The Illusion of Free Will & Soccer

The Illusion of Free Will & Soccer

My previous post was about post-action rationalization, the idea that we often do things at an instinctual level and then apply a rationalization to them upon reflection, after the action has been completed. Our rationalization sounds logical and supports the idea that we have free will, that our decision was based on specific factors we identified, and that we consciously chose to do something. An understanding of post-action rationalization helps reveal the illusion of free will.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl uses the example of a soccer player to demonstrate how post-action rationalization works. The soccer player reacts to situations in the game as they develop. They don’t do complex math to calculate the best angle to kick a ball, they don’t paus to work out the probability of successfully scoring a goal based on passing to one player over another, and they don’t pause to think about all the alternatives available to them in any given moment. Their minds pick up on angles, speeds, past experiences, and other unknown factors unique to each situation and players respond instinctively, without conscious thought guiding how they move and what choices they make. According to Pearl, this instinctive and intuitive processing should challenge the idea that we have free will. It should challenge the idea that we consciously chose our actions and behaviors and cause us to think that we respond to situations without a real knowledge of why we are responding. Nevertheless, we all feel that we have free will, even if we know the feeling described in the sporting event example.
This illusion of free will has some benefits. Pearl writes, “the illusion of free will gives us the ability to speak about our intents and to subject them to rational thinking, possibly using counterfactual logic.” Free will helps us talk about the stimuli around us and how we respond to them, and it helps us by providing reinforcements for outcomes that go well and admonishment for outcomes that should be avoided in the future. It is useful by creating a sense of agency and feedback between us.
Pearl continues, “I would conjecture, then, that a team of robots would play better soccer if they were programmed to communicate as if they had free will. No matter how technically proficient the individual robots are at soccer, their team’s performance will improve when they can speak to each other as if they are not preprogrammed robots but autonomous agents believing they have options.”
As artificial intelligence and robotic capabilities progress Pearl may come to regret this quote. However, it is a helpful lens to apply to human evolution and how we arrived at our current mental states. Matter arranged itself to become self-reproducing and eventually became self-observant. By being able to attribute agency and free will to its own actions, matter became even better at self-replicating and self-preserving. This is the argument that Pearl ultimately makes through his soccer analogy. Robots might in the future be the most proficient at soccer without a sense of self, but at least at times in human history we have been served well by our illusion of free will. It has helped us organize and collaborate in complex social and political societies, and it has helped us work together to create the world we now inhabit. Free will may not truly exist, but the illusion of free will has helped us do everything from play soccer to launch satellites so that we can watch other people play soccer from the other side of the planet.
Loss Aversion & Golf

Loss Aversion & Golf

Daniel Kahneman presents research from University of Pennsylvania economists Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer to demonstrate the power of loss aversion in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Pope and Schweitzer specifically look at golf, and how professional golfers perform when putting to demonstrate that loss aversion factors into the golfers’ performance, a conclusion that to me feels both obvious and surprising at the same time.

 

Professional golfers don’t seem like the kind of people who should  be subject to loss aversion on the course. Their performance doesn’t seem like it should be subject to the knowledge that a putt will earn them a birdie, or prevent them from scoring a bogie. However, Pope and Schweitzer challenge this thinking. Kahneman writes:

 

“Pope and Schweitzer reasoned from loss aversion that players would try a little harder when putting for par (to avoid a bogey) than when putting for a birdie. They analyzed more than 2.5 million putts in exquisite detail to tests that prediction.
They were right. Whether the putt was easy or hard, at every distance from the hole, players were more successful when putting for par than for birdie.”

 

Golfers don’t want to shoot over par. They perform better when they face the possibility of being over par rather than when they have a chance to be under par. Exceeding par is viewed as a loss which the golfers want to avoid while putting for birdie is an achievement to gain. Somewhere along the lines, golfers understand this and their physical performance is altered, decreasing the likelihood of a successful birdie putt, but increasing the likelihood of a successful par putt. Loss aversion is a powerful force, even in places we would not expect, like professional golf putting performance. If even professional golfers, who practice continually and are paid for their performance on the course are not able to avoid loss aversion, then we should recognize that it can play a huge role in our own lives, and we should invest in systems and structures to help us avoid making costly mistakes in our own lives from biases related to loss aversion.

