Why You Shouldn’t (Always) Trust Your Gut

He hasn’t shot an episode of Let’s Make a Deal for decades, but Monty Hall’s name still graces a statistical brouhaha from the early 1990s, and the drama he cultivated on air holds enduring lessons for all of us.

You probably remember how it worked: Monty would choose a member of the audience and then offer him a choice of three doors. One door concealed a fabulous prize: a load of cash or a car. The other two doors hid dud prizes, or “zonks” — disappointments like a goat or a pair of old shoes. So the chances of winning were pretty good — 1 in 3 — and definitely better than a scratch-off lottery ticket or slot machines. But here is where the wrinkle comes in: After you chose a door, Monty would typically open one of the other two doors, revealing a zonk. He would then give you a chance to switch from your first choice to the other unopened door.

Casual statisticians — that is, normal people — assume that chances are even (1 in 2) at this stage. So it becomes a question of “sticking to your guns” or having a wandering eye and abandoning your first choice for another.

In 1990, a columnist in Parade magazine, Marilyn vos Savant, wrote an article explaining why it always makes sense to switch from your initial choice. Sticking to your guns, she tried to explain, is, statistically, a failing strategy. This position earned her a heap of vitriol. Here is John Tierney writing about the affair in The New York Times in 1991:

Since she gave her answer, Ms. vos Savant estimates she has received 10,000 letters, the great majority disagreeing with her. The most vehement criticism has come from mathematicians and scientists, who have alternated between gloating at her ("You are the goat!") and lamenting the nation's innumeracy.

Her answer — that the contestant should switch doors — has been debated in the halls of the Central Intelligence Agency and the barracks of fighter pilots in the Persian Gulf. It has been analyzed by mathematicians at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and computer programmers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. It has been tested in classes from second grade to graduate level at more than 1,000 schools across the country.

There are some excellent resources for understanding why, as Mr. Tierney put it, all these Ph.D.s in math were “dead wrong.” This clear explanation from the Khan Academy will set you straight in seven minutes:

If you don’t have seven minutes, let me explain. Say you choose door #1 and then Monty shows you a goat behind door #3. If you switch to door #2 you DOUBLE your chances of winning the car over staying with door #1. Why? Because the host revealed more than you think when he showed you door #3. If door #1 concealed the car, then the host had a choice of two doors to open. But chances of that are only 1 in 3. This means chances are 2 in 3 that your initial choice was a zonk and there was only one other zonk he could reveal. So once that zonk is in the open, door #2 gives you a 2 in 3 chance of winning. Stick with door #1 and your chances of winning are still only 1 in 3. That’s the sucker’s choice. Sticking with your guns means sticking with a strategy that will get you a goat 66.67% of the time.  

If this is still not clicking, I’d suggest you have a look at the video above. Once you understand why switching is always a good idea, you might be wondering whether this lesson in a defunct game show (Let’s Make a Deal is back on the air, but with an altered format) holds any relevance for the real world. Life rarely presents us with tripartite choices that could yield, in a split second, riches or bupkis. Here is a simulation prepared by Builtvisible for Unibet, an online gaming site, which lets you try your hand at the challenge. It's part of an interactive online article outlining a few ways in which understanding game theory can improve your decision-making. Now, click inside the box, scroll down and press “Start” to get your Let's Make a Deal on.


If you switch as an ironclad rule, you will, with repeated iterations, win two-thirds of the time. If you stay, you will win one-third of the time.

What does this mean? Three things.

First, experts are not always right. I don’t want to encourage radical suspicion of scientists — such irrationality is behind climate-change denial and the theory of “intelligent design.” But the Monty Hall controversy of 1991 was an interesting study in how experts and laymen alike can be completely and embarrassingly wrong. Keep your wits about you when you come across scientific conclusions; even Ph.D.s have lapses of judgment.     

Second, your gut instinct is not always right. It pays to question yourself. As I wrote last week, “You Are More Ignorant Than You Think You Are.” A feeling of attachment to your first choice because, as they say, you should “go with your instinct,” bears no marker of rationality.

Third, and related, realize the importance of reassessing a situation when facts change. While there may be no Monty Hall-style choices in your real life, there are plenty of times when new information pours in about an investment, the character of a colleague, or a political issue you’ve been on one side of for as long as you can remember. As John Maynard Keynes said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?"

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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