Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Blink! How to Make Decisions on the Table Top

I recently finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  In addition to being a fascinating book in general, much of the book was directly applicable to table top wargaming.  Several times in the course of reading the book I said, "wow, that is a good lesson for 40k," and I put a note tab on the page.  I highly recommend to any of you to check this book out, because like I said, it's a great read for anybody, but especially useful for wargamers.

For now, I'd like to start with some of Gladwell's general conclusions and down the road go into specific examples.

The thesis of this book is that our subconscious mind is far, far better at making complicated decisions than our conscious minds.  The more complicated the decision, with the more variables factoring in, the better our subconscious is than our conscious is at making the correct decision.  He cites numerous studies and curious anecdotes to support his thesis, and the end result is very convincing.

For example, in a study where people were given the specifications of 12 hypothetical used cars, and then given 5 minutes to review the information, only 20% of people made the correct choice.  When given only 30 seconds to make a snap decision on which car to buy, around 60% of the study picked the correct car.  In a scenario with 12 distinct cars, each with variable laundry lists of specifications, your conscious brain simply cannot efficiently process all the different variables and weigh the different options comparatively.  Once the variables reach a certain level of complexity or quantity, it's simply asking too much to expect to use rational thought processes to reach an accurate decision: when faced with overwhelming amounts of options the chances become exponentially higher that one will slip through the cracks, or be miscalculated.  Generally speaking, our subconscious brains are far better at doing such background calculations in a split second and we are much more likely to arrive at the proper decision.
The corollary to this, is how experience plays a factor in cultivating this ability.  Gladwell uses the example of ancient art experts who, using a split second judgement, identified a supposed ancient statue as a fraud but were unable to explain why.  It just "felt" wrong to them.  They didn't need lab results or complicated paper trails of ownership, they just needed to rely on their gut instinct as developed by years of expertise in their field.  The important lesson is that your "gut instinct" can be honed and improved with practice.  Speaking personally, when I play 40k, my decisions for target priority are usually done by instinct.  Only very rarely will I spend significant amounts of time pondering target priority on a turn by turn basis.  I have enough years of experience to have a general idea of threats and what needs to be done.  I'm not always 100% right, but I don't spend 20 minutes a turn agonizing over whether or not to shoot a missile or an auto-cannon at a particular target.

So if you take anything away from this, learn to trust your gut when you play.  And the more you play, the better your gut becomes at being trustworthy.


  1. I did an article recently about trusting your gut and now I feel validated in that :)

  2. Not sure I am buying this to be honest. Are chess grand masters playing the first move that comes to their mind? And if they did so, would that improve their game? I think in some situations going with gut instinct would work. But a game like 40k is generally counter intuitive (since it's a completely made up thing)so the subconscious should stay out of it :P

  3. @Anti-pope. Have you heard of blitz chess? It's normal chess but you have very limited time to make your move. It is EXACTLY what this is about. Chess masters play blitz games to sharpen their decision making ability in order to better make the right move instinctively.


  4. Yep, I know about it but that is more of an exotic format if nothing else. I believe, players having more time to think would produce better and more complex games than with a very restrictive time format. Experience will come down to it of course, the more you have it the faster you can play. I don't think it would work the other way around though, ie playing very fast games withought analysing your moves wouldn't really make you a better player.

  5. God forsaken Blogger at my comment and then crapped on me.

    You've already answered it yourself, Antipope. More experienced players play faster. They play faster because of experience informing their decision making process on a sub-conscious level. They don't need to mull over every move and consciously recognize the fact they've seen that particular defense 100 times and that they've played the appropriate offensive move to it 88 times successfully. That processing is done behind the scenes, or at least as is being said, done more effectively that way. By playing blitz chess they are testing and improving upon that subconscious processing ability.

    I imagine you've had a game, 40K or whatever, where you spent a ton of time thinking about a move and later realized it was a mistake and you over analyzed the situation, yes? How many times in those situations afterwards did you realize that your first instinct was the correct one? That's what he's driving at.

  6. Great book. Wasn't there a chapter in it about a wargame simulation?

  7. If you liked Blink, I would definitely recommend Jonah Lehrer's "How We Decide," as it covers some of the same topics with a little more detail.

    In particular, there's a chapter on Bill Robertie, world champ in poker, backgammon and speed chess. His method for success is very much like the art experts that Gladwell talks about. Through years and years of practice, and focusing on his failures, he is able to train his instincts to make the best possible decisions based on "feel" alone. So yes, contrary to what Antipope says, this stuff would be directly applicable to tabletop gaming.

    Definitely check out the Lehrer book, and you'll see the very same conclusions that Gladwell talks about, but with even more examples and explanation.

  8. hmmm, one thing I'd like to point out is how misleading 'gut instincts' are when coming to a conclusion on something, because what often happens it that you cannot help but stick to that initial 'gut feeling' when coming to decisisons, no matter how much evidence there is against it. Obviously in a game situation there shortage of time would probably force you into acting on your 'gut feeling', but one should really try to keep an open mind in order to explore all possibilities before coming to a decision.

  9. hi,

    yes, you still need to think until you become a 'gut master' !

    More quietly speaking, the answer is (frequently, always ?) in you. You can get it by thinking (it's how we are taught in occident, the rational way) or by let it flow out of yourself (that's more the chinese tao part)

    It's a long way to fulfill one's tao, so yes, we still need to have a reflexion until we are able to just 'be' the answer

    Thanks for that article Nikephoros !

  10. @Alex yeah there was a chapter about a real military war game. The concept that I took away from it was how the U.S. Navy had like 6 big Destroyers and they were beaten by 100 PT Boats with missile launchers.

    MSU for the win?

  11. Not sure I like the idea of letting my instinct take over target selection. The reason is I generally shoot in a specific order. That order is determined by 2 things, 1 the first unit to shoot has to have the least amount of targets and 2nd the unit has to have a reasonable chance of hurting what it is firing at. This is made to not waste shots. Those are the first 2 things I think about when shooting. Next is the possible hurt an enemy unit will inflict and when this possible hurt will come about. I think thats when I can start to use the instinct part of my decision making process as the decisions become more complex

  12. Ah, but those things aren't something you have to make a decision about. The order you shoot, as you said, is determined somewhat automatically. It's when you get to the part where you have to make decisions between two (or more) equally viable options that the gut call comes in.