Is Disaster Resilience Just a Well-Played Game of Poker?


In her book The Biggest Bluff, psychologist Maria Konnikova takes an interesting view of human behavior by exploring poker as a strong metaphor for life. She explains that the way we assess and act on the cards we’ve been dealt in a game of poker, and by extension, how much we are willing to ‘bet’ on our cards, offers a lesson for how we might better approach the uncertainty we face in all decision-making.


I’ve often written that our psychology, namely our risk perception, plays a major role in inhibiting or supporting our ability to become resilient – as individuals, and as societies - because there is no crystal ball. I believe that poker is also a perfect metaphor for how we, as individuals and as societies, approach disaster risk management.


"You can control how you play. But ultimately, you can’t control the cards.”

Dr. Konnikova explains that, “life is a game of incomplete information. You never know everything, and you are able to control a good amount of decisions leading up to the end because you can control how you present yourself. You can control whether or not you play. You can control how you play. But ultimately, you can’t control the cards.”


I certainly appreciate how, when managing our risk, we will never have all the information we need or would prefer, but the more information we have, the better able we are to act in a way that results in positive outcomes. Information is, obviously, advantage.


That doesn’t mean every decision we make is going to be effective – just that as long as we make an honest assessment of the information we’ve been given, and we act in a way that stays true to that assessment, we increase our odds of success across all decisions.


We are emotional creatures, and in life we tend to be either overly optimistic or overly pessimistic about our odds - and we do this to serve our own psychological needs. It’s why we believe we can win the lottery, but don’t think we’ll get in a car accident. But whether in life or in poker, that optimism or pessimism means nothing once the cards are revealed for what they are. We can’t fudge it in the face of facts, so to speak.


And there are times when good decisions end up in failure, or bad decisions have no impact on a good outcome – that’s because there is a certain amount of luck in the uncertain. But luck has it’s limits where probability comes in – and whether we end the night with more or fewer chips (in poker or in life) is the true measure of our decision-making abilities.


Dr. Konnikova captures this sentiment well, writing that, “false confidence bred from an ignorance of the probabilistic nature of the world, from a desire to see black and white where we should see gray” is one of the “great ills of the world.”


"From a misplaced faith in certainty, the fact that to our minds, 99 percent, even 90 percent, basically means 100 percent – even though it doesn’t, not really.”

Interestingly, and I agree with her completely, she also writes that “betting is an antidote” to this great ill, explaining that, “betting on uncertainty is one of the best ways of understanding it. And it is one of the best ways of conquering the pitfalls of our decision processes in just about any endeavor. From a misplaced faith in certainty, the fact that to our minds, 99 percent, even 90 percent, basically means 100 percent – even though it doesn’t, not really.”


It is only when we understand that we are putting something on the line – betting if you will – that we take the time to consider the wisdom of our decisions – if we have the tools and experience to understand that aspect of the decision we are making. Perhaps if people truly understood what they were putting on the line when they failed to address their risk, they might act differently. Buying a house in the floodplain that has no mitigation measures, for instance. If they understood beyond the financial reimbursement that insurance would provide, how negatively a displacement would impact them, perhaps the size and uncertainty of their wager would become apparent. How we approach disasters is reflective of whether we are taking a safe bet, or a risky one. Do we spend money elevating our house, even though we may never need it if no flood ever happens (but if it does, we save so much!) Or do we bet that no flood happens, spending that money that would have gone to mitigation instead on something frivolous…hoping our bet pays off and we don’t end up regretting it later. A little bit of luck, and a lot of understanding probability either way.


One last aspect of Konnikova’s analogy is that she explains that people see life in terms of a ‘locus of control’. People have a mix of internal and external loci – internal meaning the person sees their own actions or decisions as causing their own outcomes, while those with an external locus of control see good or bad things as happening 'to' them. She explains that most people have an internal locus of control when good things happen (i.e., they take credit for their successes), while they have an external locus for bad things (e.g., "it’s not my fault, I had nothing to do with that".) I believe we do often see this when people are impacted by disasters – that they see the adverse event as happening to them, not that they failed to act in a way that would have made them resilient. They see the bad cards as having been dealt to them, and not that they just played those cards poorly. The reality is, life is a mix of internal and external loci, and we have to see that mix in our risk management decisions. We have control - our fate is never completely up to chance, and so we have to question whether we have taken full advantage of the internal control mechanisms we've been offered.


One particular extension of Konnikova’s poker analogy that I would add when it comes to disaster resilience is that of equity or environmental justice. From the equity or EJ perspective, it’s easy to understand how those who come to the table with fewer (or no) chips, or with little understanding of how the game is played, are much less likely to end the game ahead (or with any chips at all). And how those who come to the game with stacks of chips, or who have an unfair knowledge of the cards, might win no matter what happens.


We will never have all the information we need, but nor should we just turn our life over to chance. As with poker, even with the big role that luck plays, it’s the best players who typically end up winning the most. To be good at what we do – to be resilient – we have to be honest with our chances, harness control wherever possible, and be sure we are putting our money (or our lives) on the line in the most responsible way to achieve that hoped-for outcome.


After all, you can’t bluff mother nature.


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