How Do People Make Decisions When Faced With Uncertainty?

Paul Wright and Carl Rosin

Paul Wright and Carl Rosin have taught Viewpoints on Modern America at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia for 11 years. Paul was a Finalist for 2011 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year, and Carl was the National Philosophy Teacher of the Year in 1914. They are also partners in JumpStart Main Line, which supports rising juniors with their college essay writing process. They have been close friends, and have taught several courses together, since Radnor hired them in 1999.


In February of this year, we were honored to host best-selling author, in-demand decision strategist and World Series of Poker bracelet holder Annie Duke for our 11th grade Humanities Course – Viewpoints on Modern America. Annie was a marvelous guest, presenting VERY complicated information in a casual and engaging way.

Her 2018 book, Thinking in Bets, was a natural fit for our annual unit based on the Roaring ’20s, the Crash of 1929, the Meltdown of 2008, and the way information is gathered and synthesized. We also read The Great Gatsby in that unit, so how people make good (or bad) decisions, including how they process information in the face of uncertainty, always comes up too.

Thinking in Bets itself is written in a very personal style, telling stories of Super Bowls, The Princess Bride, the CIA’s dissent channel, and Odysseus. These references serve as inflection points on the complex ideas surrounding how people make decisions they believe to be good ones when they often aren’t, how data and our “gut” can often be very much at odds with one another, and how to best find the signal amid the noise of everyday decision-making.

Our class was very engaged throughout the unit, the sections of Thinking In Bets we read, and of course, Annie’s presentation—the same one she offers to corporate boards. You’ll see from the blog entries excerpted below how far-ranging our kids’ reactions were, but also how it allowed them to think very personally about issues in their lives that may not seem connected to the daily grind of high school. We relish pointing out also that Annie’s example of a thoughtful, powerful female role model was a boon to all 35 of our students, especially the young women in the group. Her presentation was also a sparkling example of conversational competence: practiced yet casual, challenging but easy to follow. Annie herself was a model of someone well-versed in her field and still able to meet any audience where they stood (or sat).

In our class, conversational competence is vital to what we do. First, we model it every day with our students, often asking one another questions for understanding in front of the class. We also expect kids to approach us personally to alert us to a late paper, seek a conference on a topic they are pondering or a graded paper after they receive it, even ask us for college recommendations. We encourage our students to talk through what they are thinking, as opposed to a casual email or something set in text-speak. One of our go-to lines when kids but can’t quite figure out what they need is: “Ask me a question.”

A more structured academic example from our class is our Socratic Seminars: 25-minute roundtable discussions requiring students to prepare around open-ended prompts (uncertainty!), with quotations and references to bolster the level of their conversation well above a simple opinion. Collaboration is a key piece of these seminars, and a high expectation of ours from day one. Annie’s work echoed these themes: the power of group dynamics to model or interfere with narrowing uncertainty to get to manageable decisions that can be evaluated fairly, no matter what the result.

We cannot say enough about Annie, her work, and her willingness to engage our students in topics that educated adults struggle with. We are also delighted to honor the hard work our kids did to make sense of complicated material, not merely understanding it but also enjoying the processes of engaging in and even transforming it.

As ever, thanks to Allison for the chance to share our work with a community of impressive educators who care about their practice and making their students better.

The following are excerpts of some of our students’ reflections about the Annie’s work and her visit, based on the following prompt:

Use one of the following to generate your reflections on Annie’s visit:

  • Annie Duke came to our class, and I thought…
  • Poker, decision science, the Seattle Seahawks and Viewpoints on Modern America go together because…
  • I read and saw Annie Duke, and she made me think of this…
  • Prompt of your own

Annie Duke came to our class, and I thought that she created several fascinating connections between everyday life and the ideas we have been discussing in class. As high school students, learning about things such as stocks can seem very foreign. Ms. Duke’s connections to more familiar topics such as football and poker gave us much more background to help us understand decision science more easily.

-A.C.

Annie talked about poker, decision science, and football…I found it interesting how they fit together. The discussion also seemed very relevant to people who don’t enjoy poker or football, which I appreciated.

-M.T.

Annie described a series of complex thought processes and decisions with a few poignant, stress-inducing, and funny examples. I’m definitely going to remember several of her perspectives on decision making that I think can be useful and beneficial in my own life. I hope to become as confident and successful as she has, and I greatly valued her advice.

– Caroline K.

Unlike what I have heard from other adults, Annie makes the claim that being more comfortable with the phrase “I don’t know” may be the best thing you can do when making hard decisions. I love how [she] has taken her experiences in poker to help teach the industrial world and students like me about the uncertainty in decision making. Annie herself…connected with her audience by using examples we all knew and could relate to. I am so glad my class had the pleasure of meeting her and learning from her presentation. I will definitely consider her advice as I go off to college and in the professional world.

