Chance, Ignorance, and Human Behavior

Compass at rest

Reading Jared Poley’s Luck, Leisure, and the Casino in Nineteenth-Century Europe: A Cultural History of Gambling (a fine book on the subject), a 125-year old observation struck me as relevant to those of us who have questions about the future, which I guess we all do, since future events will affect us in the future.

“The Science of Chance,” published in an 1899 issue of The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, posited that nothing really is left to chance, but that what we call chance only appears when things happen that we don’t intend or control. “Chance is merely a name for human ignorance, and apart from human ignorance…it would not be even thinkable.”

In other words, everything happens for a reason–we just might not understand the reason. With enough information and analytical power, everything can be predicted. Humans have learned a great deal about their world, which means that things that once seemed to be “pure chance,” the caprice of fortune, or divine will are now understood as the outcomes of humanly intelligible processes.

If, in this model, we have detailed enough information about the mass and shape of the coin, the precise temperature, barometric pressure, and air flow, the exact force with which it is propelled, as well as its precise angle, even a coin flip is not at all a question of unknowable chance, but rather our lack of good data. With the right facts, we can call it correctly every time.

So we can build bridges, tolerably certain in how much weight they can bear. We can track the skies, confident that no extinction-brining comets are in the vicinity. We can look into the human body to diagnose and, hopefully, treat, a variety of maladies. From that perspective, it seems that the “Science of Chance” author is on the right track, that “chance” is just another name for “things we can’t satisfactorily explain,” and that as knowledge grows, the realm of chance shrinks.

But there is still so much that we can’t predict, mostly because of the problem of getting all the necessary information, then sorting and analyzing it. Ever find yourself in a situation that you could not have imagined beforehand, but seems perfectly understandable once it has happened? Then you know what I’m talking about.

Don’t worry—I am about to pivot from these frustratingly vague musings on the knowable and unknowable and get into some specifics with some relevance to interpersonal conflict.

A thought experiment: when should we refill a car with no fuel gauge? We know how large a gas tank our car has (electric vehicles ruin the fun of this hypothetical) and its mileage, so we can estimate fairly reliably how far we can go on one tank of gas. But there are still a lot of variables—how inflated are the tires? Are we going uphill or down? How much will we be stopping?—that no one would claim to know exactly how many feet they could drive before the tank was empty.

What’s more, gathering the information needed to have knowledge that precise would be so onerous, and the payoff so miniscule, that it would be counterproductive to even try. It’s enough to know that, given past experience, we need to fill the tank after about 300 miles. So we can confidently drive up to that point, though the risk averse might be filling up a bit earlier.

When we are talking about interpersonal dynamics, I think that we are in the garage next to our gaugeless automobile. We usually have a decent idea of what makes the people around us happy and what makes them unhappy, so we can predict that if we surprise them with a giftcard they will smile, but if we tell them that a bird just did a number on their car, less so.

Those scenarios are, of course, gimmes, but they illustrate that some human behavior follows predictable rules (sorry, Bjork, but we have at least a small piece of the map). For better or worse, we crave understanding of far more subtle and complex patterns and, when we aren’t able to predict them, we get anxious. Or, if someone reacts in a way that we didn’t predict (or that just doesn’t suit us), we imagine them to be illogical and unknowable.

Thinking about it detached from the heat of the moment, though, we can start to see why things shook out that way. Hindsight, as the cliché says, is 20/20, which is just a pithy was of saying what it has taken me 750 words (approx.): in the rearview mirror the signs are all obvious, but through the windshield, they can be many, confusing, and contradictory.

Every day as an ombuds, I talk to people who have difficult decisions to make: whether to ask for something, whether to set a boundary, whether to make a change. They are all grappling with things in the realm of chance, because their ignorance outweighs what they know. Which is okay, because, as with our hypothetical automobile, in some cases there is no way to have absolutely perfect knowledge. Well, there is one. We can be smugly sure that we won’t need to gas up the car if we never drive it. In other words, taking any kind of action where humans are involve has a necessary degree of uncertainty, which we need to accept. If not, we need to accept 100 percent certainty that we won’t get what we want, by not acting at all.

Much of what I do when people face big or small decisions is help them tabulate what they do know, consider what they don’t, and weigh the costs (and risks) of closing that gap. Then, we can imagine different scenarios of how things might play out; the real pros can even assign relative probabilities to potential outcomes. But however confident they are, remembering that there are precious few “sure things” can help them weigh the risks more evenly.

In the end, Bjork is kind of right about human behavior—we rarely have the kind of compass that can always point us to true north. Still, we find a way to ponder what is open to analysis, consider the options, and make a choice. When it works out, we can congratulate our savvy, and when it doesn’t, oh well, sometimes chance doesn’t favor us.

So until next time, expect the unexpected, stay informed, and I’ll stay informal.



Spread the love