Arguments and folding

It’s said that in Poker, the correct strategy is to fold at least half the time. This is because in a two-player game, you’re bound to lose half the time, and folding minimizes the cost of losing.

By analogy, we should be folding about half the time in arguments too. In an argument where one person is right and the other person is wrong, about half the time, the person who is wrong is you. And if you’re wrong, then the best course of action is to change your view.

Granted, there are plenty of arguments when both people are right, or both people are wrong, or neither person is making any sense at all. Also granted, you may be the kind of person who is wise and educated, and who mostly chooses YouTube commenters as opponents.

Lastly, on consideration of the game theory, it turns out you shouldn’t necessarily be folding quite half the time.

We can consider a simplified version of Poker, where instead of being dealt cards, players are told their probability of winning in a showdown. In real Poker, this knowledge can be asymmetric, but let’s suppose that all knowledge is public. Also, let’s suppose that bidding is done simultaneously. Each player can either fold, forfeiting a $1 ante, or they can raise the bid to $2. If both players raise to $2, then there’s a showdown, and the winner takes all.

In the case where each player has a 50% chance of winning, both players should raise. It’s better to make a 50/50 $2 bet than it is to have a guaranteed loss of $1.

More counterintuitively, you should raise even if you only have a 30% chance of winning. Making an unfavorable bet can still be better than forfeiting $1. As long as the probabilities are between 25% and 75%, both players should raise; otherwise, one of the players should fold. Basically, the idea that one of the players should be folding only applies when you have a high decent degree of certainty about the outcome.

Whether this simplified Poker game is analogous to arguments depends on your values. Do you prefer being correct? Or do you prefer winning?

In the limit where you exclusively value winning, simplified Poker is somewhat analogous. In real arguments, each person tends to come away with a different idea of who has won, but suppose that you have an external observer, and what you really care about is how you look to the observer. You’d prefer to win the argument in a showdown, but if you’re not going to win, you’d prefer to save some face by backing off early. Like with simplified Poker, both players will want to go to the showdown unless they’re already fairly certain who will win.

In the limit where you exclusively value being correct, things look different. Both players should switch to the side that is at least 50% likely to be correct. Having a showdown is valuable only to the extent that it clarifies who is correct, and to the extent that people switch sides after the showdown.

Of course, in real arguments, knowledge is asymmetric. It is possible that each person, given everything they know, can accurately estimate over 50% chance of being correct. But it’s not possible for this to be consistently correct. Like with Poker, people shouldn’t necessarily be folding half the time, but still, most people probably don’t fold as often as they should.

2 thoughts on “Arguments and folding

  1. lintgo January 25, 2016 / 10:23 am

    Ideally, one would learn to devalue their natural tendency to want to win, and also devalue their natural tendency to want to be correct, and instead put more value on discovery, on learning the correct answer. Folding too quickly, and wanting to be right can often impede our ability to learn. I’m reminded of this interactive article from the NYT.


  2. Siggy January 25, 2016 / 2:58 pm

    That reminds me of another article I read some time ago, which recommended that people delay drawing conclusions, particularly in the setting of problem solving in groups. People tend to commit to a conclusion prematurely, which gets in the way of problem solving. The article is here, although now that I see it again, I’m disappointed to find that it isn’t actually based on any psychology research.

    But if you’re arguing with someone, you’ve probably already taken a side and committed to it, so that ship has sailed. Willingness to fold basically means willingness to let go of your commitments to any particular side.

    Liked by 1 person

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