Knowledge of biases isn’t enough

Learning about biases is a great first step to becoming more rational, but ultimately, it’s not enough. Why? Because facts don’t change minds. To a first approximation, we actually never change our minds. So how do you expect to change the biases in your mind, buried deep within your most basic, hard-wired habits? Do you think you can just impose high-level understanding from your deliberative, conscious mind down onto these primitive parts of your brain? Using English? Do you think your habits know English? No — they don’t. But there are still ways to get the attention and compliance of your lower brain. The normal way this happens to people in their everyday lives (usually by accident) is when something serious impacts their health, status, or net-worth. Basically anything that triggers survival instincts can prompt humans into questioning what they’re doing and jolt them into considering a revision to their habits.

Since you’re human, one of your default habits is constantly expressing cognitive biases. If you’d like to change that, you can’t just learn more information about biases. You have to actually make your mind care on its deepest levels. Why not intentionally put one of those three things on the line to trigger your mind into caring? Gambling with your health is risky, so let’s not do that. Endangering your status is difficult and tends to be so viscerally terrifying that most of us can’t reliably do it. Do you really want to risk alienating your friends, losing your job, or getting thrown out of school as a shortcut to getting your mind’s full attention? Probably not. I recommend you instead risk a small portion of your net-worth playing online poker. The great thing about poker is that if you play it correctly, the habits you lock-in over time are the same ones that reduce your biases… all the way down to the deepest levels of your mind… where your biases actually reside.

There’s another reason you can’t just overcome your biases by “learning them away”. The feedback cycles are too slow. It can takes decades or entire human lifetimes for sufficient feedback (evidence) to reach you on its own accord. The pain from poor decision making is spread so thinly throughout your life that your mind will never feel the need to change. Rely on knowledge alone and you’ll be stuck with your sub-optimal, bias-filled habits forever.

Online poker is different though. There’s money on the line. The feedback is immediate. Your mind fully cares. The more rational you play, the more money you win. It won’t always be easy though. If you can’t adapt to form correct views quickly, you will be punished repeatedly with losses at the tables for irrationality. And if you are consumed by overconfidence, self-serving bias, gambler’s fallacy, or any other number of biases, you’ll play poorly and lose until you make corrections. On the other hand, if you put in the time, you’ll learn to conquer these biases and make more rational decisions. That’s when you start winning money on top of being more rational.

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2 Responses to Knowledge of biases isn’t enough

  1. Pingback: What’s your Irrationality? « Game Theory Ninja

  2. David says:

    One pitfall, of course, is that in the short term (which is all our brains really pay attention to), good decisions can be punished and bad decisions can be rewarded in poker. In fact, this often happens; I think an important part of this training should be learning to have a grasp of when wins/losses are statistically significant.

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