How paying attention affects our decision processes – Lessons from Poker

By Fatumah Nakayiza

The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova is my favorite book so far, this year. It is about how Konnikova, a writer with a PhD in Psychology embarked on a journey to learn to play professional poker (a game she had no interest in prior, nor had ever played) with an aim to understand better the role that chance and skill play in outcomes after facing a series of negative outcomes her life.

Although poker is a not the greatest metaphor for life, there is something here to learn about the ability to use a specific subject to understand a bigger phenomenon, the ability to draw lessons from one part of your life and apply in another. This kind of depth, however, is better achieved when there is intrinsic rather than extrinsic interest in the subject.

My fascination with this book is, firstly, with the thought process Konnikova used in choosing poker as the master class for her subject, and in choosing her mentor, Erik Seidel (a poker hall of fame inductee). Secondly; with Konnikova’s journey from zero knowledge to champion in the world series games in 2 years and finally, with the invaluable lessons from her journey on decision making, mastering oneself and paying attention.

We make several decisions every day; for ourselves, our employees, our families, our friends. And yet we may not think about what affects our decision processes.

Here are some of my takeaways on how what we pay attention to affects our decision processes:

W. H. Auden wrote, “Choice of attention-to pay attention to this and ignore that-is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences.”

Attention to quick wins

“It’s fine to be to be proud at some milestones… but it is so important to stay focused on the bigger picture and remain aware of how much you have yet to accomplish. It is important not to let a minor victory lull you into thinking you are doing great, when all you’re doing is better than before but not good enough to actually make it count.” – Maria Konnikova

Focusing on the instant wins, rather than the podium finish (long term goals) leads to playing scared, getting bluffed out, instead of trying to risk more/play more aggressively to make a real run for the big win. Konnikova recalls being excited about her min cash wins in Monte Carlo and her mentor mentioning that if she is cashing that much, then she is not playing for the win. It is worth asking yourself how many times in your life decisions, you pay more attention to safer surer thing instead of taking more risk for the more uncertain but ultimately more rewarding option.

Attention as a mitigation for over confidence

“Attention is a powerful mitigator to overconfidence; it forces you to constantly re-evaluate your knowledge and your game plan, lest you become too tied to a certain course of action.” – Maria Konnikova

The relationship between information and confidence is a highly asymmetric one. People can be confidently wrong, even about their own minds.

Konnikova gives an example of one experiment where doctors were asked to form a professional opinion of a patient’s diagnosis based off the patient file. They were also asked to state how sure they were of their conclusions. They were then given more information and asked once again for their diagnosis and level of certainty. The results showed that the diagnosis did not improve but the certainty of the diagnosis was much greater. This disconnect is caused by a misplaced sense of security because of what the doctors thought they knew and therefore failing to take in the new data.

As Seidel says, “Less certainty, more inquiry.” The ability to inquire and pay attention to the information in the present is key to seeing things as they are and hence making decisions more rationally.

Attention to bad outcomes

Konnikova’s mentor made a deal with her early on that he did not want to hear about the results of her games. He did not care whether she won or lost, did not want to know how they ended and wanted her to try as much as possible to forget how they ended. This was to prevent her from becoming overly invested in the negative outcomes, as this would affect her decisions in the next games.

When you’re dealt with bad hands in life, it is easy to go through the spiral of paying too much attention to the bad outcome. We live it all the time without realizing it. In the book, it is compared to dumping your garbage on someone’s lawn (or your own lawn), it just stinks. It poisons your mind. It affects how current decisions are made e.g. you may dismiss new options without trying or may fail to see opportunities of overcoming the misfortune. Konnikova writes that it is key to perceive yourself as an almost victor, not the victim, to pay attention to the process, the skill, the things you can control and not the outcome.

Attention to the sunk costs

Konnikova describes the sunk cost fallacy; as when people continue a course of action because they have already invested time and energy in it. In some of her games, she found herself continuing to play, because she had already put a lot of money in the pot, when what she really should do is fold and call it a day. In business, and in life, paying attention to the sunk costs and making decisions based off it, will inevitably lead to losing more. Take an example of a company developing a product that the end user no longer needs just because a heavy investment in time and money was already made. This is true in life too. I remember once sitting through a 4 hour live musical I found extremely boring just because the tickets had cost a fortune. I could have done something more enjoyable or productive with that time. This example may be on the lighter side, but ask yourself, how many life decisions have you made based off sunk costs?

Attention to oneself

This, in my opinion is the most important of them all. The ability to observe yourself as an external party, to tune into the way, you are thinking and feeling, and how that is impacting your decision process allows you to redirect your process if needed and improve your decisions. It is about taking full responsibility for your actions. Ask yourself, what am I thinking? Why am I thinking this way? What am I feeling? Why am I feeling that way? In a typical workday, there are several back to back activities happening and it is easy to get overwhelmed and impair your decision-making process. Konnikova mentions how getting up and taking walks when she was rattled at the table helped clear her head, even though it meant losing a few chips. These actions are not intuitive, so must be built through a robust self-awareness. Only through paying attention to oneself, can one pay attention to the surroundings.

“Here is the truth: most of the world is noise, and we spend most of our lives trying to make sense of it. We are, in the end, nothing more than interpreters of static. We can never see beyond the present moment. We don’t know what the next card will be…” Maria Konnikova “…The most we can do is control what we can – our thinking, our decision processes, our reactions”

Article originally published on Fatumah’s website

Fatumah is a Supply Chain Management nerd with international experience from Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, France and United Arab Emirates. She is fascinated by the intersection of technology, psychology and organizational development. She passionately believes in the use of technology as a tool for positive change to the self and society. Using her experience of living and building a career on three continents, paired with personal coaching, she is keen on helping women in their self and career development process.

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