Forward and Backward Thinking

“Jeopardy! James” Holzhauer won a total of 2.7M dollars during his appearances on Jeopardy!. It was a financial and cultural success as bar flies asked each other, have you seen this guy?

During the week his run ended, Holzhauer appeared on the Wharton Moneyball podcast to talk about his approach on the show as well as what it is like to be a sports bettor. While his interview was good, this part stood out the most:

A stunner of a Daily Double OR “someone suggested they could make the questions really easy and any advantage I had is negated and I’d purely have to win on the buzzer.”

Most of the time people find themselves thinking about the first suggestion; harder questions. However, difficulty is a dial that can go both ways. Rather than ask how can James get fewer questions correct someone on the show could wonder, how can not-James get more questions correct?

Daryl Morey said of the early analytics movements that coaches quickly picked up the advantage of corner-threes—offensively. However, “If you knew threes were good on offense you had to know they were bad on defense but that whole marriage hadn’t happened yet.”

There are two obstacles to seeing things forward and backward.

First is that people love to see cause and effect as well as assign responsibility. Put another way, we rarely consider the conditions of the system, and their effects.

Second is that people settle for one-right-answer. I blame school. ORA works for complicated questions in stable fields: solve this chemical formula. ORA also works for simple questions in complicated fields: what motivated this purchase? ORA does not work for complicated questions in complicated fields. We call this “most of life”.

Thinking forward and backward then provides one tool for approaching problems. For practical use, whenever you hear an adjective like good, low, recent think of the opposite like bad, high, or ancient and think about how turning the dial in that direction might have beneficial effects too.