‘Cognitive biases in football’

September 21, 2011

Excellent post at Stumbling and Mumbling on Cognitive biases in football, particuarly:

4.Confirmation bias. Once people have an idea, they find evidence to corroborate it.So, having gotten the idea that Arsenal can’t defend, they overweight evidence for this, an underweight evidence to the contrary. This is all the more likely to happen if it combines with point 1.

The counterpart of this bias is that people don’t admit they were wrong.12 months ago, everyone said Arsenal needed to buy a new keeper. Wenger thought differently. And when Szczesny made that save against Udinese, did Wenger’s critics recant and say that, maybe, they are wrong on other things as well? No.

Now, although fans and pundits commit these errors, coaches rarely do. As Arsene says, “We must not completely believe what people say when it goes well or badly.” This isn’t because they are better educated in statistics than their critics – though Arsene is – but rather because rationality often arises from practice, so those better practiced in football make fewer intellectual errors about it.This means that coaches don’t over-react to good or bad streaks. They “take positives” from a defeat not (just) out of the self-serving bias but because there often are such positives. And they sometimes – though rarely in public – describe a winning performance as “disgraceful.”

And yet, despite all this, fans and journalists continue to criticize coaches who have vastly more knowledge and expertise than they do.

What intellectual pundits such as Alan ‘BUT!’ Shearer don’t emphasise is the game is essentially determined by large slices of luck, as well as skill. To admit it plays a regular part in games wouldn’t reflect well on their own ‘expertise’. And a once a team has had its fair share of bad luck or unfortunate breaks then the head inevitably drops and the team’s confidence goes into a tail spin. Whether there is any relationship between how intimidating a manager is towards referees and how that influences a referee’s decision making – and hence their share of ‘luck’ – i don’t know. But i suspect Jose Mourhino’s and Alex Ferguson’s winning ways have partly to do with their ability to intimidate a referee into making decisions that favour their team. Although to claim Man U’s success is largely down to luck stretching it a bit.

The best piece of rubbish I heard about Arsene Wenger was from a neighbour who was adamant Arsenal should get rid of him. ‘Who would replace him?’ I asked. ‘Sam Allardyce’ he replied. ‘He’d scare ‘em into playing better. That’s what they need.’ Wise words.

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