Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Popperianism Vindicated

In chess, that is, though I'm completely convinced that the same insight holds up in other arenas of life.

For all you budding Kasparovs out there, a team of cognitive scientists has worked out how to think like a chess grand master. As those attending this week's Cognitive Science Society meeting in Chicago, Illinois, were told, the secret is to try to knock down your pet theory rather than finding ways to support it - exactly as scientists are supposed to do.

"This is a new result in the psychology of chess, as far as I know," says Mark Orr, a chess enthusiast and Ireland's first international master. The research could help developing chess players to hone their skills, he adds.

In deciding which move to make, chess players mentally map out the future consequences of each possible move, often looking about eight moves ahead. So Michelle Cowley, a cognitive scientist and keen chess player from Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, decided to study how different chess players decide whether their move strategies will be winners or losers.

Along with her colleague Ruth Byrne, she recruited 20 chess players, ranging from regular tournament players to a grand master. She presented each participant with six different chessboard positions from halfway through a game, where black and white had equal chances of winning and there was no immediately obvious next move.

Each player had to speak their thoughts aloud as they decided what move to make. Cowley scored the quality of the move sequences by comparing them with Fritz 8, one of the most powerful chess computer programs available.

She found that novices were more likely to convince themselves that bad moves would work out in their favour, because they focused more on the countermoves that would benefit their strategy while ignoring those that led to the downfall of their cherished hypotheses.

Conversely, masters tended to correctly predict when the eventual outcome of a move would weaken their position. "Grand masters think about what their opponents will do much more," says Byrne. "They tend to falsify their own hypotheses." (emphases added)
I can think of one field where this sort of thinking is desperately required today - uh, Annie Jacobsen, do you have a minute?