-Anahita D.

Annie Duke came to our class, and it was awesome. After hearing about her achievements in both poker and cognitive science study, I was unsure how the two were linked. But with her extensive knowledge in both areas, she was able to join cognitive and competitive elements in a way that made it easy for me to see the connection. Annie knew how to keep us engaged; she talked about the Seattle Seahawks, addressed today’s issue with fake news, and even gave us some tips on playing poker. I really liked when she talked about the science of decision making and how there is never a decision that is 100% right or wrong. It helped me relax a bit in thinking about my own big decisions. Annie brought her talk to a close with something that stuck with me: life will take you in directions that you never expected, but you will end up where you’re supposed to be.

– A.I.

Annie Duke came to speak to our class, and I thought, ‘wow, this is exactly how I predicted a professional poker player would dress (colorful power piece under an oversized statement coat).’ Then I thought, ‘huh, I wonder how I predicted that. Did I have solid evidence or did I just get lucky?’

Players don’t often give public speeches, so the best I could do in that respect was observe that fellow player Liv Boeree opted for a much more relaxed, largely monochromatic look in her TED talk.

And then, reflecting on both Duke’s and Boeree’s respective presentations, I realized the difference between them and thus the impetus for Ms. Duke’s bold attire: the target audience. We, the Viewpoints class of 2019, are a potentially rowdy and cynical group of 16- and 17-year-olds. It’s in Ms. Duke’s best interest to immediately establish credibility using the first thing we see, her clothing.

-Tobey L.

After reading a portion of Annie Duke’s book “Thinking in Bets” I was very excited to hear her speak to us. As a person who isn’t plagued with indecision, but rather struggles with poor decision making, I looked forward to Annie’s advice. Her presentation was incredibly engaging, unfortunately I found it rather redundant to the reading we were assigned—not her fault. She does not have a solution as to how to be more decisive, but stresses navigating unknowns…I only wished she had taken her research and applied it to our lives more…Overall, I thought her visit to class was engaging and enjoyable, and I am glad it happened, but I did not learn more than having just read her book.

– Abigail L.

One of the main goals of Viewpoints on Modern America is to broaden the minds of the students by challenging us to be more careful about the way that we form beliefs and accept information. The class often does this by providing synthesis, bringing together many different ideas and looking at them closely in order to create a more refined and intelligent view of the world. This was exactly what Annie Duke talked about when she spoke to our class. She combined topics such as the Seattle Seahawks, her poker expertise, and our upcoming college applying endeavors to bring to light the way that we make decisions and to challenge us to be more rigorous in that process. Ultimately, I found her visit valuable because her lesson was one that is applicable to anyone, especially with the recent uptick in the spread of misinformation and bias in news sources across the political spectrum.

-A.S.

Annie Duke had a particularly commanding presence as she entered the room. You could tell she was instantly aware of everything going on in the room, nothing went amiss. As attentive as she was to her surroundings, her audience was equally attentive to every word she spoke. Poker is a complex game, and one that the majority of the class was not fully knowledgeable about. However, she was able to describe the mechanisms of the game with ease and articulate how its skill set is applicable to every decision we make. The most valuable lesson I walked away with is to give the variable of luck careful consideration, regardless of whether or not the outcome of a situation is the one you desired or not…I learned to be increasingly self-aware of the role that good luck played in my successes and lack of skill in my failures. Overall, her presentation was incredibly engaging, and comforting in a way. As an incredibly indecisive person, her ability to mathematically calculate life decisions was one that offered me guidance on a personal level.

-Estelle A.

In her book, Annie references a scene in The Princess Bride in which Vizzini must choose between two goblets, one containing the deadly iocane and one completely safe. He analyzes the situation intensely and ultimately makes a decision, believing to have outsmarted the task. However, he lacked the knowledge that both glasses were in fact poisoned…

It seems strange to draw a connection between this fictional event and the real world, but Annie is able to form a very clear relationship. It all involves a lack of information that we either don’t know exists or don’t consider important. We may make a decision because we think we have enough data to justify it, but come to find out that we were lacking a key piece all along. Such an idea can be applied to the American economy, something we have been studying in-depth as part of the Viewpoints on Modern America curriculum. The financial meltdown of 2008 resulted largely from a lack of proper information and the willingness people had to continue forward without it. Banks, brokers, and investors were making immense profit through the buying and selling of mortgage bonds, ultimately motivating them to expand the credit profile to encompass potential home-buyers who may not have had very reliable financial history…

Although there were several different aspects that lead to the crisis in 2008, the overall lack of proper information through American society is key. I found Annie’s presentation very interesting and extremely helpful in this sense, as it offered a more phycological approach to a financial crisis relevant to both our class and the American economy as a whole.

-Lu M.

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