Annie Duke, like her siblings Howard and Katy Lederer, is a former world champion poker player. She was also a PhD candidate in psychology. And she is the daughter of distinguished linguist, author and teacher Richard Lederer. With this background, she was the ideal person to write a book like Thinking In Bets, a concise little treatise on how to make more informed and rational decisions — and let’s face it, the lack of critical thinking skills is a huge problem in the world today (particularly in the U.S.) that really needs all the remedial literature it can get.
This is not a book about poker, though it uses anecdotes from gambling, sports, politics and business to illustrate the concepts presented. One of the central ideas is that it would benefit us to regard decisions of any kind (whether accepting a job offer, moving, or selecting a candidate to vote for) as a form of wager. In each case, you are risking something in order to gain something, and the objective is to make certain that the potential gains outweigh the risks– and that you have a grasp of how probable each outcome is.
The book is subtitled “Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts”. And quite often, that’s what we are called upon to do. We don’t have all the facts, for instance, about climate change or COVID-19. But armed with what knowledge we do have, we can make the most sensible decisions under the circumstances about the best courses of action to take.
Lately, I’ve been enjoying the Netflix sci-fi series The 100, which is compelling viewing for several reasons. But having read Duke’s book, I realize that one reason I find it so appealing is that the characters are constantly “playing poker”. Which is to say, they are facing situations in which they are compelled to make an urgent life-altering (or even life-saving) choice, when they do not have all the pieces of the puzzle at their disposal.
In that respect, life has more in common with poker than with chess. As Duke mentions, chess is a game of pure skill; for any given situation, there is an optimum decision to be made, and a player who always makes the optimum decision with no mistakes is guaranteed at least a draw. But poker, like life, is a game of both skill and luck, because there is always a certain amount of information you cannot be privy to. Politicians have been referred to as gamblers with the public’s future, and that’s not meant in a complimentary way. But the thing is, they have no choice but to do a certain amount of gambling. They have to make decisions, and no matter how well they prepare, they can’t foresee all of the factors that might come into play. (It just might help, however, if they’d at least read the bills they vote on!)
Unfortunately, this blend of skill and luck causes confusion about which is which. As Duke notes, it’s particularly common (indeed, a universal human trait) to attribute one’s own successes to skill, and the successes of others to chance — while attributing one’s own failures to chance and the failures of others to poor choices.
Such traits make us prone to a fallacy that poker players call resulting, which means judging the soundness of a past decision by the results it produced rather than by examining the principles followed. A classic example, which she refers to repeatedly in the book, was the decision by the coach of the Seattle Seahawks to pass rather than run from the one-yard line in the closing seconds of a Super Bowl. The result was an interception that cost the Seahawks the championship. The media and the sports world were all over this, universally denouncing it as just about the worst decision ever made in the history of the NFL. But in fact, an interception, though it did occur on this occasion, was an extremely unlikely outcome. The numbers actually stacked up heavily in favor of the decision to pass. In other words, it was a sound decision, even though it had a disastrous outcome.
Another notorious example that comes to mind (though it isn’t in the book) was a mission undertaken by President Jimmy Carter to rescue hostages in Iran. It failed because of a freak helicopter crash that probably would have occurred only once in several million trials. But this happened to be that one time. As a result, it denied him a chance to greatly boost his reputation as a leader (which was tarnished in part due to having the hostage crisis on his watch — also the luck of the draw). In general, Carter is viewed as a weak president by many because of such factors beyond his control — he probably should be ranked higher than he usually is. (His administration was involved in another rescue mission that was quite successful, daring and highly imaginative. But the public didn’t learn about it until much later — mostly by watching the 2012 film Argo. )
To be clear, it’s certainly essential to consider the results when evaluating overall strategy and policy. Many people, for instance, want to outlaw abortion because that’s what makes them feel good. And they might be able to cite some specific examples to reinforce those beliefs. But overall, the results show that it’s counterproductive. For such an issue, soundness of policy actually should be determined by its overall results. “Resulting”, on the other hand, is a danger only because it is applied to specific incidents to draw general conclusions.
If, in the popular poker game of Texas Hold’em, you stay in the pot with opening cards of 7-2 of different suits, you might get lucky and win the hand. Consequently, you might conclude that’s a sound decision in general. (Indeed, Duke mentions she has encountered players who have insistently done just that.) But if you keep track of your winning percentage playing those cards over time, you will see that such a decision is disastrous — in fact, those are the absolute worst cards you possibly could be dealt! And yet in some cases you might want to play them anyway; as with many of life’s decisions, much depends on the specific circumstances. Two years ago, it would have been absurd to suggest that everyone should wear a mask in public; but at this writing, it’s absolutely vital. In 2016, electing Joe Biden president might not have seemed like a terribly exciting prospect. In 2020, it became literally a matter of life and death.
The tendency to “result” makes people prone to what Duke calls “motivated reasoning”. That, on an individual level, is the debilitating fallacy that societies as a whole have been guilty of since the beginnings of the human race. (See the book The Evolution Of Everything for a discussion about “top-down” thinking.) The fallacy consists of beginning with a premise and then hanging your reasoning on that premise and selecting your facts to reinforce it no matter what. It isn’t just confirmation bias (which is often, though not necessarily, a bad thing) but confirmation bias in the service of “sky hooks” — i.e., arbitrary beliefs that were chosen on the basis of personal preference and limited experience rather than a regard for comprehensive and objective fact.
One of the most memorable literary incidents that illustrates both thinking in bets and defying sky hooks is that moment in The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn when Huck has to decide whether to help Jim escape to freedom. As a barely literate small-town youth, there is certainly much information that he doesn’t have. But he can still weigh his options in the balance.
The big sky hook under which he has been raised is the premise that persons with dark skins are inferior beings destined for forced servitude. This sky hook is so solidly ensconced that it’s regarded as a moral truth, upheld by religious conviction. He even declares, upon reaching this turning point, that he’s willing to “go to hell” to help his friend. But that’s what his conscious mind is saying, based on how he’s been indoctrinated. Subconsciously, he seems very clearly to be making a wager: balancing, on the one hand, his bigoted upbringing, and on the other hand his personal experience as Jim’s friend. And he has reached the conclusion that despite his misgivings, honoring the latter over the former is the moral thing to do.
One of the most harmful and persistent of sky hooks is the notion that science and scientists can’t be trusted. It might be a tempting attitude to adopt sometimes, because there is always information we still have not obtained in any particular branch of science. Even so, when we weigh the qualifications and track record of scientists against the qualifications and track record of anti-science demagogues, it shouldn’t be difficult to choose which to lay our money on.
Another common trait human beings exhibit that is predictably irrational (to use a phrase that serves as the title of another fascinating book on human behavior) is the tendency to evaluate a trend according to the most recent events. As Duke reports, gamblers consistently leave the table feeling like upbeat winners if they have been mostly successful during their past few bets — even if they are in the hole for the total session. And conversely, they leave feeling like downtrodden losers if they leave on a bad streak — even if they have a profit for the session. This kind of reaction leaves us prone to misconstruing statistics and trends and, perhaps more important, to being manipulated by people who want us to misconstrue. To conjure up another literary example, this is precisely what happens in 1984 when the authoritarian government grants citizens a modest increase in their chocolate ration. The citizens lavish their praise on Big Brother for his generosity, totally forgetting that he had previously cut their ration by a greater amount.
In order to steer clear of sky hooks (or “motivated reasoning”) and manipulation, Duke offers the simple (yet often neglected) recommendation that you avoid limiting yourself to any one viewpoint. One of the deadliest mistakes a business leader can make is to surround herself with “yes men” (or women). It’s much healthier and more productive, she says, to insert dissenters and devil’s advocates into the mix. Well, yes, in general that’s sound advice. But there’s a little caveat: the dissenters and devil’s advocates are probably just going to waste your time if their convictions are rooted in fantasy and misinformation.
She extends this principle, for instance, to include differences in political ideology. Conservatives, she says, should be willing to listen to liberals and vice versa. That would be all well and good under normal circumstances (whatever “normal” even means anymore) but at the present moment in time, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find sanity in conservatism (or “conservatism”). How much value can you really derive from listening to people who believe in QAnon, a “stolen election”, and Jewish space lasers?
Still, the observations she offers are as a whole quite valid and valuable. Thinking In Bets is not a profound or earth-shaking book, but it’s illuminating and entertaining enough to be worth a peek.