Guest blog by Christy Keenan
What do football fans, gamblers, politicians and religious extremists have in common?
The fact that they are overwhelmingly male? Perhaps, but this article isn’t about to explore the paucity of women in Britain’s bookies on a Saturday afternoon. Someone else can touch that one with a bargepole. Rather, this piece concerns itself with a psychological quirk that all four of these groups possess – one called confirmation bias.
Let’s get the formalities out of the way: this article isn’t written to offend anyone. I appreciate that EdUncovered is srs bsns and anything that makes it onto the site is of the highest journalistic calibre (my favourite being The Best Piss Ever). In order to hit such heady heights, I’ve had to spice up my natural writing style, which is ordinarily drier than a witch’s tit. So if you are a football fan, gambler, politician, or religious extremist (and I am at least two of the four), please note that some generalisations and hyperbole have been employed here. Try not to let the casual stereotyping distract from the message.
tl;dr: Concentrate, cos if you follow what’s about to follow, you’ll gain some valuable knowledge. Concentrate real hard and you might also gain some valuable money. Double bonus.
What the hell is confirmation bias?
In short, confirmation bias is the tendency to ascribe merit only to information that supports the individual’s pre-existing view. Conflicting evidence is conveniently ignored. For example, a wannabe stand-up comic may believe their hilarious Hitler joke to be evidence of their mad skillz. The other fourteen-and-a-half minutes of painfully awkward material is what they should be focusing on, but instead it’s glossed over.
Susceptibility to confirmation bias is a fairly typical human trait. It can be found in people who have no interest in any of these spheres (football, gambling, politics and religious extremism) and on rare occasions it can’t be found within them. Somewhere out there, there must be some season ticket-holding, bookie-dwelling, Bible-bashing, soapbox-yelling type who has stayed mercifully clear of this pitfall. However, by and large you will find a peculiar subjectivity towards the definition of ‘proof’ amongst the aforementioned sorts.
CB in action
In Scotland, there are two football teams that dominate the headlines. Fans of both swear blind that referees are biased against their side. It is theoretically possible (albeit unlikely to the point of ridiculousness) that every official is against both teams. However, fans of Team X point to favourable decisions towards Team Y as evidence of bias against X. And you’ve guessed it: fans of Team Y point to favourable decisions towards Team X to prove the same point in reverse. They can’t both be right.
Visit either side’s online forums and you will see dozens of threads dedicated highlighting perceived injustices, with positive outcomes and erroneous refereeing decisions in their favour dismissed as rare anomalies that were ‘due’. Confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is also prevalent in religious and political debates, on both sides of the fence. ‘Evidence’ is proffered selectively, and the result is usually a smug re-affirmation of existing beliefs for both parties. Salient points raised by those on the other side of the debate are rarely given credit, resulting in entrenched extremism. If it’s them and us, then everything we say is right and everything they say is wrong. It doesn’t make for a very enlightened society, but it does explain why certain publications become more extreme in their views as time progresses; they pander to their readership, and only afford prominence to stories and ‘facts’ that support their pre-existing stance. This appeals to a readership that shares its ideals, and perpetuates fallacies and half-truths. Confirmation bias.
Betting against bias
And then there’s gambling. As a poker coach, I can safely say that at least 90% of the players I have encountered are selective with the evidence they use to support outlandish claims (and no I’m not providing anything to back up this assertion – DUCWIDT?). Most of these claims pertain to the absence of luck. The supporting evidence is usually framed to include the exact moment at which the downswing occurred, and stops abruptly at the exact moment that the bad run started to even out. Without context, such ‘proof’ is meaningless to the rational observer. Hands in which the player got unlucky are discussed; less scrutinised are those in which Hero caught a break.
Bad card hits: ‘Goddamnit! Every time!’
Good card hits: ‘Finally!’
Bad card hits: ‘See what I mean? Have you ever seen a player run this bad?’
Good card hits: ‘That’s the first one in forever!’
The examples of misfortune are afforded significance, while the instances of good luck are glossed over as exceptions that prove the rule. Confirmation bias.
The same goes for sports bettors. We all have a mate who’s prone to ranting on Facebook about how “Fulham screwed me out of £2k at the weekend” with a last-minute winner. They don’t mention how it took two dodgy penalties and an offside goal to put their accumulator into such a position in the first place (and that’s without discussing the fact that accumulators are mug bets). Confirmation bias.
When Ray Charles sang “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”, he wasn’t just crooning a catchy little soundbite. He was singing the lament of the gambler; an ode to confirmation bias in a domain that mythologises near-misses and disregards lucky breaks. Religious leaders, politicians, football fans and even managers are masters of this tactic: if we only talk about the bits that fit our agenda then we will endear ourselves further to our followers. Hell, maybe we can pick up some impressionable stragglers too.
Gambling is my thing, and I fully appreciate how tough it is to avoid going down the road of confirmation bias. The only sure-fire method that I have formulated is to play the long game. By not sweating the short-term swings, and trusting in the laws of reversion, a good gambler can disassociate decisions from results. The road to beating the bookies is littered with land-mines, but they can be side-stepped with some disciplined thinking. If you can minimise the role that confirmation bias plays in your thinking then you’ll be on the right path, be it to enlightenment or a fat payout.