How to deal with irrationality? A lesson from the Poker game (or the Presidential election)!


Humans are rational beings … or, are we? All our economic theories are based on an assumption of rationality of participating humans. Yet, all of us have, some time or other  have experienced irrationality while dealing with our family members, friends, colleagues, partners, and strangers! We saw irrationality at its peak in the recent Presidential Elections in US. And, believe me or not, I have been challenged by my own irrationality at times!

When we encounter an irrational behavior, it baffles us  … especially when we are faced with it unexpectedly. I always wondered, more often than not as an afterthought, how I could have handled a situation better when faced such a behavior. 

Seeming randomness is an inherent quality of the Irrational behavior. That is what throws you off your feet the most. It seems humanly impossible to think of a counter-measure to a random offensive position that an irrational person might take.

Haseeb Qureshi in his book “The Philosophy of Poker” talks about the randomness, albeit from a perspective of using it as a tool to win in Poker. He observes that humans are pretty bad at randomness. For example, if asked to imagin random outcomes of 20 coinflips without having an actual coin in hand,  we will usually end up very close to 10 heads and 10 tails. So it is important to keep in mind that a person behaving irrationally might be actually faking this randomness – just like a good poker player -and if we are careful enough, we can quickly unearth a ‘method behind madness’ and counter it effectively. It is possibly our own failure to detect and address the irrationality early on in the relationship that could be a problem. 

Haseeb also talks of some very interesting concepts such as gameflow: the “momentum” of the match, a pattern of decisions made over time, each decision influencing subsequent decisions. The two main elements of gameflow are simulated (faked) randomness and emotional dynamics. It is the emotional dynamics – emotions and the perception of emotions – that makes us weak when we deal with irrationality and gives the person acting irrationally an upper hand. I know an old saying: “I am not worried that old woman died, I am worried that now the death has become emboldened”. Our every emotional response to the irrationality, that can be and often is perceived as weak, emboldens it. 

Thus, I see two takeaways for myself: (a) be vigilant and recognize the pattern behind irrationality early on in the relationship – don’t let the faked randomness throw you off, and (b) design an emotional response such that it is not perceived by the irrational counterpart in the transaction as weak (that might involve bluffing as if you have stronger cards in hand)! This can help us snatch the momentum and turn the gameflow in our favor. 

A lesson that might be well worth putting in practice! 

I welcome your views/ questions ...

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