Life is a Game, The Game is Risk-y
Pragya Agarwal brings her education and experience as a behavioral and data scientist to her deeply researched book, Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias. Agarwal deftly unpacks the science of how the brain is responsible for the inclinations of human biases, in particular those that are unconscious and take place through System 1 thinking. She shares stories interwoven with her research as her canvas to paint a picture of how our biases inform our worldview, our communication, shape our decisions, and how we group ourselves. Sway disentangles research focused on implicit biases like race, gender, age and left-handedness. Although Agarwal’s is intentional in centering her argument on unconscious bias, she challenges the reader to move beyond the blinders of bias. “Only when we can understand both our psychological adaptations and our modern frameworks can we begin to acknowledge and address our unconscious biases.”
Integrating Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Agarwal’s Sway is a no-brainer. Both authors seem to be working from a similar playbook in unpacking the ways biases shape our thinking and social constructs. The one bias that strikes me the most currently is the “risk/loss aversion”. They both reference this with examples of gambling. This led me to consider game theory’s relevance to everyday decision making. In the movie, Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel, a professor in Game Theory says to her class after a poker match, “he’s not playing using logic or math, but using his psychology. Our brains so hate the idea of losing something valuable to us that we abandon all rational thought and make some really poor decisions. So Curtis wasn’t playing to win—he was playing not to lose.” It seems that is how humans live life. Decisions are made as though one is playing not to lose ; the game of life reveals risks to be avoided. Even as we watch the war Putin started in Ukraine we can see the dynamics of game theory decisions occurring. Jason Pack writes an thought provoking article offering a strategic Poker move for the West in response to Putin’s “High Raised Stakes”. It raises questions of what system of thinking is enacted both for Putin and the rest of the world? How much loss/risk are other countries willing to “bet”? How feasible is it for leaders around the globe engage Putin with self-differentiated engagement?
I am preparing to enter into a new community as their pastor. I have begun “game planning” for the few issues I am aware that will be waiting for me. But the truth is I need to be acutely aware that my very presence is filled with the promise of change and risk for them. They are claiming they are ready to move in a new direction. But Argawal’s words, “it is simpler and more comfortable to stick with the familiar situation and group membership, rather than question the status quo, which feels risky” remind me of the risk/loss avoidance bias that will be present on the game table. It is an imperative for me to invite the congregation to become cognitively aware of their biases for healthy dialogue and self-differentiation to be practiced. Agarwal continues, “People are more likely to stick with what they know, and they are more reluctant to take a stand because switching doesn’t activate the reward pathway. They subconsciously believe and understand that there is more emotional cost involved switching.” This challenges me to recognize my own risk/loss bias and to employ a game theory approach that is intentionally cooperative game play; we play knowing we are striving for the same win together. The game of life is a game of risk, but played together we can bust out of the escape room before time runs out.
 Agarwal, Pragya. 2020. Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Sigma. Page 29.
 Ibid. Page 66.
 Ibid. Page 77-78. Kahneman, Daniel. 2013. Thinking, Fast and Slow. 1st edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.Page 283-284 . Friedman, Edwin H., and Peter Steinke. 2017. A Failure of Nerve, Revised Edition: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. 10th Anniversary edition. New York: Church Publishing. Even Friedman talks about risk aversion in the context of an anxious system
 Chu, Jon M., Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, and Gemma Chan. 2018. Crazy rich Asians.
 Agarwal, Pragya. 2020. Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Sigma. Page 77.
 Ibid. Page 78.
13 responses to “Life is a Game, The Game is Risk-y”
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Nicole, great job applying this reading to your current transition to a new leadership setting. I must admit, I smiled when I read this sentence: “They are claiming they are ready to move in a new direction.” I heard that same claim coming here to my current position. All is well at the 30K foot level, but when actual changes are made, it becomes challenging. Knowing how well-versed you are in Friedman will serve you well, I’m sure. Can you share the “game plan” and the issues you know are facing you in the new role?
