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Intuition can be built up over the years but most of us would do best to treat our inner voice with a healthy dose of caution

Watching poker on TV, it’s constantly amazing to see the quality of decisions made by some of the top pros – from their ability to make a good call with only middle pair, to their uncanny knack of laying down big hands pre-flop. It’s something we aspiring poker players can only dream of doing.

It’s not necessarily the case that using your intuition will lead to a good decision


Psychologically speaking, however, it’s much more interesting to try to discover exactly what it is that allows the likes of Devilfish and Phil Hellmuth to make such plays: is it their years of experience, knowledge of the game and number of hands they’ve played, or might it be something a little more metaphysical, such as an inner voice they listen to – often referred to as intuition.

There are many self-help books out there claiming that the quality of the decisions in our daily lives can be improved by using intuition, but none of them are really able to put their finger on quite what intuition is or how it works. Nevertheless, it seems that intuition is a trait or an ability that we all aspire to have – in fact, many top companies now list it as an important quality on their job descriptions.

One distinguished author, Professor Stuart Sutherland, even claims that we would rather be classified as lazy or selfish than as having poor intuition!

Intuition is generally characterised as a non- conscious, rapidly produced decision, which involves using information from a diverse number of different sources, and which has some kind of emotion attached to it. We tend to make intuitive decisions (as opposed to more ‘rational’ decisions) when we are under some kind of time pressure (this might ring a few bells with internet players), and the decision is one we would struggle to explain out loud to another person.

Sources of information

Intuition draws upon a vast array of information to draw a conclusion and often from things we’re not consciously aware of. It could be drawing on something you read two weeks ago, something you saw on TV last night, or something someone said to you four months ago that the rational part of your brain had long since forgotten about. And when we do reach our intuitive conclusion, there’s an emotion accompanying it, like a feeling of overwhelming happiness that our decision is the right one, or a sense of dread and despondency.

However, assuming that intuition does in fact exist (and there are those who claim there is no such thing), there is still a large amount of disagreement as to the quality of intuitive judgements. It is not necessarily the case that using your intuition will lead to a good decision. In fact, many people claim that rational decision-making – where the steps to reach a decision are transparent – leads to a much better quality of outcome.

Intuition can be a double- edged sword, and one that is honed by the fallibility of our memory. When we make an intuitive judgement and it turns out to be a good decision, we make a mental note to rely on our intuition in future. However, when the decision turns out to be a poor one, we very quickly forget about it. It’s quite easy to relate this to the poker table; for example, you have a strong draw post-flop and you’re not getting the correct odds to call, but you stick your chips in the middle anyway because you have a gut feeling you will hit one of your outs.

When your card does come, you’ll grin, pat yourself on the back and comment to anyone within earshot that your intuition told you to make the call. But when it all goes pear-shaped and you lose a big pot, you’ll very quickly and conveniently forget your ‘intuitive’ failure.

Learning process

However, assuming that intuition can lead to good quality decisions, is it possible for us to hone our intuition? Some researchers claim that it is, simply because intuition actually derives from our expertise in a given field. By building up a vast database of domain- specific information, for example, by playing poker for several hours every day (and assuming that we explicitly learn from such experiences), we will automatically make better decisions.

So when faced with a re- raise from a tight player, we intuitively know to fold A-K pre-flop unless we are ready to race. But we won’t always be able to articulate as to how we have arrived at our decision, we’ll just ‘know’ that it was the right one. Unfortunately, the bad news is that researchers also claim that we need at least a 10-year period for achieving the necessary level of expertise.

So, having put in the time, perhaps Hellmuth and Devilfish can place more faith in their inner voice than most. For the rest of us, perhaps we should treat our intuition with a little more caution, and listen to our iPods sooner than our inner voice that’s whispering ‘call that all-in with bottom pair’.

Dr. Paul Seager has a PhD in psychology and is a senior lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire. He’s an expert in deception detection and has been combining it with playing poker for over three years

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