June 18, 2021


I recently found Maria Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff lying on a stoop and decided to pick it up.

It’s a compelling read. One of the chapters that particularly resonated with me described a concept called tilt, which is that “you’re letting emotions—incidental ones that aren’t actually integral to your decision process—affect your decision making” (page 253). This is something I’ve experienced a lot, particularly when things don’t go as I expect them to.

I’ve sometimes used the tools of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help me overcome my own tilt, but something I learned in The Biggest Bluff is that, while CBT can help after the fact for subtler emotions, it doesn’t necessarily do much good for the stronger ones. This certainly reflects my own experience: for example, once I’m angry at my software for not behaving the way I expect it to, it’s very hard to calm myself down.

The author mentions an alternative strategy (emphasis mine):

In those cases, it may help to learn to anticipate the emotion before it arises, thereby cutting it off at the source. Walter Mischel often said that he couldn't keep chocolate in his house. He knew himself too well: if it was there, he would eat it, even though he had spent his life mastering self-control. The chocolate caused positive tilt. A longing so intense it couldn't be denied. That's why preventing that emotion in the first place was so essential. You need to learn to anticipate how something will make you feel in the future and act accordingly in the present.

—Maria Konnikova, The Biggest Bluff

This, too, resonates with me: when I know that something unpredictable may happen and acknowledge it beforehand, I’m capable of dealing with it in a rational way. It’s when I don’t anticipate something going awry that I make myself particularly vulnerable to tilting.

I’m currently experimenting with this technique as I play a healer in Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV). The role is one that’s familiar to me from World of Warcraft (WoW), but I find it particularly challenging in FFXIV because it requires a lot of situational awareness: not only do I need to make sure that my teammates are healthy, which requires looking at their health bars in one part of my screen, but I also need to be dealing damage to the enemy we’re currently fighting, and I need to be dodging anything that might be coming my way (which happens a lot). In contrast, healing in WoW largely only consists of the first item in that list, which is much easier to focus on.

When I was in high school, a teacher of mine once called me a “half-tasker”, meaning that not only could I not multi-task, I couldn’t single-task either. I have never been able to pay attention to lots of different things at the same time, and it’s something that I’m sensitive about, so healing in FFXIV definitely pushes my buttons. When I fail at it, I tend to get quite frustrated.

I’m still not entirely sure if I enjoy healing in FFXIV, but it’s been an interesting laboratory for me to experiment with tilting. I have found that if I “center” myself, preparing myself for the possibility of failure—rather than putting pressure on myself to succeed—I not only deal better with failure, but also perform better as a result.

There are still unanswered questions for me, though: one is the question of what to do if I’m unprepared or, even despite preparation, I still become tilted. Another is how to remember to center myself without mentally taxing myself too much.

I’m wondering if one solution to the latter is, to borrow another concept I learned from both The Biggest Bluff and Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset, to mentally make a bet on how likely it is that whatever I’m about to do will go as expected. Regardless of whether I win or lose that bet, it will at least force me to acknowledge that nothing in life carries with it an iron-clad guarantee.

Regardless, a core aspect of the solution is to exercise such mental skills as often as possible, so that they become second nature. From reading The Biggest Bluff, it’s apparent that, for Konnikova, playing No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em on an almost daily basis served as a kind of “mental gymnasium” which positively affected her behavior outside of the gaming world. It’s certainly made me curious about what other games, if any, have the same property.

© Atul Varma 2021