Roy thank you 🙂
My game plan starts with listening and modeling a non-anxious presence. I will then engage in thoughtful questions based on what I have heard and what is in between in the silence. I know that it will also be important to have the session read “A Failure of Nerve” together and invite them to work on self-awareness/self-regulation. When the time is right I will begin working through Gamestorming activities to broaden possibilities as we work on the change God has for them.
Nicole: I liked your insights about game theory and “trying not to lose.” It does seem that a lot of people live their life that way. Books like Pragya and Kahneman help drive fear out of us and live a healthier life. These insights plus our faith help us to contribute boldly to the Kingdom of God. Best of luck with your new position; I am sure you will do well and God is paving the way for your success in the leadership role.
Troy thank you for your words of kindness and encouragement. “playing” to win for the Kingdom of God could be truly remarkable.
Nicole: Your acknowledgment that “I need to be acutely aware that my very presence is filled with the promise of change and risk for them” is spot on. Do you feel like the congregation you are exiting is also experiencing those two tensions as you transition out?
Kayli, I think right now the vast majority of the congregation remains in a place that is more about “poor us, noone ever wants to stay here.” I think that is the one thing I missed until now. It’s hard to be energized if you are afraid the other shoe is going to fall. Unfortunately it became a self fulfilling prophecy. I walked the session through 3 meetings using Gamestorming exercises. We finished on Monday. The work they did is hopeful if they have the courage to live into the empowerment God has given them.
People are more likely to stick with what they know… that is a great quote. Boy, that makes me think of Friedman and our call to be self-differentiated leaders. Are we willing to take on the costs, whatever they may be, believe that it is the right thing?
As you thnk about this transition and the newness of the role, from this book, what key point(s) will go with you as you step into leadership?
Eric, I agree, Friedman is key!
In her Epilogue she reminds me of the importance of a Friedman thought…the importance of taking responsibility…she says accountability…it’s important for a community that has to face their church biases to hold them accountable for them…to name and claim and then be open to be transformed…to be liberated from those biases. Agarwall also speaks of the importance of empathy…that of course is a loaded word especially for someone who is still working to fully understand what Friedman says about Empathy. But I am a work in progress who will attempt to be mindful of the healthy ways to be empathetic without losing my sense of leadership identity.
Nicole, thanks for how you connect bias to risk, and relate that to your new ministry assignment. In addition to the risk of change and how people generally prefer to hold on to the familiar, what other risks/biases do you envision having to deal with in your new context?
Thank you Henry. I believe the biggest hurdle is their church biases….what does it mean to be the church and what is worship and what does it mean to embody the mission of Jesus. These biases have been engrained for decades if not a century or two. These biases inform the identity of the church that is safe…so it will be a journey to help them embrace a transformed identity.
Hey Nicole…thank you for your thoughtful post and engagement with Agarwal’s work in “Sway.” Framing your insights in the metaphor of ‘game planning’ is very effective. Thank you for that connection. And for the application you offered to the awful invasion of Ukraine and your own leadership transition. What aspects of your own risk/loss bias are you currently aware of? And, what elements of a cooperative game theory approach (love that ‘cooperative’ game framework too) are starting points in your leave-taking and entering work?
Thank you Elmaire for you kind words.
I am very much aware of my fear of not being able to do the job. I really need to be mindful of what playing not to lose looks like verses playing to win especially in my obvious fear I my lose.
I led the the session of this current church through a series of Gamestorming exercises that allowed them to work together to ultimately create a timeline (Via the Merlin Exercise). I believe I am ending it well with them by empowering them to take ownership.
As far as with the new congregation, I will begin be intentional in setting up the playing field that establishes an ethos of cooperation. I will use Gamestorming with them as well as an avenue to engender teamwork. I hope I have answered your question at least partially ?
Nicole, you are so right about life being a game of risk. Like in any game there is an assumption of the rules. How might one “play” with someone who appears to be playing from a different rulebook? I see that you are planning to use some aspects of Gamestorming to engage your new congregation. Can you explain that further? Have you perceived any particular biases of the new culture that you might need to navigate?