How To Predict The Unpredictable by William Poundstone (book review).

When I first saw the title, ‘How To Predict The Unpredictable’, I knew that William Poundstone was looking at something that I was familiar with. Mostly because I tend to do random things instinctively and have to analyse my decision later. You might think you do things at random but over observations, people do particular things in a particular pattern. The police, mentalists and con men call it a ‘tell’. A good example being any habit you do when you’re telling a lie. Something useful to know in card games unless you’re facing a pro or card sharp who inhibits his or her body enough that you can’t tell for sure what they’re up to. I’m also good at recognising patterns instinctively, even if I react first than understand why.


However, in this book, going by the sub-title, ‘The Art Of Outsmarting Almost Everyone’, Poundstone explores how this can be done in all manner of things. In other words, you’re seeing how many shared habits we have that we do instinctively. It would be an interesting test to see if those in the know can break these habits or still follow them themselves when they’re not deliberately using them against other people. Throughout the twenty chapters here, you will get some insight into human behaviour and, I suspect if you’ve bought this book, you will want some confirmation by testing some of the things here. The best one to try is stone/scissors/paper.

Looking at the odds in the lottery repeated here, I’m still amazed some people follow the same number patterns on a weekly basis on something that is really random. Poundstone even shows the odds against winning in the Euromillions is even more than against winning the British version. I’m glad I never got the betting habit. For those interested, he does point out which numbers stand a better chance in a shared jackpot but only because people don’t choose them so readily. This progresses into how bias people will select certain number ranges. Poundstone doesn’t just specialise in our side of the pond but also explores some aspects of American sports later on as well.

An interesting point I should make about pin numbers is after I read it I suddenly found I couldn’t remember my own for a few minutes. Not quite sure how that happened but I’d be curious if others who read this book had a similar problem. The important lesson from this though is if you recognise your pin numbers in the list of most used, then its time to think it’s about time you changed them, especially if you depend on low numbers.

Of important interest to everyone is Internet passwords and why and how you really should mix the codes up to reduce the ease how some hackers or their software can get into them. I had a ponder on how to improve encoding and if any company is listening out there, I doubt if any nosing software couldn’t anticipate a computer asking for a random selection of characters from your chosen password.

Benford’s Law shows the habit of how people choose their numbers and how consistent that is for the lower numbers. Studying it, I think I can understand why the main two numbers are chosen on a keyboard but this extends well beyond that. Seeing how it can be used to spot financial fraud is a telling lesson.

Poundstone does explain that bookies have different formulas to anticipate the odds people will bet so they keep their advantage. As I understand from what he wrote. Your odds of breaking even favour betting on outsiders. Not a betting person, I’m not likely to put that to the vote.

If you ever thought it right never to accept the first offer on anything, Poundstone shows it works in your favour. Although he doesn’t say it precisely, if you keep items in your shopping list on various sites, it hits the software to offer you a better deal. This even pays off on the Net, so never accept a first offer.

I do have some reservations that some people will study this book and do the opposite of these examples so that that they can get away with criminal activity. However, from what Poundstone only hints at, this is also a giveaway.

There’s a lot more than the things I’ve mentioned above. I learnt a lot from it. Some of the things I do instinctively. I also think that Poundstone can explore more subjects from this and so I hope there is another book on this later which goes even further. The psychology of choice shows people tend to choose the easy option far more than they should. If, after reading this book, you choose things differently than your money will have been well spent.

Don’t take chances.

GF Willmetts

September 2014

(OneWorld. 284 page illustrated indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78074-407-0)

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