Italian robotics study into nature of gazing offers poker-related insights

Haley Hintze Author Photo
Haley Hintze
Posted on: September 2, 2021 04:44 PDT

Does being under the steely gaze of an opponent at the poker table make you hesitate before choosing how to act? Researchers at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology) have discovered that the nature of gazing is hard-wired into the human brain. Being observed forces humans to pause and rethink their pending decisions.

While that seems obvious on its surface, there's an added kicker: the observer doesn't even have to be human, nor does the gaze even have to be real. The researches discovered that simply by positioning a robot opponent so that its "eyes" appeared to stare at a player during a simple strategy game, the human player slows down.

The Italian researchers, Marwen Belkaid, Kyveli Kompatsiari, Davide de Tommaso, Ingrid Zablith, and Agnieszka Wykowska, discovered that social gazes affect human neural activity in a way that impacts interactive strategy games such as poker. “Think of playing poker with a robot," wrote the research team's leader, Wykowska. "If the robot looks at you during the moment you need to make a decision on the next move, you will have a more difficult time in making a decision, relative to a situation when the robot gazes away. Your brain will also need to employ effortful and costly processes to try to 'ignore' that gaze of the robot.”

Human-robot gaze interactions parallel those between humans

The researchers explored how humans reacted against a robotic opponent that appeared to either be interacting with them by staring at them, or looking in a different direction. The team recruited 40 test subjects, instructing each to play a simple strategy game, "Chicken," against various robot opponents.

The researchers learned that human test subjects displayed slowed responses whenever they established a mutual "gaze" with the robots. However, the decisions the humans made didn't change at all. Only the processing time for those decisions was affected. The study wasn't conceived as a test of how humans process strategic decisions, but was instead designed to see humans react when under direct, social observation.

The players were hooked up to electroencephalographs that recorded their neural activity. The researchers determined that the human players spent so much mental energy in dealing with the robotic gaze that it slowed down their entire decision-making processes. The researchers conceptualized the project, called InStance, to determine when and how people might treat robots as "conceptual beings". In an increasingly automated and roboticized world, how humans react to being observed will gain importance.

The research took place within IIT’s “Social Cognition in Human-Robot Interaction” lab and was funded by the European Research Council (ERC). The study's findings appeared on Monday in Science Robotics.

Poker tells expert Zachary Elwood concurs with study's findings

That the Italian researchers were able to quantify how being under a watchful "eye" slows down thought processes came as no surprise to poker-tells expert Zachary Elwood . "It makes sense that a gaze, even a robot's gaze, can slow down reactions," Elwood told "There's something primal activated in us when we detect an observer: our brains scan for threats; we try to visualize ourselves from that new perspective; our social instincts are triggered."

Elwood noted the "mapping over" to poker of the study's findings, much as the researchers themselves described. The author of the acclaimed books Reading Poker Tells, Verbal Poker Tells, and Exploiting Poker Tells believes it applies to all in-person games.

"Staring at someone when it's their turn to act puts them on guard," Elwood noted. "[It] raises their defenses and makes them more competitive, and they'll tend to think longer. Some poker players like to stare at their opponents as a consistent style because it can be an intimidating approach and may induce anxiety and errors."

Featured image source: "Eyes"  by  courosa  is licensed under  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0