Tonight Duke University and the University of North Carolina will play a basketball game on the Duke campus (ESPN, 8pm ET) and thus renew the best rivalry in all of sports. As ESPN reports, for the 78th time, both teams will be ranked while over the last 96 meetings, each team has won 48 games and scored exactly 7,437 points.
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.” Even so, that comment was astonishingly mild as these things go. Every Duke home game, irrespective of opponent, includes multiple iterations of a single chant cascading down from the rafters of venerable, old Cameron Indoor Stadium: “Go to hell, Carolina, go to hell! [Clap. clap].”
That’s about as close and as serious as it gets.
I first sat in Cameron 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. The “Cameron Crazies” will be fired up tonight, of course. As legendary Hall of Fame Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski puts it, the game is a “national treasure.”
I was even “in the house” at Cameron as a student for the #1 moment on many such lists, during Coach Krzyzewski’s first season at Duke. Shortly before this game tipped off, Duke senior and all-time great Gene Banks put on a tuxedo for Senior Day and threw roses into the crowd. He later made sure that the celebration didn’t stop there. With one second left in the second half and a middling Duke team trailing the eventual NCAA Tournament finalist Tar Heels by two, Banks received the inbounds pass above the free-throw line and drained a jumper over Sam Perkins to send the game into overtime. At the end of the extra session, Banks grabbed a rebound with 19 seconds left in the game and hit a leaner to give the Blue Devils the lead and, eventually, the win. It’s a great memory.
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 Day for the great Jim Spanarkel. Carolina coach Dean Smith badly wanted to take the typically great 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.” Earlier that week, future Solicitor General of the United States (Duke professor and Carolina grad) Walter Dellinger had 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. We fans then created a chant that is still used throughout the basketball world 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, I recall Yonakor looking 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.
At that point, then Duke Coach Bill Foster 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 at the break, 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 “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said, “but during the first half last night, I began to think maybe I’ve been doing it for too long. I 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, team development and game 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 rarely set out objectively to review the evidence and reason to the best available conclusion, even when we think we are or set out to do so. Instead, we are usually engaging in an effort at indoctrination by example, often of ourselves. We exhibit confirmation bias and thus reach our conclusions first and only thereafter do we gather facts, but even then it’s only to support our pre-conceived notions and not to undertake anything like careful analysis. We then 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.
As I have said before, on our best days, when wearing the right sort of spectacles, squinting and tilting our heads just so, we can be observant, efficient, loyal, assertive truth-tellers. However, on most days, all too much of the time, we’re delusional, lazy, partisan, arrogant confabulators. Evidence is what should really matter, of course, but with respect to persuading those we wish to persuade, confidence is at least as important as competence, and emotion matters even more. It’s an unfortunate reality, but reality nonetheless. Indeed, Snopes would not exist without our propensity for not letting facts get in the way of a good story (in a bit of delicious irony, this idea is often falsely attributed to Mark Twain). Augustine had it right more than a thousand years before Descartes: Fallor ergo sum (“I err therefore I am”).
By this point, every investment professional and would-be professional has at least a passing knowledge of behavioral finance and is aware that confirmation bias is its lead actor. I have written about this subject often. Others acting to correct these misperceptions can actually reinforce them, via something called the “backfire effect.” Similarly, attempts to debunk believed myths not based on fact can also reinforce them because they keep repeating the untruth. It seems that people remember the false claim and forget that it’s a lie. And if people feel attacked, especially about something they care deeply about, they resist the facts all the more. Sadly, people will resist abandoning a false belief unless and until they have a compelling alternative explanation – in other words, a better story. We inherently prefer a false model of reality to an incomplete or uncertain but more accurate model.
Confirmation bias comes in three primary flavors. Its standard expression, as noted above, is our tendency to notice and accept that which fits our preconceived notions and beliefs. The current political climate provides daily examples. We routinely accept or explain away the foibles of those we support while jumping all over those of the opposition. My daily Facebook feed is conclusive evidence of this unseemly reality. One person’s depravity and slander is another’s obvious fact. Each side thinks they have chosen the right hero in a fraught morality play with the highest of possible stakes.
But confirmation bias also includes seeing what we expect to see (as when we proofread something and read right over an obvious error) and seeing that which is in our interest to see. This last expression is often called “motivated reasoning.” The shocking and famous Simmelweis Reflex is a reflection of this phenomenon and Upton Sinclair offered perhaps its most popular expression: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
In 2006, researchers randomly mixed and labeled news stories from a single, separate news source as coming from four different outlets – Fox, CNN, NPR and the BBC – and showed them to a random sampling of readers. Significantly, the very same news story attracted a substantially different audience depending upon the network label. Thus, for example, conservatives chose to read stories labeled as being from Fox while liberals ignored them, no matter their actual source and content, and vice versa. In other words, the exact same story with the exact same headline was deemed readable or not solely based upon its apparent source. The conclusion is obvious and unsurprising: “people prefer to encounter information that they find supportive or consistent with their existing beliefs.” Therefore, people generally “wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid,” irrespective of the evidence.
