What puzzles and poker train us about misinformation


Right here’s a vacation quiz query for you: what do puzzles, poker, and misinformation have in frequent? The reply is on the backside of this column.

Let’s strive a better query first. In Santa’s workshop, if it takes 5 elves 5 minutes to wrap 5 presents, how lengthy does it take 50 elves to wrap 50 presents? You most likely know the reply to that one; it follows a traditional components for a trick query.

However as you groped in direction of the right reply you could have needed to battle off your intuition to blurt out a tempting unsuitable reply: 50 minutes. The arithmetic isn’t any problem for an astute FT reader; the issue with this drawback is pausing for the transient second needed to hold that arithmetic out, whereas heading off the apparent however incorrect reply that pops into your thoughts unbidden.

An much more well-known instance is the “bat and ball” query: if a bat and a ball collectively value $1.10, and the bat prices a greenback greater than the ball, how a lot does the ball value? Ten cents, screams the instinctive response, but it surely doesn’t require a spreadsheet to work out that that isn’t proper. It simply requires one to cease and assume (or to have heard the query earlier than).

And right here’s a much less well-known one: in case you flip a coin 3 times, what’s the chance of flipping at the least two heads? A naive response is that two out of three flips want to return good, and the possibility of that’s one-third. A extra subtle response recognises that three coin flips produce eight potential combos — so maybe the chance is three out of eight? Work via these eight combos, nevertheless, and also you realise that the true probability is 50-50.

Questions equivalent to these are referred to as cognitive reflection issues. They have been made well-known by Daniel Kahneman in his e book Pondering, Quick and Gradual, however they have been developed by the behavioural economist Shane Frederick. They range in problem, however the splendid cognitive reflection drawback has a solution that’s easy, apparent, and unsuitable — in addition to an accurate reply that isn’t too onerous to calculate.

The behavioural scientists Gordon Pennycook and David Rand, typically working with different colleagues, have printed research drawing the connection between cognitive reflection issues and on-line misinformation. Typically individuals see false claims and share them impulsively, not as a result of they can’t determine that the claims are false, however as a result of they didn’t cease lengthy sufficient to strive. Recognizing pretend information, like realising the ball prices simply 5 cents and the 50 elves wrap 50 presents in simply 5 minutes, requires us to cease and assume for a second. And who has time for that as of late?

Pennycook and Rand have discovered that individuals who rating larger on Shane Frederick’s cognitive reflection check additionally do higher at distinguishing reality from politically partisan falsehood. In addition they carried out a survey which discovered that most individuals have been completely capable of distinguish critical journalism from pretend information. Once they amplified absurd headlines equivalent to “Over 500 ‘Migrant Caravaners’ Arrested With Suicide Vests”, they did so not as a result of they wished to unfold misinformation, nor as a result of they themselves have been unable to detect lies, however as a result of in a world filled with distractions they hadn’t actually stopped to assume.

Let’s transfer from puzzles to poker. To the uninitiated, poker is a recreation involving three parts: luck, calculation and deception. However skilled poker gamers have instructed me {that a} fourth ingredient is simply as vital: controlling your feelings, or extra usually, failing to take action — within the lingo, “happening tilt”.

In her spellbinding foray into skilled poker, The Greatest Bluff, the psychologist Maria Konnikova describes “tilt” as “letting feelings — incidental ones that aren’t really integral to your choice course of — have an effect on choice making.”

This may increasingly imply blind rage, as within the story of the gambler so incandescent that he rammed a billiard ball into his mouth then realised he couldn’t take away it. However as Konnikova factors out, it could even be a constructive emotion equivalent to taking a liking to a fellow participant, or feeling pleasure at profitable a hand.

We can not escape our feelings, however clear decision-making requires that we discover them and take them into consideration. And simply as a poker participant can go on tilt, so can any of us as we learn the headlines or scroll via social media.

Certainly, we must always count on these headlines to be “tilting”: headline writers goal for impression, whereas social media thrives on emotional engagement from pleasure to fury.

“The objective,” writes Konnikova, “is to be taught to determine our feelings, analyse their trigger, and in the event that they’re not really a part of our rational choice course of . . . dismiss them as sources of data.” Good recommendation for poker gamers. However good recommendation for anybody doomscrolling via Twitter or shouting on the radio throughout the morning information bulletin.

My recommendation is solely to be aware of your emotional response to every headline, sound chew or statistical declare. Is it pleasure, rage, triumph? Effective. However having observed it, preserve pondering. You could discover readability emerges as soon as your feelings have been acknowledged.

So what do puzzles, poker, and misinformation have in frequent? Some puzzles — and a few poker fingers — require monumental mental sources to navigate, and the identical is true of sure delicate statistical fallacies. However a lot of the time we idiot ourselves in easy methods and for easy causes. Decelerate, relax, and the battle for reality is already half received.

Tim Harford’s e book, ‘The Knowledge Detective’, is printed by Riverhead books in February


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