Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Defeatism, responsibility, cognitive biases, you know, stuff

I was thinking about a recent Scrabble game I lost, in which there were two notable turning points:

1) I had a solid lead through the midgame, despite my opponent outbingoing me 2 to 1. I had a clunky rack, something like BEEGKIR, and a choice to either play something like IRE to block an open bingo line at the top of the board or play KEG for about the same score down low, improving my rack and hampering a less dangerous line. I had reason to think my opponent had good tiles and possibly the last remaining blank, but the line wasn't the only one on the board, and I decided that playing through the BEGK leave was asking for trouble. So I played KEG, and my opponent played TRAVOISE with a blank for 83. So I was kicking myself for that, at the time...I was behind a pace after the bingo, with maybe 20-25 tiles left in the bag.

2) I was able to battle back to almost even a couple of turns later. The tile pool was looking grim, but I was keeping the right stuff - low-point consonants to cope with the vowels I expected to draw. What I really needed was the H, since there was a 35ish spot for it. With seven tiles left in the bag, I got the H, and I had the tiles for the 35-point play. If I make this play, the only way I can lose is if my opponent bingos from an S. The pool is now AAEFINOPTUUV. If she doesn't have SANATIVE, SAPONITE or SUPINATE, I win. If I don't make the H play right away, but instead block the bingo line for about 5 points, and she plays where the H goes, I'll be really struggling, especially since my rack won't be good. She might not play there, particularly if she doesn't have the P to form UP, but it was a pretty obvious scoring spot...but she just exchanged four. Okay, so she kept something like ENT, EAT...doubt she'd keep P on an exchange there. Probably threw back OUUV or something awful. But even if I pick that junk myself, my 35-point H play will be enough - she has to bingo. So I play the 35-point play. And she had SANATIVE, so I lost.

I haven't taken a close look at the probabilities here, and I don't know what she kept when she exchanged, but that's not what I'm on about today. After the game, my first thought was, jeez, two big mistakes and a loss to a player rated much lower than I am. Whenever that happens, you always tend to think that sort of thing at first. Upon reflection, though, my first decision above wasn't wrong - there were other places to bingo, with words she probably would have found, and crippling my rack to block would have been incorrect. And the second...I could come up with ways to maybe justify blocking for 5 points, maybe it was some Nigel-like think outside the box deal, but I suspect not. I think I'd take the 35 and pray again. Sometimes decisions like that backfire, right or wrong; that's just the game.

But what I'm interested in here is the feeling I got when I realized that my plays hadn't been grievous mistakes. There was that sense of "well, there's nothing I could have done - if she's going to draw like that, I was going to lose no matter what I did" - and the weight lifted, of course: now I'm not responsible for what happened. (That isn't true in this case or in most, by the way, and I accept it now: I'm sure that I made some other decision in the game that might have been suboptimal. I almost never play a game without some leakage somewhere. You never can say what would have happened if you'd played optimally unless the evidence shows you did, so you can never know for 100% sure that a lost game was unwinnable, even though some almost surely are and this one might have been.) It's the sense of vanishing responsibility I experienced in the moment that I'm thinking about.


And how it applies to daily life. Life isn't a discrete series of matches - my decisions in this game had no effect on the game after it (which I won against the top seed, thank you very much), but in life, your decisions can and often do have that power. This is how an enduring sense of futility builds up: you lose a lot over time (insert your own definition of "losing at life" here), and it often seems like it wasn't anything you did or didn't do, and you perceive that that's the way the table tilts, and so when you make questionable choices you don't penalize yourself the same way. This is defeatism at its essence - I'm going to lose in the long run anyway, so I might as well do what makes me most comfortable or costs the least effort right now, even if the long-term expected value is negative. What difference does it make?

I've heard this described as "poor people thinking" - if you're poor and have no reason to think you won't be anytime soon, when you come across $5, you say, hell with it, I want a 40 and a bag of Doritos, and that's exactly what I'm going to get, even though I know why I shouldn't, because it's so damn rare I get even the smallest and most fleeting satisfactions. Doesn't matter how much you lose by if you know you're gonna lose. A rich person would never think that way - he or she might want the beer and chips and might get them if compelled enough in the moment, but the beer and chips don't offer near the same short-run stress relief, so it's much easier to make the decision to forgo the immediate gratification for larger ends.

