Confirmation Bias Writ Large

Tomorrow evening Duke and North Carolina will renew the best rivalry in sports via a basketball game on the Duke campus (ESPN, 9pm ET).  As a freshman, Jay Bilas (now of ESPN) lined up for a foul shot in his first rivalry game next to then All-American and future NBA All-Star Brad Daugherty (and also a current ESPN-er), who looked over at him and said “I’m going to beat you like a rented mule.”  That comment was astonishingly mild as these things go.

CraziesI first sat in Cameron Indoor Stadium as a student in 1978 and didn’t miss a home basketball game while I was enrolled at Duke.  Every game was special – and wild.  NBC came to Cameron to do the first national telecast from the arena on January 28, 1979 for a game against Marquette (I was there, of course) and insisted on a time-delay so the crowd could be censored if necessary. But Duke v. Carolina was and is something else entirely.

You can see (or re-live) some of the great – if one-sided – moments in the Duke-Carolina rivalry below (another list is here while a more balanced list is here).  I was even “in the house” at Cameron Indoor Stadium as a student for the #1 moment highlighted in the video, during legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s first season at Duke.  It’s a great memory.  Surprisingly, last season’s Austin Rivers buzzer-beater doesn’t even make the list.


I was also at the 7-0 “air ball” game as a student.  On February 24, 1979, the Tar Heels were visiting Cameron and both teams were highly ranked. It was Senior Night for the great Jim Spanarkel.  Carolina coach Dean Smith badly wanted to take the Duke crowd (not yet known as Cameron Crazies) out of the game. After the Blue Devils took a 2-0 lead, UNC point guard Dave Colescott walked the ball past mid-court and started passing it around in their (in)famous Four Corners delay “offense.”  Future Solicitor General (and Carolina grad) Walter Dellinger aggressively argued to me that the Four Corners really was an offensive weapon with Phil Ford at point guard, but Ford was in the process of winning the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award by this time. 

In any event, the Heels took more than 12 minutes off of the clock in that fashion while the Duke defense just sat back in a zone and waited.  Eventually, the Tar Heels got bored and the ball was passed to center Rich Yonakor on the baseline.   He took one dribble and shot.  The ball flew over the rim, missing the basket entirely.  The fans then created a chant that is still used today.   Aiiiiiir-baaaaalllll!  Aiiiiiir-baaaaalllll!

Duke rebounded the Yonakor miss and scored.  4-0, Duke.  UNC again went back into the Four Corners and eventually Yonakor got the ball again, shot again, and missed everything again.  Aiiiiiir-baaaaalllll! It may be my memory playing tricks, but as the object of this ridicule, Yonakor looked completely out of sorts.  Duke subsequently made a free throw and got the ball back with about four minutes left in the half, leading 5-0.

Duke Coach Bill Foster then took a page out of Dean’s playbook and ran his own version of the Four Corners for the remainder of the half.  It was a classic move designed to humiliate the hated rivals.  Duke held the ball before scoring just before halftime to lead 7-0.  A first half shutout (and Carolina hadn’t even drawn iron)! Shot clock advocates were given some great ammunition.  Ironically, the second half was played at a feverish pace – each team scored 40 points and Duke won by the first half margin, 47-40.  That was sweet.

Unsurprisingly, after the game, Smith stood up for his strategy, claiming that it was important to take the crowd out of the game.  Naturally, he said his approach had failed merely due to impatience and poor execution.  A bemused Foster noted in reply that he “always thought Naismith invented basketball, not Dean Smith.”  That was snark worthy of a Dukie.

Sitting in the student section at Cameron on game day, it seemed obvious that Dean was an arrogant blow-hard who sanctimoniously talked down to opponents, intimidated officials and got all the calls.  Of course, now that Coach K has passed him on the all-time wins list, I’m more willing to be gracious.  Even so, I’m still perfectly willing to argue that Dean — while terrific at recruiting and preparation — was overrated as a game coach.

This kind of thinking is surely to be expected.  We are prone to any number of behavioral and cognitive biases.  We don’t come to our conclusions based upon careful analysis of the facts. Instead, we tend to suffer from confirmation bias and thus reach a conclusion first.  Only thereafter do we gather facts, but even then it’s only to support our pre-conceived conclusions and not to undertake anything like analysis.  We take our selected “facts” and cram them into our desired narratives (e.g., Carolina sucks), even when they don’t fit very well, because narratives are crucial to how we make sense of reality.  They help us to explain, understand and interpret the world around us.  They also give us a frame of reference we can use to remember the concepts we take them to represent.  Perhaps most significantly, we inherently prefer narrative to data — often to the detriment of our understanding. Trying to keep one’s analysis and interpretation of the facts and data reasonably objective – since analysis and interpretation are required for facts and data to be actionable – is really, really hard even in the best of circumstances.

