The psychology of pundits’ predictions
As the South Africa v England series approaches, the pundits and correspondents will roll out their predictions. The most predictable thing of all will be the shape of those predictions. Beefy, Nass, Boycs, Corky and co will fancy England’s chances to steal a rare away win. Polly, Kepler, Fanie, etc will be confident that the home team will bounce back from its defeat in India and prevail over England.
I have always assumed that this partisan predicting of the outcome of a close contest is somehow an artifice of being a media voice: it would be disloyal to downplay your country’s team; or poor form to admit on your host broadcaster that ‘our team’ won’t win and so the game might not be attractive to watch. It could be an extension of the “conviction, clarity of thought, even blind faith” that Ed Smith has identified as necessary in the elite sportsman, but trips up those same individuals when they climb the steps to the commentary box.
It turns out, however, that there may be something a little more subtle at work (footnote 1). Psychologists have found that however rationally we may believe we are behaving, we have difficulty separating what we want to happen from what we predict will happen. It’s not hard to see how those two concepts get confused when an individual is emotionally involved in the outcome – as a cricket follower is in the fortune of her team. But experiments show that it’s a stickier phenomenon than that.
In tests (the pseudo-laboratory kind found in experimental psychology, not that kind of test that stands at the pinnacle of cricket) participants have been given a role to play and then predict the outcome of a related event. Their predictions have been influenced by the role they were asked to assume; and that influence is in the direction of being more favourable to their temporarily adopted identity. Even when a financial reward was made available for the accuracy of the prediction, participants were inclined to over-egg the likelihood of the outcome that aligned with the role they played.
I imagine it is in these margins that bookies make a lot of their money. The odds on a Lancashire victory in a Roses match can be shorter in Manchester than Leeds as there are more punters on the west of the Pennines prepared lay money on a red rose victory, even though the returns are lower than those available elsewhere. Perhaps the internet makes this kind of arbitrage more difficult for the traditional bookmakers, but it must be part of the skill of peer-to-peer betting.
The consequences of this phenomenon can be far more serious than losing your shirt to the bookmaker or predictably skewed predictions from sports pundits. It provides the fuel that feeds disputes: each party believing that they can, and indeed should, get more out of a situation than is objectively likely. Lengthy legal cases and protracted industrial disputes can result, costing participants time and money that a compromise could avert.
So Botham, Pollock, et al are not simply being obtuse or stubborn in fancying their team. They are conforming to a very human trait that makes it difficult to distinguish what we want to happen in the future from what we predict will happen. If you want a pundit’s view of the South Africa v England series that is unsullied by wishful thinking, find someone with nothing invested in the result. Jeremy Coney would be my go-to man.
Footnote: see more detailed explanation in Tim Harford’s FT article ‘Wishful Thinking‘.