Magical Fallacies #3: Naturalistic Fallacy

Today, I’m going to be discussing perhaps one of the most complex psychological fallacies out there—the Naturalistic Fallacy. This fallacy is complex in that, in some respects, it’s straightforward, yet in other ways it can be deceptive and misleading.

What is the Naturalistic Fallacy? The Naturalistic Fallacy is when a person places a judgment of value on something based on statements of fact. There are numerous examples of this fallacy throughout Magic. Let’s take a look at some of them.

You have a big tournament coming up you want to prepare for. So, to help you do that, you go online and look at what the best performing decks of the format are. As you scour through the different websites and collect data, you notice that one deck is particular has a higher win percentage than everything else in the format. Based on the facts you’ve accumulated through the deck’s win percentage, you place a value on that deck and judge it to be the right way to attack the format, since it’s the deck that’s won the most consistently. Surely, if it’s winning the most, it’s the right deck to play, right?

Well, there’s something that you didn’t think to consider. Everyone else is doing the same research and preparation for the tournament that you are. As a consequence, a subsection of those players have decided to come up with a strategy that is specifically tailor-made to beat the current metagame. You show up to the tournament with the “best deck” expecting to do well, but then you’re surprised when you run up against a wall of decks specifically designed to beat yours. As a result, you fall well below your original expectations.

Judging a deck to be the right deck to play simply because it’s winning the most is a Naturalistic Fallacy. Just because a deck has been winning a lot doesn’t mean it’s the right deck to play, or even the best deck to play. For example, Shoota Yasooka won Pro Tour Kaladesh in 2016 playing Grixis Control. Immediately following his win, he talked about how he felt, going forward, the deck wouldn’t be the right deck to play, despite it having just won a Pro Tour. He knew that more people would pick up the deck, which would put a target on its back and shift the metagame to a place where people would be looking for more ways to be prepared against that matchup.

We’ve seen this exact scenario play out many times over the years at the Pro Tour, for example. When players were preparing for the PT, they had to decide on essentially one of two general strategies: Play the best deck with the best win percentage, or try to break the format and find something that can beat the best deck in a one-off tournament. Is the right strategy to just play the best deck, or is the right strategy to try and break the format at a one-off tournament? And how do they reach their conclusion? That’s where things get complex, and often, it’s simply a matter of personal choice.

But the Naturalistic Fallacy doesn’t just apply to the technical aspect of the game, it also applies to the mental aspect of the game. I’ll give you an example.

There’s a psychological theory called the Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning, or the IZOF for short. The IZOF states that, up to a certain point, negative emotions such as anxiety, nervousness, fear, and anger can enhance performance and actually help someone perform better at something. The theory is that, because these negative emotions can provide performance benefits such as increased adrenaline and focus, they’re good to utilize up to a certain point so that you can get yourself to perform better. As a consequence, the IZOF is often proclaimed by people as the right strategy to use when going to perform something. But those people are committing a classic Naturalistic Fallacy.

While it may be true that negative emotions such as anxiety, nervousness, fear, and anger can provide performance benefits such as increased adrenaline and heightened focus, saying the IZOF is the right or even the best strategy for optimizing performance is a Naturalistic Fallacy because that fails to address two things:

  1. Any of the performance benefits you can get from negative emotions can come from positive emotions/techniques. For example, you can heighten your state of focus by utilizing deep, controlled breathing.
  2. Positive emotions/techniques provide the same performance benefits, but without the mental and emotional pitfalls that come with trying to utilize negative emotions in a controlled manner.

Negative emotions can provide benefits for performance. Positive emotions can also provide benefits for performance. Trying to control or utilize negative emotions for performance is fraught with pitfalls and risks, as well as both short-term and long-term mental and physical side-effects. Using positive emotions for performance has literally zero pitfalls or risks and doesn’t come with any negative short-term or long-term side-effects. Performing anxious, nervous, fearful, and angry is not the “right way” to enhance performance, nor is it even the best way to do so, and to claim that is a Naturalistic Fallacy of the highest order.

And this is where I get to the meat of this topic today. In a sense, the Naturalistic Fallacy takes our attention away from looking purely at just facts and logic, and forces us to analyze things from a more all-encompassing perspective. Decisions often require more than just statistics and numbers. They require common sense, feelings, and faith. Is it right to play the best deck or to try and break the format? Which strategy is right? In the end, it’s not a matter of which strategy is right or wrong. It’s a matter of which strategy is better or worse, based on the context of that tournament.

Is it right to try and utilize negative emotions to enhance performance or to try and utilize positive emotions to achieve that? Again, in the end, it’s not a matter of which strategy is right or wrong. Neither is right or wrong. You can get yourself to perform better using negative emotions or positive emotions. It’s a matter of which strategy is better or worse, based on the context of who you are and your current situation. Looking at things purely from a factual standpoint and making determinations of right or wrong purely based off of those facts is a Naturalistic Fallacy you want to avoid.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for the final fallacy!

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