Resulting, or the importance of not confusing decision quality with outcomes

October 26, 2021

Pause for a moment and think about your best and worst decision over the last year...

Did your best decision result in a favorable outcome and your worst decision result in an unpleasant outcome? You may have just done some resulting.

Resulting explained

Today I finished Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke. The book is all about improving your decision quality. Duke's claim to authority on this topic is her success in poker; she won a World Series of Poker gold bracelet in 2004. She also has a master's in cognitive psychology, was a National Science Foundation fellow, and does consulting with businesses to help them improve their decision process.

One of the first mental traps Duke discusses is resulting: confusing the outcome of a decision with the quality of the decision.

Resulting means that you're equating the quality of a decision with the quality of its outcome. It's a trap because it might lead you to change your strategy (in whatever area of life you're being more strategic about) just because of some short-term misfortune. Or, it might lead you to stick blindly to a losing strategy just because you had remarkable beginner's luck.

To put it another way, it could be helpful to loosen up your notion of the relationship between your decisions and your results, to think more probabilistically. Just because something doesn't work every time doesn't mean it's a weak strategy. And just because something works some of the time doesn't mean it's a strong strategy.

Example: Super Bowl XLIX

Here's an example from the book.

It's 2015. There's 26 seconds left in the game. The Seahawks are down by 4 points. They have possession of the ball on the Patriots' 1-yard line. It's 2nd down. The "safe" call is to run the ball, but instead the Seahawks coach calls for a pass. The pass gets intercepted and the Seahawks lose.

The next day, the press paints the call as a blunder:

A New Yorker article titled "A coach's terrible Super Bowl mistake"

In this case the press was resulting. I won't go into the details of American football strategy (check out FiveThirtyEight's article for an in-depth analysis) but the Seahawks coach's call was totally logical and possibly even brilliant. The only problem was that it didn't work. If the Seahawks had scored, the press would have called the coach's call genius.

He simply got unlucky. The statistical chance of getting intercepted was around 1%. The call was a sound decision with an unfavorable outcome.

Example: drunk driving

Here's another example from the book (albeit only mentioned in passing). Imagine your friend drove home drunk, got home safe, concluded that the fears of drunk driving are overrated, and thus continued to do it. In this case it's easier to tell luck apart from sound strategy. He got lucky. Drunk driving leads to miserable outcomes over the long run. Driving drunk and getting home safely was an unsound decision with a favorable outcome.