City Growth – The Sports Play

I’m a fan of the research and work that comes out of the Brookings Institute, a generally center-left think-tank in Washington DC that I believe does a good job at looking at politics and policy holistically, and is able to get beyond the partisan rhetoric that dominates most of our political landscape. An area of interest for many of the writers and policy experts at Brookings is the area of economic development in metropolitan areas, particularly as related to sports and business retention. Two Brookings experts, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at how Indianapolis used sports to help jump-start the city’s economy, but present the information in a way that shows that reliance on sports alone is not sufficient to develop a thriving middle class and robust regional economy.

 

“A sports-based development strategy,” they write, “can take a city only so far. Sports attract tourism and visitors. Game time enhances demand for lodging and restaurants. Name teams may have an intangible effect on the attraction and retention of innovative firms and talented workers. But in the end, the sports industry thrives on low-wage jobs and does not represent a model of economic growth for a city or metropolis. Beer and hot dogs are not the stuff of a sustainable middle class.”

 

In their book The New Localism, the authors talk about the efforts that Indianapolis took to attract and retain an NFL football franchise and also to attract the NCAA headquarters. They go on to further explain how Indianapolis was not content to simply rest on being a sports headquarters and reinvested the energy and revenue from sports to drive and build new sectors. Sports teams can help be a support for a local economy, but they will never be a major driver, and on their own don’t appear to be worth the enormous tax breaks and stadium construction assistance that many cities and states seem eager to provide.

 

As Katz and Nowak stated, sports can have intangible benefits for communities like city pride and can serve as a hub for local events. But cities need to provide other attractions and benefits for their citizens. The people need additional higher paying jobs than can be found in a stadium and need real innovation to keep pace in our globalized world. If cities and states over-invest on the sports side, they may miss out on developing and investing in the factors that can make cities dynamic and competitive in the long run. Ultimately, sports teams can be a good attraction and can serve as a spark for energy and investment in making a city a good place to live and do business.

Mob Danger

I remember taking a psychology class in college and learning about the ways that human psychology changes when we are in large crowds. We are less likely to call the police when we see a crime being committed if we are around lots of other people in a public place. We become more extreme in our actions and behaviors than we would be on our own. In a sense, we give up our conscious reasoning and begin to act more like fish swimming in a school, reacting to everyone around us and not maintaining our individuality.

 

In his book Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes about crowds, generally encouraging the man he was writing to stay away from them. The reason why Seneca encourages avoiding crowds is because they seem to create a pull toward vice in a way that being on ones own does not. Especially, Seneca says, we should avoid the games – as in gladiator battles where he describes the inhumane way that men and women at the event encouraged the slaughter of other human beings.

 

I think Seneca is correct in saying that being in large crowds encourages bad behaviors and can push us to act in ways that we otherwise would find abhorrent. But, I don’t think it is necessary for us to withdraw from crowds entirely. I think we should still participate in crowds and allow ourselves to be engaged with our culture, but we should approach crowds with a mindset that keeps us aware of what is taking place around us and how we are acting. Effectively, I think we should approach crowds with the mind of a journalist.

 

I work a lot of sporting events assisting the media department at the University of Nevada. I am deeply upset by how quickly men and women at sporting events will turn to insults profanity when they are upset by something that happened in a game. I feel almost as though I was the one insulted when I hear disgusting comments hurled at opposing teams and referees. Because I engage with reporters at the game and because I sit in a place where I cannot cheer, I have learned to look at the behaviors around me and to observe the event without feeling compelled to allow myself to be overcome with emotion and behave in a way that would embarrass my grandparents if they were sitting next to me.

 

Additionally, I am not religious but I do attend church services from time to time with my wife. I find that observing the service and bringing the mind of a journalist with me is helpful in that it allows me to learn, to try to connect dots between religion and what I try to develop as scientific empirical beliefs, and to observe how human connection can flourish in a religious context. Instead of brooding and rolling my eyes in the face of something I do not believe, I find that I can be more thoughtful and considerate if I am aware of my emotions and reactions and focus on being an observer rather than a direct participant. Both in the world of sports and in the world of religion, I find that I can be around crowds better when I approach the crowd with deep self-awareness and do my best to be cognizant of what is happening around me, the emotional reactions that are stirred up, and how other people are behaving relative to the baseline that I think is reasonable to maintain. I am cautious around crowds, but I don’t have to avoid them as Seneca encouraged, because there is a lot to learn about ourselves from large groups of people.