Monday, September 13, 2010

Walter Reed and Confirmation Bias

A quick aside, if I may, on the whole Walter Reed Medical Hospital issue.

It is fitting that the three players who missed the event were Carlos Beltran, Oliver Perez, and Luis Castillo, three of the most universally disliked Mets. Public opinion of these guys ranges from indifferent (for Beltran) to reviled (the others). So how wonderful for the headline writers, that it happened to be those three.

Andy Martino over at the Daily News had an interesting blog the other day where he pointed out what a perfect storm this situation has been for those who would try to sell newspapers or try to run those player out of town. As he mentions, it brings up issues of conformity, the military, performance, and ethnicity.

I have said this before and I will say it many more times - baseball provides an incredible window for us as a society, and individuals, in so many ways. Baseball provides an amazing opportunity for us to view experimentation. To instantly observe the impact of our decisions. To be able to evaluate, immediately and with mathematical precision, the inputs and outcomes surrounding every move. If you're interested in that, these is a phenomenal blog called Management By Baseball, which is one of my favorites, which discusses that kind of thing in every post.

In this case, however, baseball allows us an incredible opportunity to view the phenomenon known as confirmation bias. A quick definition, per wikipedia:
Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.[Note 1][1] As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way. The biases appear in particular for emotionally significant issues and for established beliefs

When you first heard that Beltran, Castillo, and Perez were the only Mets to miss the trip to Walter Reed, what did you think? What was the FIRST thing you thought? And would it have been the same thing you would have thought if it was David Wright, Mike Pelfrey, and Jeff Francoeur? What if it was a mixed bag of heroes and villians? What if the group was Jon Niese, Francisco Rodriguez, and Josh Thole?

My guess is that your reactions to each of those were drastically different. Even as a guy who openly admits to loving Carlos Beltran, and thinking Oliver Perez is not a super-villian, my first thoughts were not friendly ones. I did not immediately think that maybe they had good reasons for missing it -- but I did, upon hearing it, think "man, there is no way this story is as bad as it sounds, right?"

It turns out, of course, that it is not. But it is the kind of thing that someone - if they were lazy, or uncritical - could use to confirm what they already believe. Others, of course, may simply enjoy an opportunity to take their frustration at those players ineffectiveness on the ballfield and turn it into something personal, something which would allow them to focus their anger.

One more interesting take on this whole debacle before I go. I did not realize that this gentleman was a veteran before now, but a writer named Dave Singer over at NY Sports Dog had a very thoughtful take on things:
The fact of the matter is that this wasn't a visit to the zoo, it wasn't some mandatory fun, it was a visit to Walter Reed to pay tribute to fighting men. Why on Earth should someone be forced to do it? If it was voluntary, then why make a fuss over anyone who didn't attend?
* * *
Here's something you may or may not care about--those guys at Walter Reed get visits all the time. It's not like this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet their hero.
He's absolutely right. As always, it is instructive to get the opinion of someone way, way, way closer to the situation before jumping to conclusions. I appreciate the opinion of a veteran on this, the same way that I would value the opinion of a doctor or construction worker in their particular field, and the same way that I am annoyed by non-lawyers who make gross and stupid assumptions about the practice of law.

But baseball is a great sport, in the multitude of ways in which is parallels life. It happens every day, it requires determination as much as talent, sometimes it is slow, sometimes it is fast, and sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. And only baseball can teach things in this special way.

Next time, let's try not to have a knee-jerk reaction to news like this. Let's be aware of the fact that we may be trying to confirm a bias which already exists. Let's realize that there are dozens upon dozens of explanations and factors and influences operating behind the scenes that we have no idea about. And perhaps, next time, if we do all of this, those same people won't have been made to feel like jerks because they jumped to conclusions.

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