Kadeesha had a tip. It arrived by anonymous e-mail. “Watch the 9:20 race at Wolverhampton. The winner will be a horse called Boz.”
Kadeesha was instructed not to place a bet; she was merely to watch. But why would she, of all people, be receiving this tip? A single mom in Kew, England, working two jobs to support her son, Kadeesha barely had enough income to cover the monthly bills. “I never had a large sum of money,” she explained, “’cause it always goes out ’cause of all the responsibilities I’ve got in life.” But the sender insisted that he possessed a foolproof system for consistently predicting the winners at the race track. “I was gutted that I couldn’t put a bet on, but I checked it out and it won.”
Kadeesha soon learned that the sender was Derren Brown, a British entertainer, who asked to film her for his TV show. Kadeesha was essentially a guinea pig in one of Brown’s famously surprising experiments, though this one had a twist so subtle that neither she nor Brown may have fully understood the outcome. But if we can reconsider what occurred, we’ll gain a useful insight into the psychology of decision making.
Kadeesha’s next e-mail came a few days later. Again it predicted the result of a race just twenty-four hours in advance, this one at Suffolk Downs in Boston. How could this “system” know anything about a race in America? Kadeesha figured, “I’m up for a laugh,” and this time, as instructed, she put a small amount of money on Laced Up. Though not the favorite, her horse won again.
Now Kadeesha was hooked. When the third e-mail came, she zoomed out from her desk at work to the nearest betting shop. She put down 20 quid (roughly $40), which for her was not a small sum, on a horse named Naughton Brook, an eighteen to one outsider. Nervous and excited, she repeated to herself, “This had betta’ win. Oh, God, this had betta’ win.” As the announcer declared the winner, Kadeesha shrieked, “Thank you, The System!” She had just won 360 pounds.
Race four took place back at Wolverhampton. The 2:45, a horse called Formation. The odds of correctly predicting four of these races in a row stood at nearly a thousand to one. But Formation did win, and Kadeesha had now made over 500 pounds. The System, it seemed, could not lose.
After race five, Kadeesha’s confidence in The System had solidified. She was now ready to put down serious dough. She went to her father to ask for 1,000 pounds (roughly $2,000). “The most I ever put on a horse was 20 quid,” her father told her, “and when I lost it, I said that’s it. Never again.” Nonetheless, the predictions had been right so far. Kadeesha then borrowed more money from a loan company. For race six she had assembled 4,000 pounds. She bet it all on Moon Over Miami, the horse in the green and white checks. “I’m really, really scared now,” she admitted to the TV cameras. The worst part, she confessed, was gambling her father’s money as well as her own.
What Kadeesha did not know but was about to discover was that The System was simply an exercise in probability. Derren Brown wanted to demonstrate how difficult it is for most of us to think rationally about prediction. No such system could exist for accurately predicting horse races, yet Kadeesha and thousands more like her are willing to believe in a bogus ploy. What Brown did not reveal (not yet) was that the same e-mail Kadeesha initially received Brown had also sent to 7,775 other randomly selected people. The only difference in all those e-mail messages was that the recipients were divided into six groups and each group was given the name of one of the six horses in the race. Kadeesha just happened to be in the group that was told to watch for Boz. The five groups whose horses did not win were sent a follow-up e-mail, blaming the loss on a glitch in the system. They were never contacted again. Kadeesha’s group, however, was then subdivided into another six groups, each given the name of one of the six horses in a new race, and instructed to bet. And thus the process was repeated, until by the fifth race, only six participants remained, each one betting on a different one of the six horses. Kadeesha just happened to be the lucky winner. By race six, however, she was the only one left. Moon Over Miami had as good a chance of winning as any other.
Moon Over Miami did not win. The lucky horse was Marodima.
Only moments after Kadeesha’s horse had lost and her agony was plain, Derren Brown assured her that he had not actually bet her money on the unlucky steed. With dramatic flare, Brown handed her a ticket showing 4,000 on Marodima to win. (Most likely, he had put 4,000 down on each of the six horses, just to be certain.) Kadeesha was about to receive 13,000 pounds in cash. She shrieked for joy. “I’m debt free for the first time in eight years!”
Brown’s experiment tried to show how poorly most of us grasp basic concepts of probability. What he actually revealed was something he himself might not have realized. Kadeesha always had the upper hand, and she very likely sensed it. She had no way of knowing whether Brown’s so-called system was legitimate or not. She probably lacked a firm grounding in the science of probability. What she really needed to know, however, was not whether Brown’s system could find her the winning horse. Instead, she needed to know whether Derren Brown would permit her to lose her and her father’s savings on national TV. The key question then would be not whether Brown, of his own volition, would let her lose but whether his television network or the British TV-viewing public would permit a working-class single mom to be ruined by a clever TV host.
Kadeesha may not have had the skills to think deeply about the probability of predicting races, but rather than being a sucker for “the system,” Kadeesha may have worked the system—the larger social system in which both Brown and Kadeesha have to function. Moon Over Miami had little chance of winning, but placing her money as Brown instructed her to do proved the shrewdest guess she could have made.
This is a blog about judgment calls. It’s about the times when we are faced with difficult choices and don’t know what to do. In the posts that follow, I will walk us through some of the ways we think about decision making: from the prosaic to the political; from interpersonal relations to international relations. And I’ll be giving us a different perspective from what you normally read here. Because unlike most others who blog for Psychology Today, I am not a psychologist. Instead, I am a historian who writes about judgment calls.
• The story above is related in Zachary Shore, A Sense of the Enemy: The High-Stakes History of Reading Your Rival’s Mind (Oxford University Press, 2014).