Sunday, October 27, 2013

Confirmation bias

Reading through some of the twitter comments that started popping up immediately after last night's unusual World Series game, it wasn't difficult to figure out which were written by Red Sox fans, and which by Cardinals fans. (For those who missed it, the Cardinals won in the bottom of the ninth when runner Allen Craig was called safe at home, even though he was clearly tagged out, because Craig had tripped over the legs of the Red Sox third baseman after rounding third base.) Obstruction is an obscure and complicated rule in the baseball rule book, but it didn't take long before hundreds of "experts" started offering their interpretations.

Everybody was pulling out the same rule book, but partisans on each side were relying on different parts of the rule to make their cases. So Red Sox fans were quick to point out that third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who was lying on the ground after missing the ball, might have been lying sufficiently away from from the base path to allow Craig to go around him. Red Sox fans were also quick to quick to question the viewpoint of umpire Jim Joyce, the same ump who three years ago infamously deprived pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game by a safe call that Joyce later admitted was wrong. Meanwhile Cardinals fans pointed to the flailing legs of the fallen Red Sox third baseman, and relied on the rule's provision that obstruction need not be intentional to be called as such.

It was a good reminder that nearly everyone is biased to some extent, and that nearly all of us use our powers of rational thinking, not so much to arrive dispassionately at the correct result, but instead to justify the result we already favor. The controversy reminded me of the disputed 2000 Bush/Gore election, when people who previously had never concerned themselves with such abstruse questions as whether a punch card with a hanging chad should or should not count as a valid ballot, suddenly became vehement advocates of one side or the other of that question, depending on which candidate they supported.

While we all like to think we arrive at our conclusions through a rational process, at some level we must recognize that we don't do that very well at all. That's why we strive for strict neutrality from umpires or judges or arbitrators. Parties expect mediators to be neutral also, but since mediators aren't supposed to decide the case for the parties, their biases do not impact the result in the same way. What mediators can do, which judges and umpires do not, is expressly consider what the parties really care about. That is, they can push the discussion beyond the legal and factual issues that seem to be driving the case, understanding that the parties are only arguing about those issues because of the results they are each trying to obtain. What the parties care about, just like what baseball fans care about, is which side is going to win. They care about that more for emotional than rational reasons.

I'm not advocating that we mediate the calls in sports games. That seems unworkable. Instead I'm suggesting that we recognize that a lot of the supposedly rational arguments on both sides of most disputes are really the products of post hoc thinking. The beauty of mediation lies in our ability to delve into the passions that are motivating people's conclusions, rather than just skimming the surface by concentrating solely on issues that people only care about because of how those issues affect the outcome.

(Photo: Eileen Blass, USA TODAY)




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