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Poker Shrink Vol. 60: Neuroticism

Poker Shrink

The most studied personality trait in psychology is neuroticism. Put very simply, if an individual scores very high on the neuroticism trait, he will tend to experience more negative emotions and he will experience them more strongly. People who score low on this trait are often referred to as emotionally stable; these individuals are less likely to react or overreact to stress and they recover more quickly from emotional trauma.

Once again, the majority of individuals tend to cluster around the middle of a scale between these two extremes. We know that we are likely to be more one way or another at times. Just think of teenagers versus the rest of the world and you will see the effects of hormones on neuroticism. But they do grow out of it.

Not surprisingly there are some people who are stable in most situations, but unstable in others. War is an extreme example but any large stressor situation can and does trigger the potential for a high neuroticism occurrence. Here is the obvious poker example.

Our player is having an average day in the early rounds of a poker tournament. Then he plays back-to-back hands against players he has a great read on. In both cases, he gets the other player all in and the opponent is drawing to two outs. On both hands the two-outers hit and our player is crippled. This is a perfect storm of conditions to watch for elements of neuroticism to arise. It is important to remember that we measure neuroticism on a sliding scale. If the player is calm and plays on without comment or disturbance, then we can say that he is low, perhaps very low, on the neuroticism scale.

On the other hand, we are all expecting this player to go on tilt. He certainly is justified in that reaction, but we also know that intense negative reaction will probably cost him any chance of getting back into contention in this tournament.

Certainly, everyone has his or her breaking point. Economic calamities, floods, accidents, deaths in the family – these can all cause major reactions in the high end of the neuroticism scale. But does anyone actually think that anything that can happen at the poker table is in the same category as these huge life events? On a normal calm day, of course not. But players can and do get so focused on a poker game that their whole world narrows down to the green felt.

This is all leading to the proven psychological fact: that we are able in some respects to control our emotional investments in various situations. That control can mean less negative reactions and less stress in life. And less tilt in poker.

For instance, we know that introverts have an easier time controlling their emotions in difficult moments. Extroverts tend to feel the good and the bad very quickly and very strongly. So if you tend to blow up when the cards don’t run your way, one suggestion would be to slow down, quiet down, and go internal to stop the bleeding.

Secondly, we know that as a general rule, the older people get the less likely that it becomes they will be involved in sudden emotional upsets. This is not only a function of having seen and experienced more as we age, but also we simply have gone through the ups and downs of our early years and experience tells us that particularly the “downs” just aren’t worth it. We tend to still feel the pain but we don’t invest our entire being in it.

So, can high scale neuroticism be treated? Well, yes. A hundred years of psychology and psychiatry are aimed directly at that goal. Can the problem of high negative emotional reaction at the poker table be treated? Yes again.

Very simply: you observe your behavior. You notice (usually after the fact) that you reacted or overreacted to a situation. You note that this reaction was a negative to your game. Finally, you slowly modify your behavior to react less by calming yourself at the table. If you are capable of seeing your behavior as negative the next day, then you are capable of changing that behavior to lessen the negative emotional stress on yourself and on your game.

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