Our problem with randomness

Beyond basic math, maybe units of ten, we don’t have a good handle on numbers. We are a story-telling species who likes to see cause and effect. The example of randomness demonstrates this as Maria Konnikova told Adi Wyner:

“I had a fascinating conversation with Frank Lantz at the Game Center at NYU who used to be a serious poker player and is currently a game designer. He explained that oftentimes their random number generator isn’t random because people complain, they say the game is rigged because if something is truly random we might be getting a bunch of these outcomes in a row. Game designers say it is bad game design to have an actual random number generator.”

It’s not true only for games but also for Jeopardy Daily Doubles, Spotify and Apple shuffles, and fraud.

One of the ways our storytelling species acts is as the protagonist of the parable. In one study, researchers told students they would draw random numbers and letters out of a can. If they matched what the students chose, the students would win.

If the students were assigned their random numbers, say from a draw of a different can, the students bet less. If the students were assigned their draw based on their name or college, they bet more. If the students chose their numbers and letters, they bet the most.

The students took the most risk when there was a connection because a connection allows for a story. When things are truly random though, stories are harder to tell.

In the world of Thinking Slow, this seems like a bad thing but there are advantages to every disadvantage. Our search for stories allows for magic. When there is a story we are willing to bet, do, and relate more. This allows for magic (see below) and the creation of value simply by using psychology. Put another way, words and choices are cheap ways to improve experiences.

Maria’s book is The Biggest Bluff, and Rory Sutherland explains magic in Alchemy.

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