Confirmation Bias: A CFB Twitter Accounting

Confirmation Bias 4Confirmation bias is our tendency to notice and accept that which fits within our pre-existing commitments and beliefs. If you doubt its existence, power and importance, you might look at the tweets on college football from this fall that follow (I wrote about it in the college basketball context here). Even if you don’t doubt confirmation bias, looking at these tweets is still a lot of fun. Everyone tends to think that everyone else is out to get them and their team. As Paul Simon put it in The Boxer, “…still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest….“ By inference, at least everybody seems to agree that they hate ESPN!

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Joy in the Unexpected

Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated described the unlikely scenario beautifully. Duke Football

My Dukies, an astonishing 8-2 on the year, bested Miami on Saturday, after beating Virginia Tech in their previous game, to gain control of their own destiny. If they win at Wake Forest next week and at Carolina thereafter, we will have earned the “honor” of getting crushed by Florida State in the ACC Championship game. But it would be an honor and we’re even ranked today (#25 AP; #24 Coaches’ Poll). Mandel’s take on the Duke win is linked below.

Baylor and Duke go from worst to first

The Washington Post‘s John Feinstein, a fellow Duke alum but a long-time Duke football critic, has even issued a full-throated mea culpa. Add in an expected Duke basketball win and an unexpected Carolina hoops loss (to Belmont!) and it was a pretty great sports week-end. And, finally, the best college football story I’ve read recently follows. Please read it.

Tuesdays with Ross

Let the Games Begin

CraziesAll is right with the world — the college hoops season opens tonight.  In that spirit, I want to link an old post about Mike Krzyzewski’s first Duke win back in 1980. I was in the stands.

Duke Athletic Director Tom Butters insisted that he was getting the “brightest young coaching talent in America” to lead his basketball program (video from the hiring news conference here – notice how “Krzyzewski” is repeatedly mispronounced in the report) when he hired Coach K.  Wags had suggested that Bob Weltlich of Ole Miss or former Foster assistant Bob Wenzel were likely to get the job.  But Butters hired Coach K, then 33 years old and coming off a losing season at Army.   Butters had ultimately listened to Bob Knight, who told him that Krzyzewski had his own good attributes without the bad.  The headline in The Chronicle (Duke’s student newspaper) was “Krzyzewski: This is Not a Typo.”

I also wanted to highlight this video clip, which provides a bit of insight into being a student watching your classmates (and in the case of at least a small school like Duke — friends) compete on the biggest stage for a national championship. On her first day as a freshman at Wake Forest, my daughter had lunch with Chris Paul, then a sophomore. My son sat in classes at Cal knowing that many of the students sitting around him (and professors too) would be in the stands to see him play football on Saturdays. The relationships between college sports teams and their fellow students can be very special indeed.

When Kobe Bryant is asked if he ever regrets not playing college basketball, he replies, “Every March.” The journey toward March Madness begins tonight. Let the games begin.

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. Continue reading

Carolina Crazy

UNC fansWe all like to think that we carefully gather and evaluate facts and data before coming to our conclusions.  But we don’t.  As I have pointed out previously, we want to think that we’re like judges, impartially and painstakingly examining the evidence before making the best, most rational determination possible.  But we aren’t.  We’re much more like attorneys looking for any scrap of evidence or argument that we might use to help to support our preconceived notions, truth be damned.

Indeed, we all tend to suffer from confirmation bias and thus reach our conclusions first.  Only thereafter do we gather facts, but even so it’s only to support our prior commitments.  We then take our selected “facts” and cram them into our desired narratives, 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.  Keeping one’s analysis and interpretation of the facts reasonably objective – since analysis and interpretation are required for data to be actionable – is really, really hard even in the best of circumstances (the crucial point of Daniel Kahneman’s outstanding Thinking Fast and Slow).

I offer this introduction because college basketball season is upon us again and it provides a helpful predicate to a perfectly obvious conclusion: fans (including your humble author) are inherently irrational.  If we are exceedingly prone to various mental biases in life generally, when we’re in fan mode we can readily go off the rails entirely.  And when we’re in fan/rivalry mode, almost anything is possible.

I watched last week’s Duke v. Kentucky game in a bar in Minnesota (where I was on business).  I cheered, cried, cursed the evil John Calipari and his minions, and hated on the referees.  It took every bit of effort I could muster to avoid being a total jerk, especially when it became clear that UK was going down.

I’m not sure I succeeded.

Even so, no matter how much I love sticking it to Kentucky, it’s nothing like what a Duke v. Carolina game does to me.  With more than three decades of perspective from my school days, I can now see what a great coach and a great man legendary UNC-CH Coach Dean Smith was.  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 and equality even at a time when he didn’t have all that much clout.

But to me as a student in Cameron Indoor Stadium on game day wearing the correct hue of blue, he 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 a bit 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.

So there.

It shouldn’t have been surprising, then, that when Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt were named Sports Illustrated magazine’s Sportsman and Sportswoman of the year, that announcement was met with more than a bit of skepticism and consternation by many UNC-CH fans.  After the news broke, I couldn’t help but take a peek at Inside Carolina‘s message boards for a bit of fan reaction, since internet message boards tend to take typical fan insanity and ratchet up the level of loony more than a few notches:  confirmation bias illustrated.

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 own SI too?”
  • “Sports Illustrated 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 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 often try to “put some lipstick on the pig” and gussy-up our insanity 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).  It’s the bias blind-spot on full display.

As a Duke alum and 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 of the facts might show.  It’s both human and all but inevitable.

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.

This is all well and good — true even.  But what do silly fans and our obsessions have to do with investing?  A lot, as it turns out.  You see, we’re not just talking about a fan thing.  It’s a human thing.

As investors — as people — we are prone to the same types of foibles, obsessions and foolishness as lunatic sports fans (isn’t that phrase redundant?). As noted off the top, we reach our conclusions first and then run around trying to support them. We talk our books the way fans talk up their teams.  We’re wildly overconfident about our books and ourselves.

Worst of all, even when we recognize our inherent weaknesses, we think they only apply to others.  With respect to the things we focus a lot of time and attention on — like our work — we tend to see “our side” as not just true, but obviously true. It’s a by-product of the bias blind spot.  Therefore, our strongly held positions aren’t really debatable — they’re objectively and obviously true.  After all, if we didn’t think our positions were true, we wouldn’t hold them.  And (our thinking goes) since they are objectively true, anyone who makes the effort to try should be able to ascertain that truth. Our opponents are thus utterly without excuse.

We’re fans of our books, of our investment approaches, philosophies, and of our styles no less than Carolina’s nonsensical and inherently crazy supporters are fans of their team.  Try desperately to bear it in mind (and deal with the reality accordingly) — as fans and as investors, we’re just as nuts as they are. Terrifying, isn’t it?

 

Carolina Crazy

As many of you know, I am a big basketball fan.  I write about being a fan and confirmation bias at Tobacco Road Blues here.  Here’s a taste:

[F]ans are inherently irrational.  If we are exceedingly prone to various mental biases in life generally, when we’re in fan mode we can readily go off the rails entirely.  And when we’re in fan/rivalry mode, almost anything is possible. 

With more than 30 years of perspective from my school days, I can now see what a great coach and a great man legendary UNC-CH Coach Dean Smith was.  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.

But to me as a student in Cameron Indoor Stadium on game day, we 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.