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How To Predict the Unpredictable:

The Art of Outsmarting Almost Everyone

by William Poundstone

Humans find it difficult to do absolutely nothing. Andy Warhol pointed a camera at 1960's icons Bob Dylan, Susan Sontag, Yoko Ono, Dennis Hopper etc, and instructed them to do nothing at all. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn't. They'd start with an exaggerated mugshot pose, then lapse into the same nervous tics that everyone else did - purse lips, brush hair etc.

Well known story about Target using predictive analysis to guess that a woman is pregnant, based on a list of 25 significant products. If a woman bought more than 3 articles of that list it was possible to even guess roughly when the baby was due. The analysis came to light when an angry father complained to Target that his unwed teenage daughter was receiving offers of pregnancy items, then came back a few days later to admit "there were things happening in my household that I wasn't aware of".

Target found that they had to be subtle - some women objected to the "spooky" prediction of their private lives. So the company started mixing the offers in with things like lawnmowers, so that the baby ads appeared random.

"Oh the humanity" NBC announcer describing the burning of the Hindenburg 1937.

Multi choice tests: once you've done all the ones you are reasonably sure of, use these criteria to improve odds of guessing right. First, if there is a 'all of above' or 'none of above' choose that. Next, pick longest answer. Then, if a 4 answer Q, pick B, and if a 5 answer Q, pick E. Finally, choose an answer different to the one before.

Nearly 1% of passwords can be guessed in 4 tries - simple number sequences. For men under 30, sex most likely theme -cock, fuck, pussy, tits. Easiest way to rem a random set of letters is to create a mnemonic - create a strong password on My mum and dad are Steve and Doreen (MmadSaD) and just use it for high security stuff like banking. Use a completely different password for other sites.

Card deck into a Stebbins arrangement: A-4-7-10-K-3-6-9-Q-2-5-8-J clubs-hearts-spades-diamonds looks random but is completely predictable - performer sees the bottom card of a cut, knows what the card above it is, and that is the one which will be on top of the deck after the cut.

A casino roulette wheel came up black 26 times in a row. As word of the growing sequence spread through the casino, gamblers rushed to the table, eager to bet on red, because obviously the 'run' would quickly come to an end, doubling down each time they lost. The casino took in millions before the sequence ended.

If you get a call out of the blue from one of your utility suppliers, asking whether you're happy with their service, it's because their software has predicted that you are considering switching. The caller will check to see if you voice any complaints - if not, they will quickly end the call. Otherwise you'll be offered a discount or a freebie to take up a new contract. Never accept this first offer. Once you reject it, the caller will offer a second, better deal. You should reject this one as well. Then, a few days later, call to cancel the service. (Do this even if you plan to keep the service.) You will then get another offer. Refuse thsi one as well; then take the second deal offered.

Go into Starbucks and you see 3 sizes of coffee with confusing names: Tall Grande and Venti. A newbie might assume that the Tall is the biggest, but then you see that it's the cheapest so it's obviously the smallest. So, completely confused, the patron opts for the 'safe' middle, Grande, which is actually the dearest option based on how much drink you get. Same thing happens with iPhones - the 32 GB option is by far the most popular, even though most people have no idea how much storage they actually need. But it is the middle option, and the price is skewed appropriately.

Online shopping use the Abandon Shopping Cart Trick. Pick up what you want, start to enter checkout form as far as your email address but stop before entering payment info. Use an email address that you haven't used there before so that you look like a new customer. After a few days you'll get an email reminding you of the cart, and offering you a discount incentive to follow through (and a bigger one if they think you are a new customer).

Forecasters basically tell you that current trends are going to continue. They know this isn't true, but they know that this is what business leaders want to hear. Whatever happens last in the meeting/presentation is what will be remembered. Faith Popcorn a well-paid business prognosticator who ends her show with heading "95% accuracy predicting the future." She knows the value of a distinctive name: she was born Faith Plotkin.


In 2005, a flagging Japanese economy convinced Takashi Hashiyama, president of the electronics firm Maspro Denkoh, to sell the corporate collection of French impressionist paintings. This included a major Cezanne landscape and lesser works by Sisley, van Gogh, and Picasso.

Both Christie's and Sotheby's gave presentations to Hashiyama, touting their expertise and ability to achieve the highest auction prices. In Hashiyama's judgment, the presentations were equally convincing. To settle the matter, he proposed a game of rock, paper, scissors.

"The client was very serious about this," Christie's deputy chairman Jonathan Rendell said, "so we were very serious about it, too." The money was serious, too. The Maspro Denkoh collection was valued at $20 million. Both Christie's and Sotheby's quickly agreed to the game.

In case you never had a break at school, rock, paper, scissors (RPS) is a playground game as popular around the world as it is in Japan (where it dates to the 18th century at least).

On a signal, two players simultaneously make one of three hand signs, chosen at will: rock (a fist); paper (an open hand, facedown, with fingers together); or scissors (a partial fist with the index and middle finger extended). An easily memorised rule determines the winner: "Rock breaks scissors, scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock."

In other words, a player who chooses rock beats one who chooses scissors; scissors in turn beats paper; paper beats rock. This yields a winner whenever the two players choose differently. When they choose the same sign, it's a tie.

There was "some discussion" of strategies, says Sotheby's Blake Koh. "But this is a game of chance, so we really didn't give it that much thought. We had no strategy in mind."

