Please accept my apologies for a week with almost no posts. It’s been a long, tiring, and remarkably interesting week. A large percentage of it has been spent driving, which generally means introspection. I’d like to share a few somewhat random thoughts I’ve had, and how they relate not only to my experiences, but to the human condition and the unconscious mind as well.
The first part of my week was spent at a casino. I love casinos. If man has ever invented anything that exploits the unconscious mind more, I don’t know what it might be. Everything about a casino is designed to tap into our evolutionary biases, cognitive miserliness, and our general irrationality. Gambling at a casino is probably the worst possible way to make money, yet millions of us happily line up to do it every year.
This probably won’t surprise my regular readers much, but I’m not much for playing against the house. Too irrational. My game is poker. I’m certainly no Chris Moneymaker — I’m just a casual player. But I love two things about poker that make it unique among casino games. First, you’re not playing against the house. Your opponents are real people, and the odds are theoretically even. Second, it’s the only game in which lying effectively increases your chances of winning.
I learned something very valuable about myself during my two days of poker last week. On the first day, I went in with a cool, rational mindset. I knew my strategy, and I knew what stories I wanted to tell with my betting patterns and demeanor. I was focused and clear-headed. And in rather short order, I doubled my money. A few hands after hitting that milestone, I recognized that my mind was wandering and walked away from the table. For whatever reason, I had subconsciously decided that double my stake was my goal, and having achieved it, my focus left me. So I listened to my subconscious and quit.
This is an example of what can happen when we are aware of ourselves as irrational, and driven by primarily unconscious forces. Rather than fight my unconscious biases and irrationalities, I altered my actions to take them into account. And my life was better for it. I have no doubt that I would have lost most or all of my winnings if I had continued to play. So even though I really liked the idea of winning three or four times my stake, I took the rational way out and kept my considerable winnings.
The next day, I was not so smart. From early morning, my phone had been blowing up with text messages about bad financial news from home. I hadn’t slept well to begin with, and I’m pretty sure I invented a new level of grumpiness. (I’m sure my travel companion would agree.) On this day, I had a gut feeling that it would be best for me to sit out and just watch movies or play nickel slots to amuse myself. But I played anyway.
Weighed down by financial pressure, I overestimated my own skill, underestimated my opponents, and consistently made irrational bets. Within an hour, I’d lost all of my winnings from the previous day. Thankfully, I didn’t give into the irrational desire to win it back with money I couldn’t afford to lose. But in the end, I was still quite upset with myself — not for losing the money, but for playing when I knew I was not in a good state of mind.
Later that night, my friend and I played nickel slots. I sucked down several Gin and Tonics, and let myself succumb to the magic of the slot room. Much more than poker, everything about slots is designed to compel us to give money to the casino. I started on a traditional game, where the object is to get the same symbol across one of several “pay lines.” As I pressed the button over and over, I became aware of the hypnotic trance I had entered. Time had slowed and I was captivated by the patterns of color, the cacophonous symmetry of a hundred machines playing the same happy series of musical tones, the occasional sound of happy chimes when some lucky patron hit a jackpot a few machines over…
After that, I played video poker (which I refer to as “The Slow Death). Here, I noticed some new subconscious tactics preying on my mind. The object in video poker is to make winning poker hands, much as you would in a real poker game. The machine pays out based on the rarity of the hand. So for instance, two pair might pay one (in other words, give you your money back) while a straight flush pays two hundred and fifty. Of course, the odds are designed so that over the long run, you’ll lose, but there are some nifty methods for convincing you to play anyway:
- Reward noises. For most of the evening, I played one credit (a nickel) per turn. When a good hand came out on the deal, the machine gave me a slightly rewarding “ding!” When I got paid after swapping cards, I received a slightly less appealing “ga-dunk” sound. The thing is, the whole time I was playing, the gentleman three machines down was constantly receiving extremely satisfying ascending scales, repeating “ding-ding-ding-ding-dings,” and the sounds of coins jingling. It was very odd — he wasn’t doing any better than I was, but he was getting much more rewarding sounds. I discovered the secret when I accidentally bet five credits instead of one. That was the secret. More money risked per turn increased the number of pleasant reward sounds. (I was hooked. For nothing more than a few pleasant noises, I increased my bet to twenty five cents even though there was no increased odds advantage.)
