Thought experiment (betting on basketball)

TJL #127

Betting on basketball

Suppose I asked you to tell me who would win in a game of basketball: The NBA champion LeBron James or the filmmaker Woody Allen? How much would you bet that your answer was correct?

I think you’d get me an answer pretty quickly, and I hope you’d bet all you had.

Next, suppose I asked you to tell me who’d win in a game of basketball: The NBA champion LeBron James or the NBA champion Kevin Durant? How much would you bet that your answer was correct?

A little harder, right? Would you bet anywhere near all you had on being right?

Let’s think this through. You attempted to solve both of the questions in the same way—you imagined the contests. Perhaps more importantly, you didn’t attempt to solve either of them by calling up Messrs. James, Allen, and Durant and inviting them over for an afternoon of basketball. You simply simulated them in your mind.

In the first case, your knowledge of James (young, tall, athletic, and skilled), Allen (old, small, frail, and funny), and the game of basketball gave you a clear mental image. The disparity between the players’ abilities makes the question (and the bet) a total no-brainer.

In the second case, your knowledge of LeBron and Durant may well be extensive, but that doesn’t make it an easy bet. They’re both professional basketball players who are quite similar in size and ability, and both of them are likely to go down as among the best ever to play the game. It’s doubtful that one is much better than the other in a one-on-one match. The only way to answer for sure would be to see them play. And even then, a one-off contest is not going to be definitive.

Moral of the story

  • Thought experiments are “devices of imagination used to investigate the true nature of things".

  • Thought experiments are powerful tools because they help us learn from our past mistakes and allow us to avoid future mistakes.

  • Thought experiments “let us do things in our heads we cannot do in real life, and so explore situations from more angles than we can physically examine and test for.”

(From The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish)