Saturday, July 25, 2009

Does he play multi-coloured 2 diamond? I think we should be told

Malcolm Gladwell (I know, I know) on the psychology of overconfidence, courtesy of Languagehat:

Jimmy Cayne grew up in Chicago, the son of a patent lawyer. He wanted to be a bookie, but he realized that it wasn’t quite respectable enough. He went to Purdue University to study mechanical engineering—and became hooked on bridge. His grades suffered, and he never graduated.

He got married in 1956 and was divorced within four years. “At this time, he was one of the best bridge players in Chicago,” his ex-brother-in-law told Cohan. “In fact, that’s the reason for the divorce. There was no other woman or anything like that. The co-respondent in their divorce was bridge. He spent all of his time playing bridge—every night. He wasn’t home.” He was selling scrap metal in those days, and, Cohan says, he would fall asleep on the job, exhausted from playing cards. In 1964, he moved to New York to become a professional bridge player. It was bridge that led him to his second wife, and to a job interview with Alan (Ace) Greenberg, then a senior executive at Bear Stearns. When Cayne told Greenberg that he was a bridge player, Cayne tells Cohan, “you could see the electric light bulb.” Cayne goes on:

[Greenberg] says, “How well do you play?” I said, “I play well.” He said, “Like how well?” I said, “I play quite well.” He says, “You don’t understand.” I said, “Yeah, I do. I understand. Mr. Greenberg, if you study bridge the rest of your life, if you play with the best partners and you achieve your potential, you will never play bridge like I play bridge.”

Right then and there, Cayne says, Greenberg offered him a job.

Always wondered how DSL and I managed to get doctorates. Presumably because we never played bridge as well as Jimmy Cayne.

It makes sense that there should be an affinity between bridge and the business of Wall Street. Bridge is a contest between teams, each of which competes over a “contract”—how many tricks they think they can win in a given hand. Winning requires knowledge of the cards, an accurate sense of probabilities, steely nerves, and the ability to assess an opponent’s psychology. Bridge is Wall Street in miniature,

Wha-? Winning requires, among other things, a good bidding system for communicating with one's partner, and mastery of the system - which is why the Italian Blue team wiped out the opposition in the 70s. A Strong Club system enables a partnership to signal a strong hand at the lowest, cheapest possible bid, thus leaving maximum bidding space for determining whether game or slam can be made, and if so what what the trump suit should be; the partnership outflanks the opposition by getting better contracts for its cards.

In bridge, a partnership normally demonstrates its superiority in duplicate bridge: pairs in a whole roomful of tables play identical hands, and the one that gets the best results wins.

In bridge, the value of a hand is relatively fixed. An Ace is an Ace is an Ace, can be beaten only by a player with a void in the Ace's suit and a trump in hand. The value of hands depends, not on confidence, but on the rank of the cards and the trump suit.

What Gladwell says:

It isn’t, however. In bridge, there is such a thing as expertise unencumbered by bias. That’s because, as the psychologist Gideon Keren points out, bridge involves “related items with continuous feedback.” It has rules and boundaries and situations that repeat themselves and clear patterns that develop—and when a player makes a mistake of overconfidence he or she learns of the consequences of that mistake almost immediately. In other words, it’s a game. But running an investment bank is not, in this sense, a game: it is not a closed world with a limited set of possibilities. It is an open world where one day a calamity can happen that no one had dreamed could happen, and where you can make a mistake of overconfidence and not personally feel the consequences for years and years—if at all.

This sounds like the pronouncement of someone who knows nothing about the game in question. It would be perfectly possible to devise a game that presented similar challenges to those involved in running an investment bank; bridge happens not to be that game. Which may very well be what Cayne liked about it.

But this is silly. Someone is Wrong on the Internet. Here.

1 comment:

SnowLeopard said...

I've always felt somewhat guilty about not reading Gladwell, but now I don't, thanks to this discussion. It's a lot like the fatuous comment that "chess teaches strategic thinking". Sure, it might -- for chess. But no one seriously thinks that playing chess is meaningful preparation for leading an army into combat. And, despite Gladwell's line of thinking, no one seriously thinks that chess players imagine themselves qualified for military command.

I've been thinking, though, that I'd like to see a good scholarly account of the systemic and cognitive errors that contributed to the financial collapse, along the lines of James Reason's Human Error. It just doesn't look like Gladwell will be its author.