I understand it...But I don't want it

I understand it...But I don't want it

Feb 23, 2016, 5:10 PM |

I'm no psychologist but it strikes me that there must be at least two different information processing pathways in the brain: a cognitive pathway and an affective one. In other words, thinking and feeling. The cognitive pathway is slow, rational, and logical – it plods along, considering all the angles, and eventually comes up with an answer. The affective pathway is fast, but irrational and emotional – it instantly tells you how you feel about something, whether that feeling is warranted or not. The cognitive pathway tries to follow rules and conventions to get to its endpoint, while the affective pathway bounces straight to its conclusion in a manner that is often inexplicable. You could put it this way: your cognitive system tells you objectively what you should value, your affective system tells you subjectively what you actually do value. For this reason, the affective system is much more effective at motivating you to action, even though it won't necessarily set you on the right course.


Some of the toughest obstacles you can encounter come about because of a conflict between these two pathways. If your affective system is attached to something, you will obssess about that thing even if cognitively you realize it isn't worth your time. On the other side, your cognitive system can reason out something perfectly, without error, and you will still ignore it because your affective system doesn't care. It's why charities will always use distressing images to tug at your heartstrings instead of trying to reason with you – you can understand all of the reasons why giving just a small amount of money to a charity is a good idea but still be completely unmotivated to do it.


Chess is the arch-rational game. We're human computers, robotically reasoning out moves when we play. Or at least we're supposed to be. Your affective system can be strangely compelling when you play, directly you towards moves that 'feel' right even if there's no rational reason for it. This can be very useful. It can also be your worst enemy, saddling you with unfounded fears and phobias. The worst thing about a phobia is that it settles in its place in your mind with a protective box around it labelled 'cognitive system no-go zone'. You refuse to even begin to engage rationally with the fear and so are not able to put it behind you. Why does this happen? Simple. Those two pathways in your brain are separate. Sometimes they agree, which gives the impression they are working together, but really they are working separately. When they disagree they can be like magnets repelling each other, pulling you in opposite directions and creating chaos.


It's interesting to hear learning players (including myself) say stuff like “I hate closed positions, I always avoid them,” or “I've never tried playing the Sicilian because it looks too complicated” or even “I don't want to play in tournaments because I'll play badly and people will laugh at me.” All these things are affective and ultimately irrational, fear-based statements. Consider these answers to those three fears:


1) Even if you hate a type of position, trying to avoid it at any cost will be ruinous to your position and cause you to lose games.

2) How can you know if something is too complicated for you if you've never tried it, or only once or twice?

3) Why would someone laugh at someone else's game? That's not why people go to tournaments. In fact, it's the people who behave like that who should really be embarassed to play in tournaments.


Notice that strong players also have these same tendencies, but they realize they need to work on rectifying them in order to improve their game. To take the first example, strong players don't go out of their way to avoid disliked positions in their games if it would put them at an objective disadvantage. They are rational. They try to steer the game towards positions they find comfortable, but it doesn't always work, and they can't afford to freak out when it doesn't. 


Weak players often know their weaknesses, but unlike a lot of strong players, they refuse to work on them. I wouldn't be surprised if latent fear was one of the top reasons. That overactive affective system. To improve your game, think of something you really dislike, or even fear, with a passion. Boring Rook endgames? Symmetrical Opening variations? The games of Ulf Anderrson? Now, go and study that subject for at least half an hour. Apply your cognitive system to the problem. You might surprise yourself. You might even turn an unfounded fear into a new appreciation for the endless possibilities of chess.