Undue Celebration

Sport is good at throwing up very public examples of the human brain in action. The recently ended World Cup in Russia was no different. Particularly striking was the heroes’ welcome extended to the England team and in particular its manager, Gareth Southgate. In stark contrast, Scottish pundit Graeme Souness expressed harsh criticism of their performance, provoking a response from fans that ranged from bafflement to fury. So what do the impartial facts say? Although humans seldom resort to data analysis in order to check their beliefs before loudly asserting their opinions, in this instance it would have been easy to do so.

At the start of the tournament, England had a FIFA rating of 1051 based on their actual playing record, and consequently a world ranking of 12th. Their seven opponents in the competition, counting their repeat opponents Belgium twice, had an average rating of 984 and an average ranking of 20th. So, all things being equal, any emotion-free computer might legitimately have expected England to win all seven games. This however is an unnecessarily crude way of looking at it. What makes more sense is to separate out Belgium, the one team with a better rating/ranking than England (1298/3rd). Losing twice to Belgium (as actually happened) was no surprise at all. But the average ranking and rating of the remaining five opponents was only 852 and 27th. Again, all things being equal, England might have been expected objectively to win all five of those games, with an overall success rate of 5/7 or 71.4%. In reality, the team’s record was: Won 3, Drew 1, Lost 3, or 50.0% – which looks very much like a drastic underachievement. In other words, Souness was spot on about the England team.

As for Gareth Southgate, I’ve thought him a delightful man ever since his Aston Villa days nearly 25 years ago, and applauded his pluck in taking the losing penalty back in 1996 when others chickened out. But I’ve never yet seen any sign that he’s a winning manager. The only club he has managed, Middlesbrough, was relegated, and he achieved nothing much with the England Under-21s. Although selection and tactics are a matter of judgement, I was not alone in thinking his 5-3-2 set-up a mistake from day one, and was repeatedly baffled by his selections. Not least among these was his persistence until the bitter end with the controversial Raheem Sterling, a player who, like John Barnes before him, is brilliant for his club but hopeless for his country, and without a fantastic goal against Brazil to fall back on. What on earth was the manager thinking of?

The best that can be said for Southgate is that, as a friend of mine put it, he was making the best of a bad lot. Whereas even Croatia had a top-class striker and three world-class midfielders, England had only Harry Kane, and he switched off after being dropped for the first Belgium game. Trippier, Maguire, Stones and Pickford acquitted themselves well, but the creative department, such as it was, appeared to have gone on holiday. Consequently, England ended up like one of those hapless lower-division teams who survive on set-piece goals. If they’d played just one of the top nations in the knockout stages, they would certainly have gone home earlier, and the normal recriminations would have been flying around. The argument that Southgate still did well compared with his predecessor who crashed out against Iceland is a logical lame duck: the category of outcomes better than ‘a calamity’ includes any number of lesser degrees of failure. And if you’re thinking, “But they reached the semi-final, you idiot”, you really need to understand better the ramifications of coat-tailing the hosts in the easy side of the draw. The defining moment in England’s tournament was in fact the instant when Belgium’s Januzaj lost the plot and scored a goal that put his team on a collision course with Brazil and France, while England were gifted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So what has this to do with psychology? We’re talking halo effects. These are common in football: win a game with a lucky last-minute goal and you’ll hear the fans speaking volumes about how brilliantly the lads played; but see it ruled out for offside and the opposition immediately fluke a winner at the other end, and the same fans will be calling for the manager’s head. In England’s case, the halo effect was created by the penalty shoot-out against Columbia. So euphoric was the fans’ reaction – caused by a massive release of dopamine on having their negative expectations reversed – that all events thereafter were suffused with a rosy glow: rosy, but unrealistic. As for Southgate, his own halo effect stemmed from the utter likeability that oozed out of his every word and deed. The trouble is, of course, that likeability does not at all equate with competence. Why this matters is that the new conventional wisdom is certain to encourage complacency. The FA will continue to believe that a good England manager is one who minds his p’s and q’s, and the largely foreign-owned Premier League will continue to deny home-grown players a fair chance to develop.

While the unrealistically positive reaction to Southgate and the team – knighthoods all round, boys! – is easily explained, we’re still left with the (i) baffled and (ii) furious responses to Mr Souness. The first is down to the way humans form beliefs. From our earliest days we build self-serving edifices of things-we-by-chance-hold-true, called schemata. These determine whatever else we’re prepared to believe; anything that conflicts gets screened out, for the sake of our sanity as much as anything. (It’s called Confirmation Bias). When presented with impartial facts that challenge our schemata, it’s much easier to doubt the credibility of the source. As for fury: it’s an exaggerated form of the same response, where an impulse to silence the dissenting voice takes over. An element of self-esteem is involved here: doubt the wisdom of the emoting masses and you’re really drawing their attention to the expedient but unreliable heuristics and biases that determine their beliefs, and to the passions that substitute for reason.

The relevance of all this to the current political situation is evident. Any 18th-century idealist who ever thought that universal suffrage made sense because we are all creatures of reason must now be spinning in the grave. The exquisitely insightful HL Mencken noted this a century ago when he observed that Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard”.  The Enlightenment was a centuries-long movement to place reason first; but it is now in retreat, and a New Age of self-righteous unreason beckons.

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