Base rates and countering ‘tilt’ – With Annie Duke, Part 2

The Value Perspective recently had the chance to chat with author and retired US poker player, Annie Duke, in the second of three resulting articles, we discuss the importance of base rates and how to counter being ‘on tilt’.


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Here on The Value Perspective, we were recently lucky enough to have the opportunity for an extended chat with Annie Duke, the former professional poker player turned business consultant, whose 2018 book Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions when You Don’t Have All the Facts we have previously referenced in articles such as How to have no regrets as an investor and Lessons from the controversial 2015 Super Bowl.

Having talked through the benefits of thinking in terms of probabilities – and with outcomes and timeframes to come – we move on to the sort of mental tools Duke believes can help with decision-making.

Might, for example, focusing on ‘base rates’ – that is, giving greater weight to more general probabilities than to newer or more immediate information, as we aim to do here on The Value Perspective – be a helpful approach?

Very much so, Duke agrees, before taking this a step further.

Base rates

Since there will almost always be some element of uniqueness to any choice they need to make, she argues, investors ought to consider not one single base rate but as many as they can. “Really try to think out of the box,” she says. “Ask yourself, what are other reference classes you could look at? What other things have similarities to this problem?”

Briefly taking a step back, Duke notes the point of base rates is to help form a more precise idea of a starting point for understanding how often something will happen in general – but there will always be variants on that and hence uncertainty. Investors can then be tempted to fill in the gaps with their own knowledge of a situation and the problem here, she warns, is people “often overvalue knowledge that is special to us”.

Considering base rates can therefore act as a discipline to ensure we are building in the ‘outside view’, says Duke – in effect, preventing people becoming “locked into thinking they have more precision than they actually do”.

Furthermore, she adds, “looking for other types of reference classes might inform and better refine the base rate you are trying to discover”.

Incorporate the views of others

Another way to bring the outside view into decision-making is, logically enough, to incorporate the views of others – indeed, Duke sees it as vital that systems are built into any decision process to allow different people to say what they think. “What you want to ensure is that your process is allowing for cognitive dispersion and then marry the outside view with the inside view,” she continues.

“You don’t necessarily want to go on base rates alone because you may well have some knowledge that is particular to the situation and allows you to understand things will be a little bit different to what the base rate tells you. So the base rate disciplines the way you are applying your own personal knowledge to the situation – and this intersection of the inside view and the outside view is where accuracy lives.”

While we are on the subject of seeking to ensure behavioural biases – such as setting too much store by our personal knowledge – do not intrude on the decision-making process, it seems appropriate to focus on one that actually has its origins in poker.

On tilt

‘Tilt’ or being ‘on tilt’ describes a mental state of confusion or frustration that leads a player to adopt a less than optimal strategy that is often, though not always, overly aggressive.

If they are honest, that is surely a feeling all investors will recognise so does Duke have any advice to help avoid succumbing to tilt when enduring tough periods of performance?

To her mind, there are two important angles here – first, what can be done as investor and, second, what a group or enterprise can do to make sure people are less likely to make decisions on tilt.

Before addressing them, however, Duke stresses tilt is by no means confined to times of underperformance.

“Tilt can also happen when you are in a period of really good performance – it’s called ‘winners tilt’, actually,” she explains. “So let’s instead broadly define ‘tilt’ as whenever your emotions are causing your risk attitudes to be distorted.

“Generally, the way upside tilt happens is that when you are in the middle of a good run, very often the reaction is to try to clamp down on volatility. So, for example, if you have a big winning position in a trade, it is much more likely you will exit the trade in order to lock in the win – even though, if I were to ask you, rationally, if you would put that position back on tomorrow, you would.”

Still, Duke continues, most people think of tilt in terms of being on a bad run – at which point they will often seek to get out of their rut by chasing extra volatility or risk.

“What that means is that, if you have a losing position, you are very unlikely to exit it,” she says. “Even if, were it a brand new trade tomorrow, you would not put that position on but you are desperately trying to get back to zero.”

“What is interesting about all that, of course, is that if they were completely rational, investors would view what they are doing as one long game – in other words, what was happening in the moment or on any given day or week, would not matter very much because it would just be one of the normal upticks and downticks that are, hopefully, all part of some sort of upward march.”

That, alas, is not how the human brain is wired to work.

“Our brains are incredibly path-dependent so they can get really caught up in what has happened recently,” says Duke. “So much so that, let’s say I have a position that has doubled but now I lose half of that back, then – even though the position overall is still a winning one – I will actually be acting like I’m on tilt on the losing side.

“That’s incredibly irrational, right? The position is actually winning but I’m not viewing myself as a winner in that moment because I have come significantly off the peak of where it was. Likewise, if I have had a position that was down a lot but has now come back up, the way my brain is going to look at it is as if I am winning. That is how path-dependent we are.”

Avoiding being on tilt

If that is the scale of the ‘tilt’ problem then, what is Duke’s solution?

“On an individual level, I would want to understand the cues that tell me I am probably in this ‘tilty’ state,” she replies, suggesting these could be physiological (sweaty palms, say), verbal (‘I can’t believe this is happening’) or behavioural – for example, a pattern of chasing more volatility after a big loss or closing out positions after a big win.

None of these necessarily means tilt is happening, says Duke, only that it might be – and it is the responsibility of an individual or group to identify their own signals.

“Write them down,” she advises. “Make a list and hold yourself and the people around you accountable to it so that when people recognise their signals, there is a trigger in place that says, hey, take a breath – maybe you are on tilt.

“Once you do that, you can put processes in place for yourself or the group to reduce the chances tilt is going to influence decision-making – and most of those have to do with just getting out of your emotional brain. It is basically allowing you ask yourself, if I was looking back at this situation a year from now, would I think I was behaving rationally? Would I think I was making my best decision?”

This “time travelling”, as Duke calls it, is a way of getting people “out of the moment”.

“This is where that path-dependency is occurring,” she continues. “Pushing yourself into the future can help you recruit the more rational part of your brain, which naturally causes the limbic system – the more emotional part of your brain – to start to calm down.”


You can read a full transcript of Annie Duke’s conversation with The Value Perspective here.

You can follow Annie on Twitter for more insights from her (@AnnieDuke) or visit her website, for recent articles, podcast interviews and other information.



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