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The Want-Think Fallacy

Let's say I bet you $5 that there will be a Magnitude 7.0+ earthquake in California next year. That's a pretty good bet for you, as earthquakes* in California are relatively common overall. However, now that you've taken that bet, you profit from there being an earthquake in California. This means that, perversely, you now want an earthquake to occur in California. So is this an ethical bet for you to take?

What if the bet is $5,000? Now, the money is an amount you can do something real with. What if the bet is not on an earthquake, but on a political candidate you don't support? And you have a lot of influence in the campaign? These are ethical questions that don't have easy, cut-and-dried answers. But, if you couldn't tell from the title, I think you should take each and every one of these bets.**


Let me backpedal. Happy Wednesday, and welcome to Chromatic Conflux. Today, I'm talking about why I support disaster betting, and, more generally, about the conflation of what you want with what you think will happen. I'm going to move into another example.

Hillary Clinton. Image credit: Encyclopedia Britannica.

Hillary Clinton's Presidential Prospects

According to PredictIt, a site where you can bet on all sorts of different things, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a 5% chance of winning the Democratic nomination in 2020. In other words, you can spend just 96 cents to get a dollar if and when she is not chosen. (Yes, 96+5=101. PredictIt has to make money somehow.) This is higher than many other candidates, such as Cory Booker (4%), Beto O'Rourke (3%), and Amy Klobuchar (2%). In my opinion, this is obscenely high. She's not running, and according to YouGov, she has a -8 approval rating. (For reference, Barack Obama has +24, Joe Biden has +14, Bill Clinton has +5, Elizabeth Warren has +4, and Donald Trump has -11.) Additionally, electability is a major concern among voters in the 2020 election, and nothing makes you seem less electable than losing general elections.

However, my dad*** took the opinion that Hillary Clinton actually did have a decent shot at becoming the Democratic nominee. If I'm representing him correctly, he said that it's possible that Joe Biden could suffer a medical issue serious enough to warrant dropping out, such as death, and that his base/party elites would still want a relatively moderate, experienced candidate, and Clinton would fill that void.

Interestingly, there are plenty of non-Biden moderate, experienced candidates running for president. Amy Klobuchar hails from the Rust Belt and has served in the Senate for over a decade. Steve Bullock was elected and reelected governor in ruby-red Montana, and prior to that served as attorney general of his state. And there's a couple others as well. If there's a hunger for a light-horse**** candidate, Michelle Obama has been floated as well.

Lots of candidates are moderate, and lots of candidates are experienced. Multiple candidates are both quite moderate and quite experienced. So I think that my dad conflated what he wanted–that since Clinton and Biden were both moderate and experienced politicians, they deserved to be president–with what was likely to happen–that Clinton would retire, never to run for president again, due to her unpopularity and perceived unelectability.

The ruins of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Image credit: ABC7 News.

Wanting Disasters to Happen vs. Thinking Disasters will Happen

Let's get back to disaster betting. If I take a large bet on something bad I think is likely to happen, say, the earthquake, what do I think will occur? The earthquake. What do I want to occur? Not the earthquake. It's unethical to want a disaster to happen. (More precisely, since it's hard to control what you want, it's unethical to take any action regarding this desire.) In fact, if given the choice between the disaster occurring, making my bet a winning one, or the disaster not occurring, forcing me to pay up, I would choose to pay up in a heartbeat.

But I don't control the tectonic plates of California. If I wish the earthquake to happen, that won't necessarily make it happen; if I wish it not to happen, it still might. Sure, there's a conflict of interest, but I'm not a monster. So I might as well make a few bucks on what I believe will happen.

The Want-Think Fallacy

In the earthquake example, I believed that an earthquake was likely, but didn't want one to occur. It's hard for personal biases to interfere with that. But with the Hillary Clinton example, my dad liked several traits that Clinton had, such as her moderatism and experience. So I believe that he unconsciously conflated his support for her with Democrats' support for her. If it feels like a no-brainer to you, it's easy to feel like it's a no-brainer for other people too.

Now, there are times when your influence can impact the result. For instance, if you have a lot of power or influence*****, or if you're betting on a small "disaster." For an example of the latter, let's say that you were betting over whether there would be vanilla ice cream at a party you were going to that day, and you would have brought the ice cream, except, you know, the bet.

Vanilla ice cream with honey. Image credit: Food Network.

I call this the Want-Think Fallacy, because I tried hard to think of a name and couldn't find any good ones.

[Edit from the future: I'm, unsurprisingly, not the first person to discover this. It's often known as the "is-ought problem," and was studied by philosopher David Hume.]

Official Definition

The Want-Think Fallacy is the conflation of wanting something with thinking something will occur, often because of the belief that more people agree with you than do.

The Reverse Want-Think Fallacy

There's also a reverse case of the Want-Think Fallacy, where people want something, but they feel alone in their desire, so they definitely don't think it will happen. An example of this is that many voters feel that Donald Trump is certain to win reelection, because he so unexpectedly did so in 2016. However, according to a New York Times editorial by Dr. Rachel Bitecofer, "the 2020 presidential election is shaping up as a battle of the bases, and the Democrats’ base is simply bigger." Even if you believe that Trump is the favorite, it's indefensible to believe that he can't lose. So I think that, instead of taking 2016 with a grain of salt, these people are pouring salt on everything else, mentally isolating the fact that Trump won in an upset. This is an instance of the Reverse Want-Think Fallacy.

I hope that this post helped you feel good about disaster betting and helped you avoid the Want-Think Fallacy in life. Remember that it's fine to anticipate failure–but don't let that fetter your success.


*For the rest of this post, I'm using "earthquakes" as a shorthand for "earthquakes magnitude 7.0 or higher."

**Obviously, you shouldn't take them if you think that they are unprofitable bets, meaning that the chance of the disaster happening is under 50%. But I'm speaking ethically here.

***I don't mean to scapegoat my dad here. I'm using him to represent a larger problem that I've been noticing. If you're reading this, hi! You're generally a great parent.

****By a light horse I mean the opposite of a dark horse, i.e. a candidate who is known by virtually everyone.

*****I have like 10 subscribers. Woohoo!

Sidenote: if you're reading this, but haven't subscribed to my blog, scroll down to the very bottom and add your email address. It really means a lot.


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