That's the chicken or the egg. Are unsuccessful people - in any area, not just talking about money - unsuccessful because they've always thought in the ways that unsuccessful people do, or did a steady diet of losing encourage them to develop that mentality? I think it has greatly to do with the relative cost of mistakes. Everyone growing up makes plenty of mistakes, but if you're in a successful, optimistic, supportive environment, the cost of your mistakes will be minimized. Some of them will be papered over, and if that's not possible, people willing and able might bail you out, and if *that's* not possible, well, boys will be boys. You'll have room to flail until you get it right, and you'll have lots of good advice along the way.

If you're in an unsupportive, negative environment, though, your mistakes are going to cost a WHOLE lot. One night of mischief as a 17-year-old and you might find yourself homeless or behind bars for ten years, if you're unlucky enough. People won't stand up for you or whisper helpful hints in your ear, the education system will fail you, employers won't hire you, judges won't grant you leniency. Is it possible to overcome this? For a determined enough person, yes. Could most people couched in favorable circumstances pull off such a miracle if they suddenly had to? No, whether or not they're willing to admit it. But even if you start out up against it, if you get a couple or three good breaks, you might make out okay. You grow up needing too many of those turns of a friendly card to get by, and it's natural to develop the idea that you're always at the mercy of whatever comes your way - because, well, you pretty much are, in a way that people in more positive environments cannot understand. (Yeah, life isn't fair, duh, but that's something to acknowledge and work to alleviate the pain therefrom, not celebrate.)

People need at least some quantity of hope to operate - and establishing that hope is far more difficult for people whose circumstances disserve them. And in the absence of that hope, it's understandable how people develop defeatist habits of mind. It's a self-perpetuating machine. Once a Scrabble or poker player goes on "tilt", as it's called, they start not investing their energy in making wise decisions, because they've come to believe their decisions won't affect the outcome. I might as well complete this game with 20:37 left on my clock, since I'm screwed anyway. I might as well get that 40 and a bag of Doritos. So their decisions get worse, and their outcomes get worse, and they despair more, and they don't try as hard, and their decisions get worse, and their outcomes get worse...but what's the benefit of that, you ask? Well, if you start from the assumption that you're screwed no matter what, you no longer have responsibility for the decisions you make. If you feel trapped by that responsibility - with the sense that you're doing all the work for none of the reward - defeatism provides you a way out of the trap. People aren't stupid. If they see no benefit to playing ball, why would we expect them to do it? Defeatism looks completely illogical, but it is often a logical response to an illogical situation, as the defeatist is able to see it.

Which admittedly has little to do with the game I discussed before - wherever I might be defeatist, Scrabble isn't it, and I was plenty optimistic and dialed in until the loss was assured. But as important as it was for me to recognize that a great many games people think are sure losses are winnable by better players - and I think this one probably was, somewhere in there - it's just as important for me to recognize that it's a lot harder to win some games than others. That one was tough. Giving yourself, or someone else, too little credit is just as bad as giving too much.

And while Scrabble luck tends to even out in the medium-to-long run, life luck is much more complex and it's absurd to think it's anywhere close to even over as short a span as a lifetime. So while we don't want to enable bad luck as an excuse for repeated losing - if you take that approach with your Scrabble game, you'll keep losing, trust me - we can at least try to ease the worst snowball effects of bad circumstances (that is, keep people from going on tilt, as we are able) and stop blaming or crediting personal qualities so much for people's successes and failures. I think we make this mistake because humans are very narrative-driven and it's a much more engaging story if someone's a hero or zero because of what's inside him; it lets us explore these qualities, motivate ourselves with them, know ourselves through them. If it's a roll of the dice, we don't get to do any of that. Of course life isn't *totally* a roll of the dice, but this bias would lead us to underestimate how much of a roll of the dice it is. This bias might help us aim high, but it also makes us unfair as hell to each other. I'm not sure we're coming out ahead there - we might be better off accepting and working with the uneven ground rather than denying it.


  1. thanks for this; the message resonates strongly with me.

  2. The famous quote comes to mind: "Life is 10% what happens, and 90% how we react to our circumstances."

    After I lost my son, I could have curled up in the fetal position and thrown my life away. Trust me... there were days I wanted to do that. But I worked hard to find the good in even THAT horrible circumstance and over the past nine years my life has been blessed in countless ways. The business has thrived; I got married; raised another child; developed an even better relationship with my oldest daughter. Life has been good... except, of course, for that shitty part about missing my son.

    After enduring something like that, we come to realize what's really important in our live.