Why You May Practice the Wrong Sport

Padel is a new sport that I recently picked up. It is a combination between tennis and squash. Since I started playing, I continuously receive confirmation that padel is the right sport for me. Although it helps me justify my choice, it makes it harder to reconsider if another sport might be a better fit. So I may be practicing the wrong sport without even knowing it. This psychological bias is present in all areas of my life and your life as well. Thankfully there are ways to overcome this. In this blog I explain how.

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There are many factors that contribute to my belief that padel is an excellent choice. Other club members tell success stories about the growing popularity of the sport. Newsletters tell me how padel improves my coordination and reflexes and helps strengthen the heart. Youtube (see below) shows me that padel players are in excellent shape. I am also amazed by the number of people who have started to play padel. All this confirms that I have made an excellent choice. But is that true or am I justifying a choice already made?

Padel is an excellent choice as a sports activity. Who would not agree?

Justifying a choice already made

The job of an attorney is to make a case for one side of a legal dispute: the prosecutor provides the arguments that the crime has been committed; the defense attorney provides the arguments that the defendant is innocent. They are building a case to justify a conclusion that they already made and that they want the judge to make as well. These attorneys do this deliberately, but many of us do the same thing unintentionally. We search, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs. Psychologists call this confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias can lead to flawed decision-making. It consists of two types of interrelated process. The first is that we are generally looking for evidence supporting our beliefs. This is what most of us do well. The second is that we are neglecting (or at least paying less attention to) information that disconfirms our beliefs. This is what most of us don’t do so well. We can usually improve falsification of our beliefs, that is, actively looking for evidence that contradicts our beliefs.

Looking for evidence supporting your beliefs

Let me ask you a question. If I would give you the series 2-4-6, what do you think the next number would be? In other words, what would be the rule that produces this series? Say, I would give you unlimited opportunities to propose the next number in the series and I would answer whether that number fits the rule or does not fit the rule. In this way, you would be able to figure out the rule. What numbers would you try?

Many people would try the number 8. I would say that this fits the rule. Most people then infer that the rule must be numbers increasing by 2. Did you notice in this example, that people tried the number 8 to confirm the rule for this series?

This example is from an experiment that cognitive psychologist Peter Wason conducted in 1960. He designed this experiment in such a way that using confirming evidence only, would almost certainly lead to the wrong conclusion. That is because there are almost an infinite number of rules and there are many more obvious ones than the rule Peter Wason was looking for: the next number must be greater than the previous number.

Falsifying our beliefs

So we should also be falsifying our beliefs, which means that we should be actively looking for evidence that contradicts our beliefs. Have a look at the four cards below. All these cards have a number on one side and a color on the other side. Some cards have even numbers and some cards have uneven numbers. Furthermore, some cards have the color blue, whereas others have the color green. Suppose I would like to prove the following statement: cards with an even number on one side, are always blue on the other side. Which two cards must be turned over to prove this statement? Think about it for a moment and pick two cards.

Cards with an even number on one side, are always blue on the other side. Which two cards must be turned over to prove this statement?

Peter Wason (1968) showed that most people will say: eight and blue. The card with eight should be blue on the other side, otherwise the statement is false. If the blue card shows an even number, the statement is true. But if the blue card shows an uneven number, the statement is still true. That is because the statement does not say anything about the color of the cards of uneven numbers, only about cards with even numbers. So turning this card over does not provide any information.

So, a good strategy would be to try to falsify your beliefs and turn over eight and green. If the green card shows an even number than the statement is false, because even numbers should always be blue on the other side.

Confirmation bias and your health and wellbeing

Confirmation bias can lead you to flawed decision-making. However, confirmation bias also serves to protect your self-identify by protecting your beliefs that are important to you. But if this tendency is so strong that you refuse to consider evidence that does not support that belief, it may keep you from reaching your goals. So besides looking for evidence that confirms your beliefs, you should also be looking for evidence that falsifies your beliefs.

How could you do that? Here are some ideas.

1. Ask yourself what would have happened if you’d made the opposite choice. As we have seen, the easiest thing is to find reasons to believe. For major decisions, you could ask yourself what would have happened if you had made the opposite choice. If I would really want to test whether I have made the right decision for padel, I could have asked myself what would have happened if I decided to started kite surfing or running a triathlon. I probably would have found much of the same factors that confirmed my choice for padel.

2. Ask yourself what is the one thing that would change your mind. Often it is difficult to change your mind instantly. But what would be disconfirming factors that would change your mind in the future? This is probably an easier question to answer, because you don’t think any of these disconfirming factors will actually happen. Perhaps, when you have identified one of those factors and encounter it in the future, it will help you to avoid confirmation bias.

3. When in a team, assign a Devil’s Advocate to argue for the opposing view. The person with the role of Devil’s Advocate pretends to be against an idea or plan that a lot of people support, in order to make people discuss and consider it in more detail. Teams that have a member who can present an opposing view perform better than teams made of members who all agree. Do not make it personal, be polite to the Devil’s Advocate and rotate the role of the Devil’s Advocate.  

Drop me a note if you have any other strategies!

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Niels Vink (1975) is a behavioral economist and sports enthusiast. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior. He lives and works (out) in Haarlem.

Want to know how you can get your marketing, communication and sales in better shape? Drop me an email at niels@behavioralinsight.nl

Source of top image: Photo by Oliver Sjöström via Pexels


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