Saturday, December 21, 2013

You Think Too Much

This first appeared as one of my few facebook notes. I'm copying it here; perhaps it's a better place for it.

This is what the phrase "You're overthinking it" is like.

Mary and Bob sit down to a game of chess. Mary is an inexperienced player, and Bob is giving her some advice. He's being nice, trying to hint at the right moves without telling her what to do. So, Bob is making his moves very quickly, since he's experienced, and Mary is not difficult to play against (and he's going easy on her anyway). Mary is very uncertain of most of her moves, and spends a lot of time staring at the board indecisively.

At one point, Mary is looking at the board in confusion. Bob sees very plainly what move she needs to make; she should move her rook to defend her knight. Mary is looking very carefully at all the possible moves she could make, trying hard to evaluate which things might be good or bad for her, trying to think a few moves ahead.

"You're thinking too much," Bob says. "It's very simple."

This advice sounds helpful to Bob. From Bob's perspective, Mary is spending a lot of time thinking about many alternatives when she should be quickly hitting on the critical move. And it's true: if Mary were a better player, she would be thinking less here.

From Mary's perspective, this is not very helpful at all. She tries to take Bob's advice. She tries to think less about her move. She figures, if Bob says "It's simple", this must mean that she doesn't need to look several moves ahead to see the consequences. She looks for possible moves again, this time looking for things that have good consequences for her immediately.

Mary moves the pawn up to threaten one of Bob's pieces.

Bob takes Mary's knight.

Bob explains to a frustrated Mary what she could have done to avoid this. "See? You're overthinking it" he adds. To Bob, this feels like the right explanation for Mary's wrong move: she was thinking about all these other pieces, when she needed to be defending her knight.

The worst part is, Mary starts to be convinced, too. She admits that she was taking a lot of time to look several moves ahead in all kinds of situations that turned out to be irrelevant to what she needed to do. She tries to think less during the rest of the game, and makes many other mistakes as a result.

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