New addition to The Library in St. Pete

June 28, 2018

The latest addition to The Library in St. Pete is Thinking in Bets – Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts,  authored by Annie Duke, the professional poker player who began her career when, at age 26, she quit the cognitive-psychology doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania.  The Wall Street Journal review of her book calls it “the dissertation she never got around to finishing.”

Ms. Duke writes that “our brains weren’t built for rationality” and “they aren’t changing anytime soon” so decision-makers have to “figure out how to work within the limitations of the brains we already have.”

As with many of our irrationalities, how we form beliefs was shaped by the evolutionary push toward efficiency rather than accuracy.  Abstract belief formation (that is, beliefs outside our direct experience, conveyed through language) is likely among the few things that are uniquely human, making it relatively new in the scope of evolutionary time. (p.51)

Duke maintains that the highest-level performers in any field have developed habits to compensate for cognitive biases and unconscious habits.

Among her recommendations are organized skepticism and truth-seeking accountability groups, as well as assorted forms of “mental time travel”:  backcasting, premortems, Ulysses contracts, and moving regret in front of a decision.

The WSJ review nicely summarizes Ms. Duke’s thesis:

Ms. Duke suggests recasting our judgment calls as bets. “We don’t win bets by being in love with our own ideas,” she writes. “We win bets by relentlessly striving to calibrate our beliefs and predictions about the future to more accurately represent the world.” Thinking about choices this way brings with it a profound attitudinal shift, from binary right-wrong thinking to a “probabilistic” approach, in which we choose “among all the shades of grey.” This reframing has a clarifying effect. “The more we recognize that we are betting on our beliefs (with our happiness, attention, health, money, time, or some other limited resource),” Ms. Duke writes, “the more we are likely to temper our statements, getting closer to the truth as we acknowledge the risk inherent in what we believe.”

Moreover, when we state our judgments circumspectly in the form of a bet, we are more inclined to revise them with the arrival of new information. “When confronted with new evidence, it is a very different narrative to say, ‘I was 58% [certain] but now I’m 46%,’ ” writes Ms. Duke. “That doesn’t feel nearly as bad as ‘I thought I was right but now I’m wrong.’ . . . This shifts us away from treating information that disagrees with us as a threat.”

She also argues that the role of skill and luck in sports and business makes it difficult to just “work backward” from outcomes to the decisions we made.

Think about this like we are an outfielder catching a fly ball with runners on base.  Fielders have to make in-the-moment game decisions about where to throw the ball:  hit the cutoff man, throw behind a base runner, throw out an advancing base runner.  Where the outfielder throws after fielding the ball is a bet.

We make similar bets about where to “throw” an outcome:  into the “skill bucket” (in our control) or the “luck bucket” (outside our control).  This initial fielding of outcomes, if done well, allows us to focus on experiences that have something to teach us (skill) and ignore those that don’t (luck).  Get this right and, with experience, we get closer to whatever “-ER” we are striving for:  better, smarter, healthier, happier, wealthier, etc.

It is hard to get this right.  Absent omniscience, it is difficult to tell why anything happened the way it did.  The bet on whether to field outcomes in the luck or skill bucket is difficult to execute because of ambiguity.  …

Outcomes don’t tell us what’s our fault and what isn’t, what we should take credit for and what we shouldn’t.  Unlike in chess, we can’t simply work backward from the quality of the outcome to determine the quality of our beliefs or decisions.  This makes learning from outcomes a pretty haphazard process. (p.86)

© 2018 Ballast Point Ventures. All rights reserved.