On Magic and Decision-making
Fragment from imaginary dialogues
“Thinking Mastery is a both additive and subtractive process.
Absorbing quality-information and improving your capacity to think and, equally important, minimizing our strong natural tendency to make errors of judgment.
I realize, I’ve been focusing too much on the additive aspect, and too little on the subtractive aspect. I decided to address that.”
“Doesn’t the former also address the latter?”
“Not by default. Combating errors of judgment is a very specific process. You need to know what you’re dealing with (specific knowledge acquisition), and to develop a practice for systematically dealing with them (deliberate practice).
The end goal is to eventually integrate the two together, such that the additive and subtractive aspects become one. I call this process deconstruction / integration.”
“What’s your approach?”
“Errors of judgment come in two flavors: cognitive biases and illusions, and logical fallacies. The former are the most important, so I started by focusing on them. I’m using this [<link] beautiful resource as the starting point. I want to create a mind-map with all of them, and to also create flashcards with each.
The practice starts with noticing them (observation / introspection).
That is, being constantly on the lookout for when they occur, and creating opportunities for them to occur.
Take Magic the Gathering for instance.
That’s a perfect micro-environment to work on several biases at once (which makes it a high-density practice):
Confirmation Bias: tendency to favor information that confirms our existing beliefs.
Self-Serving Bias: tendency to take credit for successes and deny responsibility for failures.
Resulting: tendency to equate decision-quality with outcome-quality.
Hindsight Bias: tendency, after an outcome is known, to think of it as having been inevitable.
Fundamental Attribution Error: tendency to blame the person when other people make mistakes, but to blame the circumstances when we make mistakes.
“What would you say is the most impactful of these?”
“Resulting, because it has the biggest potential to improve my decision-making more generally.
I got the concept from a book I’m currently reading called Thinking in Bets [<link], written by a former professional poker player named Annie Duke. The book has been a paradigm shift for me.”
“What other big-ideas have you gotten from the book?”
“One of them is,
Life is Poker, not Chess.
We crave certainty, so we create in our mind fixed – and often rigid – models of the world. We like to think that life aligns as neatly and predictably as Chess. Whenever we make a good decision, a good outcome is certain to follow. And, when life does not conform with our fantasies, we manage to maintain them through skillful application of Confirmation Bias.
I call this the Illusion of Order – our tendency to imagine the world as more orderly than it actually is.
Unlike Chess, Poker (and Magic the Gathering) is a game of incomplete information, a game of decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. Just like life.
In Poker (and Magic), it is possible to lose with a good hand and win with a bad one. Just like in life.
There’s much more uncertainty in our decision-making than we realize. To become a better decision-maker, you need to account for that uncertainty. You need to separate the decision-quality from the outcome-quality.
Annie takes it one step further:
All decisions are bets (on an uncertain future).
All decisions involve risks.
All decisions have an opportunity cost.
In our neat little fantasy world, we tend to operate under a black-and-white reductionistic decision-making model:
‘Good’ decisions produce good outcomes.
‘Bad’ decisions produce bad outcomes.
Under conditions of uncertainty, a better model to base your decisions on is a probabilistic one. According to this model, decisions fall on a continuum: from 0% probability to 100% probability.
With this model, we get a more nuanced image of what a good decision looks like:
A good decision is an informed decision.
A good decision takes into account multiple perspectives / models.
A good decision takes into account our tendency to make errors of judgment.
A good decision is a decision that increases the probability of obtaining the desired outcome.
For a long time in Magic the Gathering, I was focused on the outcome. Whenever I won, I took it as confirmation of how good a player I (thought I) was. Whenever I lost, I blamed it on luck, and felt a strong impulse to play again, in order to confirm how good a player I (thought I) was.”
“Reminds me of a quote by Mark Rosewater [the head designer of Magic the Gathering]:
If you blame luck for your failures, you’re never going to get better.
“There’s a life lesson in that.
Turns out I wasn’t as good a player as I thought I was. Far from it. With this realization, I finally started to improve.
I’m now focused only on the process, on playing as well as I can, and at the end of every game, whether I win or I lose, I ask myself:
Could I have played better?
There’s a life lesson in this too.”