Lancaster University Researchers Study the Machivellian Traits of 490 Online Poker Players
Researchers at Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications released a study recently which focused on the playing habits of 490 online poker players. The study tested the Machiavellianism of the players, then made correlations about their style of play.
The results pointed out several traits of the players termed “high” in Machivellian scores, though there are alternative explanations for the reactions of those same players. A good case could be made that their emotional responses point to something other than Machiavellianism.
About Niccolo Machiavelli
Niccolo Machiavelli was a late-15th century and early-16th century Italian diplomat. After his own long career in Florentine politics, Machiavelli wrote a member of the House of Medici on the tactics useful to a politician or ruler. Machiavelli has been seen as the father of modern political science and a modern philosopher by many. Others have seen him as a political satirist, while others viewed him just short of being the Devil incarnate.
Machiavellianism has become a pejorative term for cynical intriguers and corrupt politicians — practitioners of what Machiavelli himself called “criminal virtue”. The researchers, Dr Jeff Yan, Senior Lecturer at the School of Computing and Communications, and his research assistant, Jussi Palomaki, studied online poker players based on the Machiavellian traits they exhibited.
Definition of Machiavelliamism in the Study
To the researchers, Machiavallianism is characterized by the players’ ‘distrust of others’, ‘desire for status’, ‘desire for control’, and ‘amorality’. To uncover these traits, each of the 490 players were asked to fill out surveys to determine these traits.
Then the players were asked to gamble online, while the researchers recorded the results. In studying the players under the stress of competition, they were able to gauge how often they bluffed, how much they bet when bluffing, and their reaction to the deceptions of other players.
Study of Bluffing and Aggressive Play
The study found that players with high degrees of Machiavallianism did not bluff more than players without high levels of Machiavellianism. Instead, when those players bluffed, they made bigger bets. The researchers determined that the players’ did so because they liked to have a high degree of control.
In the poker world, the trait is described as being either an “aggressive” bettor. A gambler has two basic set of traits: loose/tight and aggressive/passive. A player can be loose/aggressive, tight/aggressive, loose/passive, or tight/passive. Loose/tight determines is a measure of how many hands the gambler plays. Aggressive/passive is a measure of how much they bet when playing a hand, or whether they call or raise hands. Poker writers encourage aggressive betting, because it establishes control of the hand and puts pressure on opponents.
Studies of Slow-Playing Habits
Slow-playing is a term used to describe less aggressive betting when a gambler has a (probable) winning hand. Slow-playing is seen as a form of deception, because it signals weakness and thus masks strength. In many ways, it’s the opposite of bluffing, because it lures players into committing funds they are likely to lose.
The research showed that players with a high degree of Machiavellianism get angrier when confronted by slow-playing than players with a low degree of Machiavellianism. The researchers surmized that the high-Macchiavellian players like to maintain control, so they do not like it when opponents show them to be out of control or easily deceived.
Conclusions of the Researchers
Dr. Yan wrote in his conclusions, “Our results also have practical relevance for worldwide poker players. For example, encountering players who are overly emotional after being the target of a slow-play might indicate they are high Machiavellians and prone to bluffing big.
“Calling bets made by these players might be more profitable than calling bets made by less emotional people.”
The Lancaster University professor added, “Also, being the target of a successful bluff might elicit strong emotional reactions from high Machiavellian players. This could happen when a player bluffs an opponent and provocatively shows the bluff afterwards.”
Whatever the traits are called, it is clear that the professors found solid trends which could be exploited, if players keep in mind the research. Players who make aggressive bluffs appear to be more easily manipulated in other highly-charged poker situations. That is useful information to have, but I wonder if the research does not point to other motivations beyond Machivellian ploys.
Comments on the Study
The researchers in this study appear to understand how poker works, and are likely to be poker players themselves. From their education, training, and research, the two researchers are also clearly highly knowledgeable about computing, mathematics, research, and communication. The question is whether their knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of psychology and political science has led them astray in the study.
The various traits studied by the researchers (amorality, control issues, distrust, keeping up appearances) even fit into the general pattern for a Macchivellian politician. The results of the studies seem to point in another direction, though. They point to emotional and psychological reactions to events (anger), instead of a rational and calculated reaction. Unless the research can establish that those angry reactions were calculated to send a message to opponents to improve the gambler’s position in later head-to-head battles, I can’t say that I agree with the conclusions of the research.
Calculated Cynicism and Keeping Up Appearances
Whatever you say about Niccolo Machiavelli, his treatise was about being a rational, calculating politician. While he urged political leaders in “The Prince” about gaining firm control of government and diplomacy, his motivation was uniting Italy and not becoming a tyrant (per se). The oft-quoted question of whether a ruler should be loved or feared has him saying that rulers should be feared more than loved (because “fear” is something you control, while “love” is given), but he adds that it is better to be both loved and feared by one’s subjects.
That’s an important distinction. The idea is that a leader should be rational in their governance. If something bad must be done, it should be quick and ruthless, not drawn out and prolonged. Those remaining should be shown leniancy and justice, so they won’t plot revenge. Machiavelli said one should execute a man if it serves the state’s purposes, but the Prince also should leave his property to his heirs (and treat those heirs with respect). Temper tantrums and losing one’s cool does not exist in Machiavelli, because, by its very nature, such things leave a ruler out of control of oneself. Yes, it instills in one’s rivals fear, but does nothing to instill positive feelings — which is also important.
Narcissism vs. Machiavellianism
In my opinion, the researchers are not studying Machiavellian traits, but narcissistic traits. Read about the traits of someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and those are the traits being studied: the need for adoration, the need for control, paranoia about others’ motives, and a lack of ethics or morals. Also, the players with so-called Machiavellian traits exhibit something very non-Machiavellian: a propensity to be childish and irrational when adversity happens. While an outburst certainly can have an effect on one’s opponents, the traits being exhibited were those shown by online poker players, who presumably were not showing their anger to their opponents.
In short, the players who showed what the researchers termed high-Machiavellian traits were showing a high level of self-absorption: everything had to be run through their own inner filter, on how it affected their own self-image and sense of control. Say what you will about Machiavelli’s philosophy — it might be rational to the point of psychopathy — but it is a philosophy in which everything is calculated. A true Machiavellian is less concerned with self-absorption and more concerned with how their behavior impacts the others in the room.
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