- Near Misses. Several times, I drew four cards to a straight flush. Each time, I missed. (After all, there’s only a 1 in 47 chance that you’ll hit on any such occurrence.) But our brains treat near misses differently than other misses. If I were to play for an hour and never have even a shot at a flush or straight, I’d probably quit out of frustration. But if I miss by one card several times, I’m much more likely to keep playing. (Of course, there’s no difference between a long miss and a close call. They’re both losses. But we think of them differently — irrationally.)
- Other people’s hits. This is one of the neatest ones I noticed. We humans tend strongly to overestimate our own skill while underestimating that of others. For this reason, it’s in a casino’s best interest to make sure players have the impression that everyone around them is winning. While I was playing, several people within a couple of rows of me hit big jackpots. I noticed that even unoccupied machines occasionally cycled through a “mock win” with flashing lights, bells and whistles, and the sound of coins jingling. This constant flow of “winners” gave me the impression that everybody but me was winning. Since I also believe that I understand the odds better than the average player, that gave me the strong urge to keep playing, since my win must be “just around the corner.” After all, if all these schmucks are doing it, I must be able to!
- Random Reward Ratio. If you’ve ever successfully trained a dog, you probably know about random reward ratio. In a nutshell, it works like this. If you reward the dog every time he obeys, or at a set interval (say, every three instances of obedience), you’ll be disappointed with the results. Soon after removing the reward, you’ll find that the dog is no longer interested in obedience. However, if you randomize rewards, you’ll get much better results. The same principle works in humans. It’s the fundamental magic of slots. If we knew that we’d win every tenth turn, we’d think about the risk/reward more accurately and probably decide not to play at all. But the randomness of it turns off our logic circuits. After all, on any turn whatsoever, we might hit the gigantic jackpot!
- Minor rewards for losing. Even though my credit total was steadily working its way towards zero, I was receiving occasional rewards in the form of minor jackpots. I started at a hundred credits, and when I got to about eighty, I hit a ten credit jackpot. Emboldened at getting closer to my original stake, I pressed on. At fifty, I scored twenty five. This pattern continued until I finally busted out (Oh, the humanity! Five dollars wasted on an hour of hypnotism!) but curiously, I felt as if I was leaving a winner. After all, I hit several flushes, quite a few straights, and a lot of sets (three of a kind).
The next day, I avoided falling prey to a common irrationality. I had built up enough “reward points” on my players card to get a $20 discount at the upscale steak restaurant in the Casino. Resisting the urge to just march right on down and use my “free” money, I looked at the menu carefully. Even with my discount, it was unlikely that I’d be able to eat for less than $60. On the other hand, there was a perfectly good restaurant down the street where I’d have to pay full price, but would likely get out for under $50. It turned out that the full price restaurant was a wonderful dining experience. Kudos to me.
In the end, I left the casino minus about a hundred dollars, but well entertained and fairly proud of myself for indulging in a little bit of fun irrationality. And this is the thought that stuck with me as I spent eight hours alone driving back home. So much of what we humans do is irrational. The very concept of a casino ought to be abhorrent to any rational person. Yet, we love them. And for the most part, they’re damn entertaining. For most of us, a weekend on the boats is very similar to paying for a concert or a sightseeing cruise. Even though none of these things has any real, intrinsic value, we gain pleasure from them.
Gambling can be a real problem, though. The same things that give us great pleasure can also ruin our lives. Gambling addiction is as real and as serious as drug addiction, and it has very similar rates of recidivism. But then, nearly anything can become our downfall — sex, food, money, power, political aspirations… love…
Once again, I’ve come back to the same mantra. Context matters. Context is everything. For me — a casual gambler, the casino was a field trip and a qualitative study of the exploitation of the irrational subconscious. It was also an adrenaline rush, a diversion, and a much needed break from the routine. But I’m sure that there were some people in the same room with me who have problems with gambling. For them, it’s a sinkhole.
But that’s the whole point of understanding human irrationality. Not to eradicate it, but to control it. I gave into the same irrationalities as a problem gambler, and the result was a net gain for me. But all the while, I was aware of what I was doing, and how the whole system is rigged against me. I learned from my mistakes and adjusted my behavior. I chose to give in to the manipulation, but set real limits.
This kind of “harnessing the irrational” is my model for life. We are human. We cannot escape this fate. So no matter how much we learn, we are still subject to our emotional, irrational drives. But the more we learn, the more we can control them, channel them, and exploit them towards our own happiness and the betterment of life for everyone. I guess when it comes down to it, my broad aim is to reduce the instances of irrationality controlling us and increase our control over the irrational.