively make decisions and a worn emotional state can negatively affect how well decisions are made.

While this is one side of the case, another individual study conducted by Palomäki provided results that showed experienced players are able to suffer more severe tilting than other inexperienced players. While this idea was in tension with the ideas brought forth in his first two studies, Palomäki explains "it is possible that experienced players are less likely to tilt in relative terms, per single hand, but more likely to tilt in the long run. Thus, the positive association between poker experience and tilting severity might relate to an overall larger amount of tilt-inducing situations that experienced players are bound to encounter in playing." Ultimately, the reasoning behind this idea is that experienced players have an overall higher amount of poker hands played and have an overall higher amount of times bet with statistically strong hands when compared with inexperienced players.

For a further look at the behavior of tilt and the associations between experience, skill, and emotional characteristics, be sure to check out Palomäki's study in full.

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