Gauging risk in the pandemic: Poker player Maria Konnikova tells all


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Assessing health risks — especially when you’re risking not only your health but other people’s — is a different ball game. As the United States continues reopening even as other countries are still in the grip of the pandemic, people are assessing risk tolerance all over again, navigating their emotions, their needs and the limits of their comfort zones.

CNN Wellness spoke to Konnikova to find out how she deals with the cards she’s dealt, and how we can, too. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Maria Konnikova: Risk tolerance is how comfortable you are with making risk/reward calculations and whether you actually use the rational answer to (make) that calculation or not.

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There are people who make the calculation and say, “You know what, even though I should take this risk, I’m not going to because of emotional or personal reasons.” They’re risk-averse. And there are people who determine that something is a bad idea but want to do something anyway for emotional, subjective reasons. They’re risk-seeking.

And then there are the people who actually use the rational risk calculus. But they’re few and far between. Most people think that they’re being rational, but they’re really being subjective and emotional.

CNN: Why is understanding risk tolerance important during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Konnikova: What we need to be focused on now is not as much personal risk tolerance as actually making more people into as rational actors as possible, as able to evaluate risk as possible. That’s difficult because people are really, really bad at evaluating risks objectively.

CNN: How so?

Konnikova: We make certain risk judgments all the time in life, and not just in investing. What health decisions do you make? Do you smoke? Do you do drugs? How much do you drink? Do you go skydiving? Do you drive a motorcycle?

We’re constantly evaluating risk in one form or another. We just aren’t often aware of it. And we don’t do so in a rational way. Most of our risk decisions are actually made in a quite emotional, subjective way, which is not necessarily great.

CNN: How did learning about risk tolerance in poker relate to the pandemic?

Konnikova: Some of the people whom I know who were the earliest to realize what was going on with Covid and how cautious we needed to be, in that we did need these lockdowns, were poker players who looked at the numbers and said, “Holy crap, this is going to be bad.”

They immediately made those judgments because they understood how numbers work, how exponential growth works, how statistics work, how probabilities work.

Maria Konnikova cautions that while we can extrapolate lessons from poker about calculating risk, the consequences with Covid-19 affect more than ourselves.

CNN: How is risk tolerance different in poker than the pandemic?

Konnikova: Unlike something like poker, which only affects you, the decisions and the risks you take when it comes to Covid-19 are not just about you. They’re about society. They’re about the world.

We need to very carefully draw a distinction there, because a lot of people conflate Covid with all sorts of things like poker. There are decisions that only affect me and there are decisions that, when I do something, it affects other people as well. And there’s a huge, huge difference. Personal risk tolerance has to also be embedded in kind of this wider social awareness whenever you’re making those types of judgments.

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A decision like: Should I drive after drinking a lot? You might think, if I crash, that’s on me, I’m tolerant of this risk, I’m making this calculus.

But what about the person crossing the street who had no part in your decision? You can also kill someone, right? It’s actually not just a decision about you. You have to think about the downward consequences of all of your risk choices.

The risk assessments for skydiving are very different from ones where your actions will affect other people’s lives and other people’s well-being.

CNN: How do we assess when fear should stop us versus motivate us — rational fear versus irrational fear?

Konnikova: With any emotion, you have to ask: Is it incidental or integral to the decision? Those are two very, very important distinctions. Basically, you have to become good at recognizing your own emotions. Most people are not good at that; they’re not recognizing that they’re fearful.

You have to learn to do that and then you have to go one step further and say, “OK, where is the fear coming from? Why am I fearful and is the reason related or unrelated to the decision at hand?”

Oftentimes, the answer will be that it’s incidental, not integral. Most emotions are incidental, but you have to realize that it’s affecting your judgment. If you draw your attention to where the emotion is coming from, it becomes much easier to not use it when you’re actually taking risks.

But emotions can be information. If you don’t have any risk-aversion in poker, you’ll lose money because you don’t have the integral fear of going broke. Sometimes fear is important, and sometimes emotions are trying to tell you something.

Odilest Guerrier gives a Covid-19 vaccine shot to Pasqual Cruz at a clinic in Immokalee, Florida, on May 20. The decision to get a shot can be a very emotional one for some people.

CNN: How do we think about risk assessment differently now that we’re opening up? How should businesses and governments think about it knowing some people believe there’s a risk to getting vaccinated or that the risk of going back to work is too great?

Konnikova: It’s a really difficult question, especially because this is such an emotional area for people. We constantly need to be looking at the best data, because the problem is there’s not just uncertainty, there is ambiguity.

We don’t know a lot about Covid, and what we know keeps changing and the data keep changing. And as the data change, we need to constantly be willing to change our minds and to update what we think and to update what is and isn’t an acceptable risk.

A month ago, I would never be outside without a mask. Now I am not wearing a mask in some indoor spaces because I’m fully vaccinated. Everyone I interact with is fully vaccinated. And the guidelines and our understanding and our knowledge has shifted over the last several months.

Six months ago, had you asked me, “Would you be comfortable indoors without a mask?” Absolutely not. Are you insane? You have to constantly be willing to change your mind, constantly evaluating the data and making the best decision based on the best data.

Read more at CNN.com