All of which is a helpful predicate to a perfectly obvious conclusion: people are inherently irrational in the best of situations and fans are full-blown bonkers.  If we are exceedingly prone to various mental biases in life generally, when we’re in fan mode we readily go off the rails entirely.  And when we’re in fan/rivalry mode, almost anything is possible.

We Dukies hated Dean then and loved to see him get what we saw as his comeuppance that afternoon.  But with more than 30 years of perspective from my school days, I can now see what a great coach and a great man Dean was (even most Duke fans agree — now).  The objective facts demand as much.  He won a then-record number of games and did it “the right way.”  More importantly, he was instrumental in the fight for racial justice even at a time when he didn’t have all that much clout.

UNC fansOn the other hand, when Coach K was named Sports Illustrated magazine’s 2011 Sportsman of the Year (along with Tennessee’s Pat Summitt), that honor was met with more than a bit of skepticism and consternation by many Carolina fans.  After the news broke, I couldn’t help but take a peek at Inside Carolina‘s message boards for a bit of reaction, since internet message boards tend to take typical fan insanity and ratchet up the level of loony more than a few notches.  It’s confirmation bias writ large.

I was not disappointed.

Some representative comments follow.

  • “CongRATulations to coach summit.”
  • “To be fair, that Sweet 16 finish with the pre-season #1 last year was a pretty solid accomplishment.”
  • “Really. Amazing!!  I guess it is sportsman-like to curse like a sailor at officials. I guess it is sportsman-like to teach players to flop to fool referees. I need a new definition.”
  • “Coach Rat would’ve been my 1,875,643,325,875,432…th choice.”
  • “Leave it to the rat to turn The SI Sportsman of the Year Award, a previously prestigious award, into just another cheesey award.”
  • “Does dSPN [for the uninitiated, that’s a common meme for Carolina fans – ESPN being the dook – intentional misspelling and small “d” – Sports Programming Network] own SI too?”
  • “Sports Illustrated [long-time home of noted college basketball writer and Carolina alum Curry Kirkpatrick] has hated us for years.”

Here’s my favorite:

“I guess it makes sense, if the definition of sportsman is ‘a d-bag who denigrates referees’. K is like the WWF (the environmental group): both make more money than they deserve, both are rotten to the core, but somehow both are believed to be saints.”

Of course, a silly Duke fan had to make a trollish appearance in the thread to tweak the Tar Heel faithful.  He noted that “I love any and everything that may ruffle the feathers of the Carowhina cheese and wine fans. Especially anything that pertains to Duke.”  That bit of delightful wit (Noel Coward’s legacy is not in danger) got him summarily banned from the site.

As fans, the more reasoned among us at least try to “put some lipstick on the pig” and gussy-up our nuts with perfectly rational-sounding reasons why we are better than them, even though we have long-since decided that it is so, facts notwithstanding.  Indeed, some might argue that one of my favorite websites, the Duke Basketball Report, exists for precisely this reason (and I love it nonetheless).

Unfortunately, we make matters worse because we all tend to share a “bias blind spot” — the inability to recognize that we suffer from the same cognitive distortions that plague other people. The Carolina fans I quoted above likely believe that they are being cool and objective about Coach K in just the same way that I thought I was being objective about Coach Smith all those years ago.

If only.

My youngest, a Berkeley grad who also played football at Cal, made a telling comment about this tendency, made only half in jest: “I think you’re 100 percent right, except in regards to Stanfurd [those familiar with The Big Game will surely recognize that this spelling is not a typo]. Cal fans aren’t irrational at all about them.”

As a Duke fan, I’m resigned to the reality that lots of people (and especially those wearing the wrong shade of blue) are going to think that Coach K is evil, that Duke gets all the calls and that the Cameron Crazies are a bunch of over-privileged poseurs no matter what a truly objective analysis (more here) of the facts might show.  It’s both human as well as all but inevitable (and especially tomorrow evening).

And even though our irrationality hurts us in many areas of life, I’ll even go so far as to say that it’s perfectly okay to be utterly irrational about your favorite team.   We’re fans — as in fanatics — after all.


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