I recently returned from a trip to Vegas. Well, actually, I returned about two weeks ago, but my wallet and my soul have just recently recovered.
Seeing as I am unable to ever completely shake the LSAT out of my brain (even after twelve beers at the pool and too many tequila shots to recall), I kept noticing that people use some pretty flawed logic inside the hallowed walls of those casinos. I know that might sound shocking since we normally equate Vegas with rationality and profound intellect, but let me give you a couple examples.
1. Overlooking bias and/or ulterior motives
Here are some claims that I overheard at the pool/casino/club.
“I paid for this table for my buddy’s birthday, but it’s no big deal to me. They know me around here. I normally buy at least three bottles.”
This comment originated from a clearly intoxicated guy wearing a button-up shirt that had apparently lost the ability to actually button. He was talking to a semi-attractive lass and simultaneously seeing how far he could slide his hand up her thigh before she noticed. I am not quite sure whether the woman in question based any decisions for the night on this claim, but should she have? I would argue that she should do some further investigation. I know this sounds pessimistic of me, but I have heard of instances where a male will exaggerate his monetary situation in order to impress a female. This type of motive could be at play here.
“Wow, that is really interesting. Do you want to buy me a drink?”
This deception goes both ways. I overheard this comment roughly 1,839 times through the course of the evening. And it worked roughly 1,839 times. Apparently, women are taught at an early age that feigning interest in a male will result in free booze for the evening. But should a man believe that a woman is really interested in what they have to say? Maybe, but maybe not. It is possible that said woman could simply be after a free drink and plans to leave the scene shortly thereafter.
Lesson: when you are relying on what people say, you have to make sure that you have accounted for any plausible motives or biases they may have.
2. Composition: whole to part
At some point in the evening, we began to socialize with an attractive group of girls who actually lived in Las Vegas. (I never knew that actually happened.) My friend (we will call him Jerome) ended up hooking up with one of the girls from the group that evening, and he was very proud of himself the next morning.
Question: because this lucky lady was part of an attractive group of girls, must she have been attractive? The answer, of course, is no. Unfortunately for Jerome, hopping on the proverbial grenade is not a good reason for the hubris.
Lesson: simply because a group has a certain property does not entail that each member of the group has that property.
3. Temporal: past versus present versus future
Another buddy of mine is not a big gambler, but he does give in to the ugly habit once in a while. We were cruising through the casino and he thought he spotted a golden opportunity. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted that the roulette wheel had come up red six times in a row. What are the chances? How could he ever have been so lucky?
Without hesitation, he rushed over to the table. I tried to stop him and intercede with a lesson on temporal fallacies, but I was too late. He bet big on black. After all, there is no way it could come up red again. The wheel was spun and it came up… red. Crap. I bought him a shot as consolation.
Lesson: what has occurred in the past is commonly irrelevant to what will happen in the future.
4. Causation: ignoring alternate causes
This fallacy also comes from the world of gambling. I sat down at a blackjack table to see if I could pick up a couple bucks. A middle-aged man was sitting next to me with a pretty hefty stack of chips in front of him. After I joined the game, he continued to win and celebrated with various loud cries and awkward dance moves.
Then they switched dealers. And the winning stopped. Quickly. My new friend lost at least eight hands in a row and his joy quickly turned to anger. As his stack of chips began to shrink, he started to get angry with the dealer. “Come on, man. You asshole. Oh look, you got another 20. Shocking.”
Clearly, the awkward dancer blamed the dealer for his losing streak, but was that a valid conclusion for him to draw? Well, no. He was overlooking the fact that he was playing a game of chance and many factors could account for his change of luck. The cards are the likely culprit, but maybe someone spiked his drink, or the wind changed, or he had dropped his lucky coin. Any of those factors are just as reasonable to blame for as bad luck as the poor dealer.
Lesson: when two things occur at the same time, do not be hasty to conclude that one must have caused the other.
I often urge my students not to go to Vegas while they are studying for the LSAT, but I am starting to question that advice. Look at all the important lessons that you can learn.