Book Review: Rock Breaks Scissors

Rock Breaks Scissors:  A Practical Guide To Outguessing & Outwitting Almost Everybody, by William Poundstone

As someone who enjoys reading practical guides on statistics and other related mathematical subjects [1], I found this book to be refreshing and enjoyable the way it dealt with the subject of how to outsmart others, and even machines, and the main way this could be done was to have a sense of humility about our abilities to be random.  Indeed, over and over again in this roughly 300 page book the need for people to be humble and to not exaggerate our own abilities at strategic memory and intuition was shown to be the most essential aspect of outsmarting others.  In other words, the best way to be smarter than others was to both know patterns and to know ourselves to be beings who operate within fairly constrained patterns that can be immensely easy to determine across a variety of human endeavors, from playing Paper, Rock, Scissors to winning office pools for NCAA Tournament brackets to falsifying our expense records and tax returns.  The fact that mankind is so bad at being random is actually quite remarkable.

The book is a practical book on the intersection between statistics and psychology, divided roughly into two halves.  The first half consists of chapters containing material on how to outsmart others based on the lack of randomness of human beings, looking at the history of the Zenith broadcast experiments and containing advice on how to outsmart rock, paper, scissors (usually by guessing paper), how to outguess multiple-choice tests (by picking none/all and a few other tips), how to outguess the lottery (by not playing), how to outguess tennis serves, how to outguess baseball and football, soccer penalty kicks, card games, passwords, crowd-sourced ratings, fake numbers, manipulated numbers, and Ponzi schemes.  Most of these depend on the fact that real random numbers alternate far less often than the random numbers people chose do, and that human beings alternate a lot because we are most comfortable that way.  The second part of the book consists on how to outguess people by dismissing the “hot hand” theory that suppose people get “in the zone” when they really do not, telling people how to outguess bracket pools, office football pools, Oscar pools, big data, retail and home prices, the future, and the stock market.  Overall, the book reminds us that we cannot escape fortune’s wheel.

People reading this book and appreciating it are likely to be somewhat cynical people.  Someone reading this book is likely to be at least somewhat interested in strategic thinking.  As is often the case, outsmarting others is often both more simple and more complicated than it first appears.  It is easiest to outsmart people when we are humble about our own ability to be different than other people.  What makes us predictable and often less than strategically savvy is a misguided belief that we are somehow smarter than everyone else.  Our arrogance makes us stupider, and our humility makes us wiser.  It is a curious truth, and one that will likely surprise many of the readers of this book who will wish to have their ego gratified, or who may think that they are somehow immune from the patterns of humanity when they are not, but those readers who are savvy will see the truth in this book’s approach.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/01/03/book-review-why-flip-a-coin/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/book-review-the-democracy-index/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/04/21/on-equal-pay-for-equal-play-in-tennis/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/book-review-statistics-concepts-and-controversies/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/09/01/book-review-dataclysm/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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