The Americans, the 1980s Cold War spy drama from FX about the complex marriage, family and work of two Soviet spies living as Americans in suburban Washington, DC, and the best show on television (season five debuts March 7 and, in the age of Trump, Bannon and Putin, seems more relevant than ever), illustrates this point beautifully. On an episode back in 2015, the FBI agent played by the wonderful Noah Emmerich is asked about his backstory on another case — three years undercover with white supremacists — by another agent.
“What did it take to fool them?”
“Telling them what they wanted to hear over and over and over again.”
“People love hearing how right they are.”
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 Smith back when I was a student and loved to see him get what we saw as his comeuppance that afternoon. But with more than 35 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, although the enormous academic scandal centering on Carolina athletics raises some doubt). Still, the objective facts demand that we hold Dean in high regard. He won a then-record number of games and (apparently) 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.
On 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 the fan-site 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.
I was not disappointed. It was confirmation bias writ large.
Some representative, “Carolina Crazy” 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 “bias blindness” — the inability to recognize that we suffer from the same cognitive distortions that plague other people. Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons) demonstrates it perfectly below.
Daniel Kahneman, the world’s leading authority on human error, readily acknowledges making the same sorts of mistakes the rest of us do. “I never felt I was studying the stupidity of mankind in the third person. I always felt I was studying my own mistakes,” he says. Indeed, despite Sheldon’s claims, none of us is as good as we think we are.
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.
We all are and remain biased, ideological and inherently tribal. It can be dangerously difficult to bear in mind that we are rarely as right and our motives as pure as we tend to assume. We like to think that we are like judges, that we carefully gather and evaluate facts and data before coming to an objective and well-founded conclusion. Instead, we cut straight to the chase. We are much more like lawyers, grasping for any scrap of purported evidence we can exploit to support our preconceived notions and allegiances. Doing so is a common cognitive shortcut such that “truthiness” — “truth that comes from the gut” per Stephen Colbert — seems more useful than actual, verifiable fact. What really matters is that which “seems like truth – the truth we want to exist.” That’s because, as Colbert puts it, “the facts can change, but my opinion will never change, no matter what the facts are.” Our current political environment — whether focusing upon ridiculous Republican “alternative facts” or upon Democratic party hacks who had readily criticized Republican “obstructionism” but who now seek to lead a noble “resistance” — is replete with the phenomenon.
“Truthiness” captures how, as cognitive psychologist Eryn Newman explains, “smart, sophisticated people” can go astray on matters of fact. Newman’s research has shown that the less effort it takes to process a factual claim, the more accurate it seems, which fits nicely with our seeing what we want to see. In one classic study, for example, people were more likely to think a statement was true when it was written in high color contrast as opposed to low contrast. Easy-to-pronounce ticker symbols (such as KAR) perform better in the markets than their difficult-to-pronounce counterparts (such as RDO), even after just one day of trading. And, astonishingly, claims attributed to people with easy-to-pronounce names were deemed more credible than those attributed to people with difficult-to-pronounce names. As summarized by one analyst: “When we fluidly and frictionlessly absorb a piece of information, one that perhaps snaps neatly onto our existing belief structures, we are filled with a sense of comfort, familiarity, and trust. The information strikes us as credible, and we are more likely to affirm it — whether or not we should.”
Due to our affinity for like-minded people, we seek out people like us to provide echo chambers for our own claims, claims that perpetuate themselves every time we hear them reverberated back to us. Carolina fans go to Inside Carolina while Duke fans go to The Devil’s Den. We are thus neuro-chemically confirmation bias addicts. Megan McArdle sums things up nicely below.
“We like studies and facts that confirm what we already believe, especially when what we believe is that we are nicer, smarter and more rational than other people. We especially like to hear that when we are engaged in some sort of bruising contest with those wicked troglodytes — say, for political and cultural control of the country we both inhabit. When we are presented with what seems to be evidence for these propositions, we don’t tend to investigate it too closely. The temptation is common to all political persuasions [and every branch of fandom], and it requires a constant mustering of will to resist it.”
Carolina fans, I’m looking at you. But I’m trying to look at myself too.
My youngest, a Berkeley grad who also played football at Cal (he’s number 46 in the video below, wherein the team belts out “Bear Territory” in the locker room upon winning the 112th Big Game in 2009 after a late interception of Andrew Luck preserved the Bears’ win), 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 rivalry 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 tonight).
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. And one more thing. Go Duke (and go to hell Carolina).