Hacking the Cortex: Cognitive Biases and Tilt

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The phrase “Going On Tilt” has entered the everyday vocabulary in our local playgroup, and I see it more and more often online. In the manner of slang, it creeped and crawled its way from the neighbouring country of Poker Slang into the lexicon of some podcasters who spread the linguistic virus far and wide in our own little community. In Poker and in Warmachine, being “On Tilt” refers to a state of mind wherein your emotions start to override your rational decisions, adversely affecting your gameplay. 

The actual “tilt” mechanism in pinball machines is a pretty solid visual metaphor for the emotional version of “tilt”.

(Further etymological digging suggests that before it was a poker phrase, it referred to the motion detectors in a pinball machine that were designed to stop you physically moving the machine to gain an advantage – if the machine detected Tilt, you would lose the current ball and all the associated points. I was interested in this since the original phrase referred to a situation where you were playing using an advantage unintended by the game system, and it went wrong. How often have you seen a person go on Tilt because their opponent insisted on playing Rules as Written?)

My current theory on Tilt is that it comes about largely as a result of our cognitive biases. Our brains are massively powerful information processing engines, but they were not designed – they were evolved. That means that that for all the power that emerged over millions of iterations of improving performance, there are still multitudes of redundancies, glitches, and jury-rigged systems that were selected to do something else in a different environment and then shoehorned into performing new functions. (My current favourite example that I’ve been using with students: Apes have the neural architecture in the left-brain that we use for language, but apes don’t have language capability. There is currently a hypothesis being tested that this architecture is used by apes for throwing objects at a moving target, and that humans shoehorned this complex architecture for use in language processing. The research involves taking trained throwers and turning off their language centres with magnetic fields and testing their throwing ability. SCIENCE!) The upshot of this is that there are a number of common reasoning errors that humans make if they’re processing information quickly. These biases are “hardwired” in, and we intuitively expect that these automatic thoughts are correct. When these biases turn out not to be true, we suffer cognitive dissonance, which is a highly aversive state that tends to produce emotional reactions as we try to correct it. And so, we Go On Tilt.

In the first part of the “Hacking The Cortex” series, I’m going to talk about some of the cognitive biases that come up frequently in a game of Warmachine/Hordes. Armed with that knowledge, you can appropriately alter your expectations, and perhaps avoid some of the snares that drag you into Tilt.


The Fundamental Attribution Error. Lets start with the grandaddy of them all. The Fundamental Attribution Error is simple – we tend to explain our own errors by appealing to external factors and tend to explain our own successes by appealing to internal traits (The opposite is true when we try to explain the success and failure of others.) In Warmachine terms, the most common external factor is dice while the most likely internal trait is playskill. When things go wrong in a game, we will often blame the dice – be it the failures of our own models to do something, or the opponent’s success in achieving something. I was winning because I was playing well, he turned the tide because his dice were insanely hot. This bias is particularly pernicious in Warmachine because the dice do determine a lot, and so does playskill. It’s easy to flip blame back and forth between one and the other, and we tend to attribute causes in the way which protects our self esteem the most. And when our self esteem is threatened, we Tilt, angrily blaming the external factor. (Sidebar: Recent research suggests that the FAE is not as fundamental as once believed – it is far more prevalent in North American and Western European cultures, which place a higher value on self esteem and individual exceptionalism).


Anchoring Bias. Anchoring bias normally refers to our tendency to use the first piece of information to guide our future decisions – for example, the sticker price of a car is designed to anchor our negotiations to a higher price than the car is worth. Anchoring can also refer to a prominent, often repeated number in a given context. In Warmachine circles, we are often given the information that the “average of two dice is 7”. Many players anchor their expectations heavily on that piece of information. Many a Tilt comes from the fact that we expect the average to occur – we speak about it like it’s “supposed” to happen, rather than it being “slightly more likely to happen than the alternatives”. I can’t count the number of times I, or other players, have said “I’m going for it. On average dice, I kill their caster” and subsequently Tilted when it didn’t go their way.


Gambler’s Fallacy. Relatedly, we have the Gambler’s Fallacy (though it’s not really a fallacy, it’s a bias. But I digress.) Essentially, this bias is the belief that luck “balances out”. If we have an unusually good or bad run of dice, we expect that there will be a similar deviation in the opposite direction in the near future. With dice, this is not the case, as  each roll is independent of the others. This comes about from a misinterpretation of the law of large numbers which states, basically, that luck does even out in a big enough sample. A game of warmachine is most certainly not a big enough sample. (Another sidebar: For the next bunch of games I watchmachine, I’m going to count the number of rolls. For Science.) Obviously, we tend not to Tilt when our good luck continues past the point where we expect it, but we do Tilt hard when early bad luck doesn’t turn back in our favour.


 Which leads us to Negativity Bias and Attentional Bias. We tend to give more weight to the negative aspects of a situation. Further, attentional biases mean that we tend to focus on more emotionally salient aspects of a situation. Combining the two, we get an unpleasant tendency – when we Tilt, we tend to focus on information that will keep us Tilted. When we’re on Tilt, we focus on how low our damage rolls are, even though our to hit rolls have all been above average (for example). We start to notice, more and more, how underpowered our models are and how completely bent our opponents are. And then you enter The Tilt Spiral (catchier name currently in the works.)


There are a whole lot more cognitive biases out there, and when it comes to anything Psychology related, I could literally go on all day. But there’s plenty more time, and there are always more articles. In the next article in this series, I’m going to talk about how to get out of the Tilt Spiral once it’s got its claws into you.

Good night and good luck,

Anthony a.k.a  I_Avian

PS. If there’s any aspect of the “mind game” part of Warmachine you’d like to read about, drop a comment or an email to overload.online.blog@gmail.com.

12 thoughts on “Hacking the Cortex: Cognitive Biases and Tilt

  1. Now, how best do we encourage, subtly, tilt in an opponent? 🙂

    I have always found that psy-ops or mind games are an often over looked and under used part of gaming. It is far easier to win a battle when your opponent is fighting forces they are unaware of.

  2. I have noticed the anchoring bias as especially affecting both myself and opponents. It’s a big factor in Blood Bowl, where people will simply not try something because it’s unlikely to succeed, and are pretty likely to go on tilt because someone else “gets away with it”. I think it’s closely linked to notions of in-game justice.

    • I find the secret is to convince someone that you’re their nemesis and slowly drop hints that because of your vile nemesis magic they will make a stupid decision and fail comically and disastrously. It’s worked for me so far.

      • No longer, Valkine, your power over me is broken!

        Though yeah, it does seem to work pretty well until the pattern breaks.

  3. That is kind of standard isn’t it? I mean in relation to the Nemisis Curse. It is all psychological but it just gets it’s hooks in to you and there is nothing that can be done till it is broken!

  4. Pingback: Hacking the Cortex: Know Thyself | Overload Online

  5. Great post Anthony! I had hear of theorymachine, beermachine, foodmachine etc, but not psychomachine yet, I will certainly be following your post in the future 🙂

  6. Personally, I liked the term “Watchmachine” best. 😉
    That being said, I was positively surprised when reading this article, because thinking about my latest performance at ClogCon (in the NL), I found that I apparently must have matured and grown out of these biases more than I expected.

  7. Pingback: Hacking the Cortex: An Unexamined Game? | Overload Online

  8. Pingback: Hacking the Cortex: An Unexamined Game? - Muse on Minis

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