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More On How Evolution Has Failed Us

by Greg Raymer |  Published: Feb 23, 2022


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In my last article I discussed our human ability to detect patterns. More importantly, I discussed how we have an ingrained desire to not only see, but to believe in detected patterns, even when we understand intellectually that we shouldn’t. Unfortunately, there are many other ways that evolution has failed us, at least in regard to some aspects of modern life, and in poker.

Another important area where we harm ourselves is in our understanding of cause-and-effect, and in our desire for meaningfulness. We seem to have an inherent desire for there to be a meaningful cause for any effect that happens to us. And the bigger the effect, the more impactful it is, the greater we believe the cause must be.

I’m sure you are aware of the numerous theories, and conspiracy theories, that surround the assassination of President Kennedy. The simple explanation is that one crazy guy, Lee Harvey Oswald, hatched his plan and succeeded in killing the President.

However, the assassination of the president of the most powerful country in the world has a huge effect. It is of massive significance. Our mind believes that such a massive effect must have required a massively meaningful cause for it to happen. We don’t want to believe it could just be one lone gunman, a crazy individual. That is too meaningless of a cause to have created such a massive effect.

By the way, I’m not looking for a debate on any of the theories surrounding JFK’s death. I have no strongly held beliefs or opinions on the matter. My point is that whatever the truth may be, we as a people were never going to accept that such a trivial cause could have yielded such a powerful effect.

Compare this to the assassination attempt on President Reagan. This was also, at the most basic level, a lone gunman, a crazy man, John Hinckley Jr., who shot the President. However, in this case, the President was only wounded, quickly recovered, and there was no long-term impact from Hinckley’s attempt. The effect of this incident was very minor, compared to the successful assassination of JFK. As a result, we were much more emotionally willing to accept the simple explanation of a single, crazy gunman.

The effect was less, and so we accept a less-meaningful cause. This is true of pretty much everything that happens in our lives. Whether to our country as a whole (even the world), or to just ourselves individually. The greater the effect turns out to be, the greater the cause we believe is required. We simply won’t accept that a minor cause created a huge effect. And this is even more true when the effect is negative.

However, in truth, much of life is random. Hinckley did shoot Reagan, but Reagan turned out okay. However, if the bullet had hit a few inches one way or the other, it could have killed him, and that would have had a much greater effect on our country. It was essentially random luck that his injuries were relatively minor, and random luck that humans buy one explanation more than another. (Of course, the efforts of his secret service guards had a huge impact as well. Without them, Hinckley would have been able to aim better, to get off more shots, and would have been more likely to succeed.)

The lesson is not “what we do doesn’t matter.” The lesson is “what we do has a huge impact, but randomness will always have a huge impact as well.” And this is even more true when playing poker. The smarter the decisions you make, the more likely you are to win. The worse your decisions, the more likely you are to lose. But there is so much randomness in poker. You can play for a few hours against vastly inferior opponents, and still lose. Likewise, you can play against more skillful opponents, and win. In the long run, however, your results will tend to reflect your relative skill level. But the long run can take a long time, and it is much longer than most of us realize.

And just like life, the greater the effect, the greater the cause we expect to find. When you take a bad beat and get eliminated from a small buy-in daily tournament, you don’t feel that there has to be a significant cause, because this effect isn’t significant. However, when you enter the main event for the first time, and get eliminated, this is a much greater effect. And you expect there to be an equally greater cause. But that isn’t how it works. It can be exactly the same sort of bad beat or cold-deck that got you in the small daily tournament.

Always remember how great of an impact randomness has on poker, and on life. We cannot overcome randomness. We cannot defeat it. We can’t even minimize it. All we can do is make the smartest decisions possible, in each and every moment, and live with the results. And we also need to be sure we see the truth, as much as we can.

Remember, a great effect does not require a great cause. When something goes wrong, and you’re trying to understand it, and learn from it, don’t fall prey to this common cognitive bias. Try to see the truth of what happened, and learn from that. That is all we can do.

Have fun, and play smart! ♠

Greg Raymer is the 2004 World Series of Poker main event champion, winner of numerous major titles, and has more than $7 million in earnings. He recently authored FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, available from D&B Publishing, Amazon, and other retailers. He is sponsored by Blue Shark Optics, YouStake, and ShareMyPair. To contact Greg please tweet @FossilMan or visit his website.