We’ve all been there. You’re sitting at the poker table, eight hours into a long tournament day, and your stomach starts to growl. Our first thought is often to order some dinner to the table. Before you flag that server down to ask for a menu, however, you might want to think again. Recent research indicates you might just want to go hungry, waiting until you are finished playing to order that meal.
In recent years, poker has changed a great deal. Gone are the days of smoke-filled back rooms populated by overweight and out-of-shape gamblers. Today’s professional poker player tends to put far more effort into health and diet to improve their mental game. Eating and drinking well while playing a big tournament or a marathon cash session has become a far more important aspect of the professional player’s lifestyle as poker has become more of a “sport.” Modern professionals swear that proper hydration and nutrition while playing is a key part of honing their mental skills to the fine edge needed for world class poker.
Psychology has generally believed that people in “hot states” such as hunger or sexual arousal tend to make poor decisions, whereas people in “cool states” tend to make better decisions. Common sense tells us this seems reasonable. In a state of sexual arousal, for instance, it seems likely that we might be more willing to satisfy our desires with an immediate, but potentially dangerous, partner rather than waiting until we get home to our spouse. Likewise, if we are trying to watch our weight, it seems reasonable to suspect that when we are very hungry, we are less likely to ignore the satisfaction of a doughnut right in front of us in favour of waiting for a healthier option later.
Recent studies, however, seem to indicate that the opposite. In a trio of studies recently published on on the open-access science journal PLOS ONE, researchers show that in cases where complex decisions have uncertain outcomes, hot states may well enhance, rather than compromise, the decision-making process, leading to better decisions in the long term.
The three studies tested the effect of hot states on decision-making in two distinct ways. In the first two studies, the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) was given to participants using various methods of controlling hunger, allowing them to test decision-making in both hungry and sated participants.
The IGT is a lab-based test designed to simulate complex decision-making with uncertain outcomes involving four decks of cards. Participants turn over cards from various decks, receiving a smaller or larger reward, or sometimes a penalty, based on the card value. Different decks have different ratios of reward to penalty, which can be deduced as players turn over more cards from each deck. The study looked at whether participants in the hot state of hunger were better or worse at the IGT (as defined by how well they identified and then used the higher-reward decks vs. the lower-reward decks) than participants in the cool state. The difference between the first two studies involved the method of hunger manipulation, with the first study relying on predetermined states, while the second study used more randomized hunger states.
The third study sought to replicate the results from the first two studies, using a different test of decision-making ability. In order to ensure the results from the first two studies weren’t specific to IGT, the third study used predetermined hunger states (as in study one) in a delay discounting task. Participants were asked a series of questions about whether they would like a small reward immediately or a delayed but larger reward later. Reward sizes were varied to make it more complex to work out the true risk/reward for each choice, thus simulating complex decision making in a situation where the outcomes are uncertain.
In all three studies, researchers found a counterintuitive result — one that seemed at odds with previous studies which indicated hot states increase impulsiveness and thereby impair decision-making. In these studies, the researchers found that the hungry participants consistently scored better on both the IGT as well as the delay discounting tasks.
To explain the results, the researchers looked to the methodology of previous studies which tended to focus on simple decisions where the risk/reward outcomes were obvious and easy to work out. By using the more complex decisions of IGT and the delay discounting tasks, the new studies seem to show hunger improves decision-making abilities in cases where decisions are more complex. Researchers didn’t have a definitive answer on the mechanism at work in their findings, though they speculated that a hot state encourages us to base decision-making more on “gut feelings” than on rational weighing of all the options and outcomes. In simple decision tasks, this reliance on gut feel hindered the ability to make good choices, since the outcomes were both certain, and easy to weigh against each other. However, in more complex decisions where the outcome isn’t certain, the researchers speculated that our gut feeling serves us better than weighing incomplete and uncertain outcomes.
Complex decisions are exactly the sort of thing poker players make on every street of a poker hand. Each decision we make is a complex mix of a huge number of variables, from the mathematical odds, to the tendencies of other players, to physical tells, and bet sizing, and the outcome from those decisions is never certain. These studies indicate that we will make better decisions under those conditions when we are in a hot state than we will in a cool state. So the next time you are thinking of ordering a steak while at the poker table, you might want to wait until you finish playing. According to the latest science, eating that steak just might compromise your ability to make the best decisions possible.