Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Why Chess Sticks

I have been reading the wonderful book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip & Dan Heath, which has a lot to offer anyone interested in writing, advertising, marketing, business, or just the history of ideas. The following passages, however, seemed especially useful for explaining the persistence of chess and why so many people become obsessed with it:
In 1994, George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University, provided the most comprensive account of situational interest. It is surprisingly simple. Curiosity, he says, happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge.

Loewenstein argues that gaps cause pain. When we want to know something but don't, it's like having an itch that we need to scratch. To take away the pain, we need to fill the knowledge gap. We sit patiently though bad movies, even though they may be painful to watch, because it's too painful not to know how they end.

This "gap theory" of interest seems to explain why some domains create fanatical interest: They naturally create knowledge gaps. ... Movies cause us to ask, What will happen? Mystery novels cause us to ask, Who did it? Sports contests cause us to ask, Who will win? Crossword puzzles cause us to ask, What is a six letter word for 'psychiatrist'? Pokemon cards cause kids to wonder, Which characters am I missing?
We might add to their list that "chess makes us ask, What the heck is going on in this position? Why did I lose that game? How are you supposed to play the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian when facing the Yugoslav Attack? What openings might be better suited to my style? What technique is necessary to win this ending?" I'm sure you could supply many additional questions. Chess opens countless painful "knowledge gaps" for players, which chess books only begin to fill. That may be why the game is so compelling. Interestingly, all of the examples the authors offer (movies, mystery novels, sports, crossword puzzles, and pokemon) are also popular among chessplayers old and young. People who play chess are the types who also engage in other pursuits for knowledge, forever seeking to close knowledge gaps in their lives. But why does chess compel such obsessive devotion in players? As the Heaths write:
If curiosity arises from knowledge gaps, we might assume that when we know more, we'll become less curious because there are fewer gaps in our knowledge. But Loewenstein argues that the opposite is true. He says that as we gain information we are more and more likely to focus on what we don't know. Someone who knows the state capitals of 17 of 50 states may be proud of her knowledge. But someone who knows 47 may be more likely to think of herself as not knowing 3 capitals.

The more we learn, the more we need to know. As we become better players, we also learn about areas of knowledge (from opening lines, to middlegame themes, to endgame techniques) where we have a gap that needs filling. And chess is a game that constantly reinforces the pain of such gaps with the pain of losing....


Tom Chivers said...

I used to work with some social psychologists - and I came to a very similar conclusion about them. Which ran; they are all people who don't understand others and their minds and social situations; therefore, they become curious to acquire the type of knowledge and the sense for others that normal people take for granted, and to cover over their own lacks.

Alas they instead get rewarded with tokens suggesting they've done this, like Professorships, where to a hat they haven't. This then creates a feedback cycle where they in turn start to appoint people as equally without a clue as them, or even more so: with the paradoxical result that the world's greatest psychologists couldn't comprehend people any less.

Ryan Emmett said...

I think you're right about chess being a good example of something which creates knowledge gaps that people feel compelled to fill.

Since no-one can understand chess completely, the knowledge gaps never go away. No wonder we get addicted!

Anonymous said...

you sure your title shouldn't be 'why chess stinks' maybe?