This is part of my 5 Minute Concepts series, which is designed to help you understand fundamental concepts about subjects like learning, memory and competition in the shortest time possible. Each episode is available in video format on my YouTube channel and audio via my podcast. If you prefer to read, the transcript is below.
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What separates experts from novices? More than anything, it’s pattern recognition. The expert has the knowledge and experience to recognize the most important patterns in any given situation.
While it is possible to leverage pattern recognition in solitary pursuits, and there’s quite a bit of literature on the role of pattern recognition in overall intelligence, my focus today is on how it impacts competition.
Pattern recognition provides two important advantages. First of all, it makes processing your environment much more efficient.
When you’ve seen a pattern a million times and know it’s significant, you automatically tune out other, less relevant cues in your environment in order to focus on that pattern.
This is a mental shortcut, because it means your brain doesn’t have to work hard to find signals within the noise that surrounds you — it just happens by default.
Novices struggle in large part because they lack that ability. They get overwhelmed by the cues around them and try to address all of them at once. The expert knows what to focus on, and therefore can allocate their mental and physical resources on what matters the most.
In this context, you can view pattern recognition as a sort of built-in risk management mechanism. When we see things we recognize, we can more easily classify them as “safe” or “dangerous.” This is true not just in competition, but in life in general.
Secondly, pattern recognition gives you the ability to anticipate what’s going to happen in the future. If you’ve spotted a pattern in an opponent and they don’t show signs of changing it, you can exploit that.
Much of competition is this dance of figuring out patterns, exploiting them, and then adapting to replacement patterns.
This dance happens in donkeyspace, with both sides trying to figure out how to get maximum exploitation out of their opponent’s patterns without creating too many exploitable patterns themselves.
Poker is an excellent example of how pattern recognition can dominate an entire game’s competitive spaces. Everyone sitting at the table is watching and learning, trying to spot patterns (which are referred to as “tells”) that can be used for profit.
Maybe one player always scratches their nose when they’ve got a good hand, so you choose to fold rather than bet against them whenever that pattern shows up. Or maybe they start playing with their chips in a certain way when they’re bluffing.
Top-level professionals are watching those physical cues, plus they’re paying even closer attention to betting patterns. They watch how every player pushes their chips around at every stage of the game, looking to spot ways they can infer an overall player “personality.”
There’s even a common language players use to describe specific types of players, which is itself a mechanism for aiding pattern recognition. For example, those who only play the best cards in a hyper-conservative manner are labeled “Rocks,” and the players who are intensely aggressive are called “Maniacs.”
It’s a general principle that the skill of spotting meaningful patterns in opponents is one of the most sustainable competitive advantages you can create for yourself. Being able to see and exploit the holes in your opponent’s game better than they can means you’re always a step ahead of them.
But there are dangers to be found in our pattern recognition capabilities. To start with, there’s always the risk that we’re focusing on the wrong patterns. There’s a whole metagame of creating the patterns designed to deceive opponents, and if you aren’t aware of that metagame then you can find yourself in hot water very fast.
On top of that, you might see the right pattern but come up with the wrong method for exploiting it. It might be because you lack the experience or execution skill to take advantage of it, or it might be because your analysis of that hole was just off the mark. Just because you can take advantage of a pattern doesn’t mean you will.
To use the poker example again, another player might be aware of their own tells and use that against you. They might know they have a tendency to scratch their nose when they bluff, and deliberately scratch it when they have a strong hand just to bait you into playing against them.
Anyone can (within reason) get better at pattern recognition with practice. But not everyone is capable of getting good enough at it to hijack the pattern recognition habits of other people. This is, in my opinion, the mark of the master competitor.
Think about this next time you have to square off against an opponent in some competitive arena. It’s easy to spot patterns for yourself, but what are you doing to set traps with the patterns you give off? Practicing this will pay gigantic dividends in the long-run if you stick with it.