(This originally appeared at Globis.jp, in a series on critical thinking.)
I once knew a man who loved to play the slots in Las Vegas. He never came home a winner, but he insisted that he was. His problem wasn’t luck he explained, “I’ll be playing slots for about hour – and I know it’s going to pay out soon. But something will happen. I’ll run out of silver dollars, maybe. So I go to get more and when I come back a woman will be playing my machine and it will hit big. It always happens that way.”
One could easily decide that a gambler this unlucky – who always left a machine just before it paid off – should cease gambling entirely. That’s not the way the gambler saw it.
The gambler liked this story because he was portrayed as not without luck, but rather lacking faith in his luck. In his narrative he always stopped playing just before the machine paid out. Sometimes he stopped to order a drink, other times he went to get more coins, still other times he went to the restroom, almost always allowing someone else to reap the fortune that would have been his had he played a bit longer.
This narrative allowed the gambler to hold his head up, to not feel like a loser. All he needed was just a little more faith, a few dollars more, and surely he would hit it big. The story fit his needs very well. He thought he could discern a pattern in all this and fit it into a nice narrative. When he won, that proved that he was lucky, especially after playing for a long time, because it rewarded his faith in his luck. When he lost that simply meant that he needed to play a little longer.
His problem was partly the gambler’s fallacy: That each roll of the dice, spin of the roulette wheel, or turn of the slots, makes it more likely that a certain incident will happen. A gambler might think that if a roulette wheel comes up black five times, then it is more likely to hit red on the next one — that the previous results influence the probability of the next play. They don’t, the odds never change. Roulette wheels, slots, and dice have no memory.
The gambler was also displaying a more common problem, which has to do with how we experience and remember events. It was the confirmation bias, the inclination to focus on information that supports our beliefs, combined with memory errors, such as the highlighting of the unusual and the slighting of the mundane. (“When I carry an umbrella, it doesn’t rain.”)
Our memory clings to moments that stand out – particularly if they support what we believe. Anecdotal evidence is powerful and our memory goes about sifting and sorting until we have a narrative that fits what we think. It is the heavy hand of the past (as we remember it) weighing on the present.
Dice have no memory, but we do and that is a problem for us because we trust it so much. So should we clear our memories and disregard experience? We can’t and we shouldn’t. We know things — a lot of things — from experience. The problem is that we don’t know as much as we think. Worse, we’re unaware of this because some of our best stories, ones that are so important to us, may simply be lies we have told ourselves.