International Gambling Studies

Finnish Academics Study Loss-Induced Emotions and Tilting in Online Poker

International Gambling StudiesAcademics at the University of Helsinki in Finland this month published a study attempting to shed light on the subject of tilting in poker. Appearing in the latest issue of the journal International Gambling Studies, their article “‘This is just so unfair!’: A qualitative analysis of loss-induced emotions and tilting in on-line poker” uses voluntarily provided player narratives to address the causes and effects of tilting.

The conclusions drawn by authors Jussi Palomäki, Michael Laakasuo, and Mikko Salmela confirm several theories already understood by many poker players, including underscoring the detrimental effects of losing emotional control at the tables as well as demonstrating the value of experience when dealing with losses. Even so, the study provides some insightful explanations of the causal processes underlying these theories, noting how both psychological and cultural factors can be involved.

Throughout the study the authors demonstrate an awareness of the online poker subculture as well as a knowledge of the game’s history and various associations (e.g., with masculinity and with other gambling games). In addition to the many academic works in sociology, psychology, and gambling studies upon which the authors draw, they additionally cite familiar poker-related titles including David Hayano’s Poker Faces, Tommy Angelo’s Elements of Poker, and Jared Tendler’s The Mental Game of Poker (written with Barry Carter).

The authors also ably discuss the relative importance of luck and skill in poker, further dividing the skill component into “both emotional and technical aspects.” To paraphrase their point, poker rewards both an understanding of odds and probability as well as the ability to handle one’s emotions and not allow, say, tilting to cause one to make poor decisions.

As the authors’ subjects come from Finland, they appropriately couch their findings within the country’s cultural context and in particular highlight the significant place of the Protestant work ethic within it. They explain how Finland and other Nordic states are perhaps distinct from certain other Western capitalist economies thanks to government-imposed systems of social care, with Finland especially marked by “prominent systems of progressive taxation and social security, along with strict laws preserving workers’ rights.”

Thus might the “harshness of poker” contrast especially sharply with the “ethos of fair compensation” understood by many in Finland (the authors argue), although the idea still readily applies to other countries whose values have been shaped by ideas of fair compensation and being rewarded for one’s work.

The methodology employed by the authors involved recruiting participants from Finnish online poker forums to contribute narratives about their online poker play with specific instructions to focus on describing emotional responses to big losses. In addition to providing the narratives, players also identified themselves further by age, education, and playing experience (number of hands played online and years playing poker). A total of 60 participated, with six of the narratives tossed out as “‘mock’ replies.” The authors subsequently analyzed the submitted stories primarily to discover particular themes and note which among them proved to be most prominent.

Five themes were ultimately highlighted by the authors as common to many of the narratives about losing at online poker: (1) dissociative feelings (e.g., emptiness or disbelief), (2) moral indignation and chasing (feelings of unfairness/unjustness followed by attempts to correct), (3) depression, anxiety, sadness, and sleeping problems in the aftermath of tilting; (4) dwelling on the significance of luck and/or variance; and (5) the benefits of poker experience.

The discussions of each theme include quoted passages from the narratives that help illustrate the various points.  Each section is then followed by further analysis from the authors that is in many cases is genuinely eye-opening.

For example, while addressing the various behaviors exhibited by players during “the aftermath of tilting” (depression, anxiety, etc.), the authors convincingly connect those feelings with “self-rumination (inability to ‘let go’ of negative consequences of decisions made)” while also noting how inexperienced players are more likely to be susceptible to self-rumination than those with more experience. They then carry that discussion into other contexts such as social constructionism and evolutionary psychology in order to explore further the various forces at work — both cultural and individual — that can cause such responses.

Players whose narratives dwelled upon the importance of luck and/or variance additionally highlighted another key difference between inexperienced and experienced players, namely, that those in the former group more likely believed “bad luck (bad beats, ‘opponents’ good luck’) was a direct cause of negative emotions,” while the more seasoned players “often reported that self-made mistakes were a direct cause of negative emotions.”

In the end, the study could be said to outline in a studious way a kind of “stages of grief”-type narrative for online poker players who experience losing at the virtual tables. All more or less begin with the dissociative feelings, then tend to move through moral indignation, chasing, and (often) feelings of disappointment in an effort “to recover a positive emotional state.” However, the more experience a player has, the less severe (and detrimental) is his or her “tilting” behavior, thus helping illustrate the idea of players developing the so-called “emotional aspect” of skill in poker.

The conclusion further explores differences in responses to dealing with “bad beats” versus dealing with “bad plays,” a distinction which again tends to be more readily recognized and appreciated by more experienced players than by less experienced players.

The small sample size for the study earned some criticism in a recent Two Plus Two thread regarding it, but such comments were likely informed by expectations regarding studies of poker performance for which there exists an obvious need for substantial sample sizes (e.g., many subjects or many hands). Here, though, such a need is perhaps less crucial, although the study would certainly have benefited from the gathering of additional data.

For those interested in reading the study, the primary author Palomäki offers information about obtaining a copy in the first post of the above-mentioned Two Plus Two thread.


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