The Research

Understanding The Dynamic Nature of Physiological Arousal at the Poker Table

Blake Eastman

Understanding The Dynamic Nature of Physiological Arousal at the Poker Table 

For the most part, physiological arousal is where most of the value of behavior is perceived to be. The situation where a player is bluffing and then attempts to act as robotic and still as possible or the concept of a “poker face” where a player can mask their emotionality. The romanticism of these moments is discussed and reinforced in pop culture and they are ultimately vastly misunderstood. 

First you need to understand that poker is a VERY complex game and there are different levels of interpretation that exist for any given moment, action, or strategy. You can think of a specific dynamic in poker similarly to a piece of art. One person looks at a picture and says “nice” and that’s it. Another person notices the variety of strokes, the color usage, the historical context of the piece, and a lot more. Training and experience is what ultimately brings that level of complexity to life. 

However, the difference in perception greatly influences behavior. Poker is a game of incomplete information. A player doesn’t know what their opponent has but can make logical inferences based on the information available to them. Players are essentially using information to make a decision at VASTLY different levels of complexity. This is very important because a player’s ability to accurately process the information in front of them influences their own behavior. 

For example, an experienced player can be in a situation where they are very likely to have the best hand and not have the deductive power to actually recognize it. They can perceive they are “bluffing” when in reality their hand actually has value, or vice versa. This is one of the reasons why studying the dynamics of physiological arousal at the table is a bit more complicated than people make it out to be.

A player who has a lot of experience playing the game and has worked extensively on their strategy can get into a situation where they are bluffing, they know it's a bluff, and they know that the action they took will make them money over time. They are so used to that action that they aren’t going to experience any dramatic changes in physiological arousal. However, you might take that same player and have them get into a situation where they are bluffing, and immediately after they execute their decision they realize it was a bad one and THEN they start to experience arousal. They are bluffing in both situations BUT one is calculated and perceived correct resulting in lower physiological arousal than the one that is perceived as incorrect. 

We take the same player and look at their arousal across an entire game. In the beginning, they can be in a spot where they are bluffing and experience very little physiological arousal because the situation they are in is relatively standard as previously mentioned, and then we can take a look maybe 6 hours later when they have lost a lot of money, are fatigued, tired, and a bit frustrated, and they can be in a similar situation and they can experience a very high level of arousal. By shifting the context we see a change in arousal. 

This is why studying emotional arousal and its signs is so complex. You need to understand a player’s experience, skill, cognitive health, emotionality, and contextual actions in the game in order to paint a true story of their arousal and in any given session a lot of these variables can change related to the swings in the game. 

Looking at physiological arousal without context is not effective. 

If you are interested in the deeper side of physiological arousal and want to understand more about how we measure it, check out the rest of our blog posts on our research

If you are a poker player and want to dive deep into the practical side of how to use behavior at the table, check out The Behavioral Edge, our free 10 day workshop on poker tells. 

Again, if you have any questions regarding research reach out and let us know.

Me! The guy writing this and the person you see in all of the videos. My entire professional life has gravitated around three things: Poker, Psychology, and Nonverbal Behavior. Below are some of the reasons I am uniquely qualified to discuss poker and tells.

  • I am the Founder of the Behavioral Research company The Nonverbal Group

  • I am the Founder of School of Cards and have been coaching poker for close to a decade.

  • I was an Adjunct Psychology Professor at the City University of New York.

You can learn more about me here

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