In contrast, Kanae Ishibashi, the president of Christie's Japan, began researching RPS strategies on the internet. You may or may not be surprised to learn that an awful lot has been written on the game. Ishibashi had a break when Nicholas Maclean, Christie's director of impressionist and modern art, mentioned that his 11-year-old twin daughters, Alice and Flora, played the game at school almost daily.

Alice's advice was "Everybody knows you always start with scissors." Flora seconded this, saying "Rock is way too obvious."

Since they were beginners, scissors was definitely the safest.

Both girls also agreed that, in the event of a scissors-scissors tie, the next choice should be scissors again - precisely because "everybody expects you to choose rock."

Ishibashi went into the meeting with this strategy, while the Sotheby's rep went in with no strategy at all. The auction house people sat facing each other at a conference table, flanked by Maspro accountants. To avoid ambiguity, the players wrote their choices on a slip of paper. A Maspro executive opened the slips. Ishibashi had chosen scissors, and the Sotheby's representative had chosen paper. Scissors cuts paper, and Christie's won. In early May 2005, Christie's auctioned the four paintings for $17.8 million, earning the auction house a $1.9 million commission.

A game of tactics

I knew a guy who had made a study of rock, paper, scissors. He assured me that the game was not as trivial as it seemed and, as proof, he taught me a rather diabolical trick for winning bar tab bets with it. Good RPS players attempt to recognise and exploit unconscious patterns in their opponents' play. That is anything but trivial. A World Rock Paper Scissors Society holds tournaments in Toronto. Though the media inevitably slots it under "news of the weird", the coverage is usually deep enough to acknowledge the psychological elements.

The strategy for playing RPS depends on how skilled your opponent is. Let me start by giving a basic strategy for playing against a novice player (which is 99 per cent of the public).

Firstly, the throws are not equally common. The World RPS Society reports these proportions (for tournament play, with expert players): rock 35.4 per cent, paper 35 per cent and scissors 29.6 per cent.

Though the names of the throws are arbitrary, they inherit cultural stereotypes. Rock is the testosterone choice, the most aggressive and the one favoured by angry players. The majority of participants in RPS tournaments are male (is this a surprise to anyone?). On your first throw against an inexperienced male opponent, the best choice is paper because that will beat rock.

It's said that women are most likely to throw scissors. You can supply your own psychoanalysis, but there aren't enough women in RPS tournaments to make scissors as popular as the other choices.

Naive players don't like to repeat the same throw more than twice in a row. They can't accept that as random. That means that a player who throws rock - rock is more likely to switch to something else on the next throw.

This is a big deal in a game that's nominally luck. The counterstrategy is to choose whatever sign the doubled sign would beat. Should your opponent throw rock - rock, you'd want to choose scissors on the next throw. Given that the opponent is unlikely to play rock again, scissors would be unbeatable. In case of paper, scissors wins; should the opponent choose scissors, it's a tie.

RPS players mentally categorise their throws as winners and losers. A player who loses is more likely to switch to a different throw the next time. Some players unconsciously "copy" the sign that just beat them.

Doublethink and psych-outs

Expert RPS players have many other techniques. "I went in scripting only my first throw in my head," 2008 USA Rock Paper Scissors League champion Sean Sears told me. "Then, depending on if it was a win, loss, or tie, I had the second throw scripted as well."

Like chess masters, good RPS players generally plan their openings and then quickly switch to improvisation.

Sears uses "pattern recognition" of the opponent's moves as well as perceptions of his emotional state and likely strategies.

Trash talk is allowed in most tournaments, and honesty can be the most Machiavellian policy. Announce what sign you're going to throw, and then throw it. This trips up the naive player who figures you won't go through with it. It's the old mentalist trick of emphasising an option in order to steer someone away from it.

Most good players believe in tells, or at any rate the possibility of tells. You should watch your opponent for any facial expressions or gestures that might betray the next move. Monica Martinez, 2008 winner of the World RPS Tournament, credited her victory to reading faces. "I didn't worry about what I was going to do, I just did what I thought they were going to do."

Jonathan Monaco, winner of the 2009 USA RPS Tournament, wears dark sunglasses to make it harder for opponents to read his expression.

Players begin by priming, pumping their fists to a count of three. The throw usually comes on the fourth pump. Take note of whether the tip of the thumb is tucked in the crook of the index finger. Sometimes this is a giveaway. The tucked thumb often forecasts rock.

A really good player will know all of the above and will be thinking a step ahead. This is the hall of mirrors that every serious strategist faces.

Never pay for drinks again

If you play RPS as a grown-up, it's probably as a fair way to decide who pays for a round of drinks or gets an advantage in sports. You might want to remember this piece of advice that I learned from my university friend. When a suitable situation arises, you say, "Hey, let's do rock, paper, scissors for it!" Without waiting for an okay, begin pumping your fist. One, two, three ...

There's a good chance your partner will join in. Then you throw paper. The usual preference for rock is greatly enhanced when the player doesn't have time to think. For the best odds, try this only with a male.

The safety net: In the event you lose, immediately start priming for the next throw. You're going for two of three, of course.

Recap: to always win at RPS

Scissors is the least popular choice, and men favour rock. Both are reasons to choose paper in a one-shot match. Announce what you're going to throw and do it. Most players figure you won't go through with it.

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