Probabilitism - Life According to the Odds
What is probabilitism? It is a word invented to describe an
ideology of living life according to the odds. More specifically,
it is about decision making in life. Life is all about decisions,
after all, and we need some guide for making the best decisions.
Morality is the most common explicit guide to decision making,
but it generally only restricts choices to a sub-set of acceptable
ones. Within this remaining large range of options, we are left
with the usual guides to decision and action, which are less
well formulated. These include feelings, advice from others,
and our general intuition about which choices are best.
Probabilitism digs into that intuitive part to extract the
general idea of making choices based on the probabilities of
them achieving our values. This is what we do intuitively, after
all. A man isn't sure whether to start a business or keep his
job, for example. His intuition at some point urges him to go
for the business, because it has a higher probability of rewarding
him according to what he values. To express this more explicitly
as an ideology for life, we can start with the idea of "investment
odds," an idea from poker.
The easy definition: The estimated returns on betting investments.
The more complete understanding requires an example. You are
down to the last round of betting, and you have three aces. Based
on the game you are playing and what other cards you saw, as
well as the behavior of other players, you estimate that you
have a 1-in-5 probability of winning with this hand. Should you
call that $40 bet?
To decide that, you have to go beyond the odds of winning.
These are merely "event-odds." Knowing the odds of
a specific event occurring (your hand winning) isn't enough.
You have to take into account the amount you will win and the
amount you will bet. For this example, we'll assume that $40
will be total you'll need to bet to stay in, and that there is
a total of $210 in the pot so far. The exact formula you use
is [(Expected size of pot)(Probability of winning)] / (Your bet).
You think one other player will stay, so you expect a pot
of $250 (not counting your $40), which you multiply by the probability
of winning (.2, also expressed as 20% or 1-in-5), to arrive at
$50. This amount divided by your $40 bet equals 1.25. The investment
odds are above 1 or above 100%, meaning this is a good bet. Make
bets that have good investment odds and you'll win in the long
run. Bet with bad investment odds and you'll eventually lose.
Now let's apply this to the rest of life.
Should you become a lawyer or a novelist? How does one make
this decision? Unlike in the case of poker, where there is one
clear goal - making money - in the rest of life there are many
goals. So first you have to recognize the most important one
in a situation. In this case, for example, you might see that
your highest possible level of life-satisfaction is of primary
importance. Making money will help with that perhaps, but it
has to be a lesser goal, and only important to the extent to
which it helps promote the primary goal.
Once you have a primary goal in mind, you look at each possible
choice. You research the two professions and discover that the
average novelist makes just $3,000 per year in the United States.
As a lawyer you are virtually guaranteed a decent living, while
the odds of being a successful writer are far lower. Since you
think you could be satisfied with either career, you figure the
probability of being happy as a lawyer is slightly higher.
However, this isn't enough information, because you haven't
taken into account the investment odds. The "pot" in
this case, is potentially much higher in the case of being a
writer. The odds of success are lower, but if you do succeed,
you'll have more life satisfaction. Also, the amount you invest
is lower. You have to go through years of schooling that you
don't enjoy, and work hard to pay for it, in order to become
a lawyer. On the other hand, you enjoy the work of writing, and
can start with very little money.
Of course, all these various factors, from how much you enjoy
the process, to how probable success is, are personal. Truly,
no one else can fully understand better than you what you value
and how you value it, or even how capable you are. For example,
the general probability of success in the restaurant business
may be 15%, but you may be so committed and prepared that you
have a 85% chance of success. In the end, then, you must be the
one to decide what "numbers" to plug into the formula.
Now Throw Away the Numbers
Since all the "numbers" in such "life calculations"
as these are guesses, and not even very educated ones, probabilitism
is probably not ready to be a systematic ideology. This doesn't
mean the premise is faulty though. Our knowledge just isn't up
to task of identifying the true odds or the true value of things
when it comes to an individual life. How do you use this then?
By keeping the basic idea in mind as you make decisions, and
letting your intuition operate according to it. For example,
many people have faced a decision like whether to go get a job
or to start a business. The odds of success, in terms of making
money next year, are much better with the job. People know that,
but some choose to go for the business route, because even if
it requires failing several times, the potential "jackpot"
is far larger, both in terms of money and personal satisfaction.
This is essentially the idea of investment odds operating at
an intuitive level.
Now, to see this from another perspective, consider a man
who would be far happier succeeding as a movie star than as a
business owner. If the odds of him being a star are low enough,
for whatever reason, and he could be content inheriting his father's
business, pursuing the latter would be the right decision. Many
a life has been diminished by chasing after low-probability dreams
when high-probability alternatives with a decent reward were
To apply the ideology of probabilitism, then, is to play the
odds, but not just the odds of success. You also take into account
the "bet" or investment (time, money, stress, reputation,
work) and the amount of the "pot" (profits, peace of
mind, satisfaction, pleasure, ability to help others). This is
already done by all of us intuitively. Probabilitism just makes
it a more conscious process.