We’re really bad at reality

Have you ever tried to mock up the outcome from a series of coin flips? It turns out that we are horrible at simulating randomness.

But as a great article in Nautilus vividly illustrates, we’re also horrible at accepting randomness.

…when video games truly play by the rules, the player can feel cheated. Sid Meier, the designer of the computer game Civilization, in which players steer a nation through history, politics, and warfare, quickly learned to modify the game’s odds in order to redress this psychological wrinkle. Extensive play-testing revealed that a player who was told that he had a 33 percent chance of success in a battle but then failed to defeat his opponent three times in a row would become irate and incredulous

…So Meier altered the game to more closely match human cognitive biases; if your odds of winning a battle were 1 in 3, the game guaranteed that you’d win on the third attempt—a misrepresentation of true probability that nevertheless gave the illusion of fairness.

This notion of actual probability somehow being “unfair” is something to ponder. As is how the perversion of genuine probability can feel fair.

Are we more concerned with outcomes than opportunities?

It really is an excellent article and I recommend reading it all. It ranges from loaded dice found in ancient Egyptian tombs, to “pity timers” and faux improvement embedded in modern games, to gambling:

The results of any modern slot machine are based on arcane random-number generators in a computerized network, not on the fortunate conjunction of three wooden wheels. But losing to that sort of luck can be dispiriting. So gambling machines often employ the fiction of physical luck—by, say, making it look as if you just missed out on a king’s ransom as the final matching bar of gold or lemon reels to a stop just shy of a jackpot payout. This entices you to once more bet on odds that remain astronomical.

As always my emphasis.