Saturday, January 3, 2009


In the December issue of Scientific American, Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer argues that we - all animals, really - are hard wired parano... Para... Paranoiacs? Paranoids? That natural selection has favored paranoia in animals. The example he gives, and I think it's a good one, is rustle in the grass. Imagine yourself being a gazelle. And the tall grass on the savannah rustles. There's a very low probability that this is a tiger and not just the wind, but it's also trivial to see how the gazelle with the paranoid gene - causing him to run every time the grass rustles - will have a better chance of survival than the gazelle who decides it's probably nothing, simply because the price of running is a little energy, whereas the price of ignoring the potential threat is sometimes death.

This gene is obvious in almost any animal. Not all animals run from what they perceive to be a potential danger (notably, dogs tend to bark at it instead), but our warning systems have been fine tuned over millions of generations, and they're still there even for those of us who are now at the top of the food chain.

Shermer calls this behavior "patternicity" and defines it as  "the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise." I've written about this before, and I'll say it again: Poker is an excellent example of this gene coming into effect. It's not surprising that "Online Poker Is Rigged" is one of the more common topics, or that people think they consistently lose with aces. The reason we find the "I'm so unlucky" pattern when playing poker is because what will happen is this:

  1. We play 10,000 hands.
  2. Let's say that during these 10,000 hands, we have exactly as much bad luck as good luck.
  3. After we're done playing, we will have 10,000 hands in our memory, but some of them are already almost entirely forgotten (hands where we folded preflop) some of them are mostly uninteresting (hands where we bet the river and the other guy folded) and some of them will stick out a little bit (big pots that we've won) and some of them will stick out a lot (big pots we lost) and some of them will be a big spike of painful emotion: Big pots we lost because the other guy got lucky.

As time passes, the boring hands start to fade more and more, and what we're eventually left with is the spikes: The big pots, and most notably the ones that we lost. So we think back on all the hands we played, and all we can remember is how incredibly unlucky we've been. Take this one step further and assume that we don't really believe in bad luck (seriously, people do?) and we must assume that either we're experiencing some really bad variance, or there's something about how the poker sites have implemented their random number generator.


As a sidenote to evolution and genes, I'm reading Richard Dawkins' "The Blind Watchmaker" right now, and I'm almost ready to become a hobby zoologist. It all just seems so interesting.

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