Being Suboptimal: Stupid Is As Stupid Does

Disclaimer: not funny.

My first thought walking out of my organic chemistry test last night – yes, last night – was, “Pitz would have killed me.” Dr. Pitz, one of my favorite professors in undergrad, taught a psychology class called “Decision Theory.” The whole principle of the class was that people are irrationally rational – that is, they behave in predictably stupid ways.

Needless to say, I loved this class. One of the main topics we covered was the concept of risk vs. reward, and how people generally tend to overvalue reward and undervalue risk, especially when they perceive they’ve already been losing. As an illustration, consider the case of a Vegas gambler who has already lost a good deal of money but still has $200 in chips in his pocket. It’s late, and he’s tired. According to decision theory, the man is more likely to take a big risk with his $200 for a reward that might help gain him back all his losses in one go, despite the fact that he’d probably be better suited trying to win back a small bit at blackjack.

(We’ll leave out the discussion of how gambling as a whole is entirely suboptimal.)

Okay so what’s the point of me telling you all this? Well, last night I behaved, as Pitz would call it, suboptimally. <biting my fingers to avoid complaining about premed, which I promised not to do. I PROMISED!> A concept that popped up on three different questions on the test dealt with a concept called stereoisomerism, and I couldn’t exactly remember what it was. The concept was tricky, because correctly knowing what it was – as compared to a different type of isomerism – was central to getting the problem right. I won’t bore you with the details of isomerism, except that it’s mildly important in organic chemistry. Mildly important in the same way that the word “the” is important to the English language.

So the optimal strategy would be to take three good guesses and spread them across the three answers, hoping to get one right and maybe some partial credit on the other two. This is called a risk-mitigation approach, and is generally responsible for the most successful outcome with all other things being equal.

The other strategy was basically to go for broke – take your best shot, hope you’re right, and either get 100% or 0%. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the average outcome of that is 33%, compared to something like 50% for the risk-mitigation strategy (33% for getting 1 question entirely right, plus a made-up amount of partial credit I’m estimating at 17% for convenience).

So, like the suboptimal (which, by the way, is psychology code for stupid) person that I am, I went for broke.

I have no idea if I guessed right. But Pitz would have killed me regardless of the answer.

It’s gonna be a long week.

UPDATE: Now that I’ve had time to beat myself up about it, I checked and I was, amazingly, right!


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