The Invisible Gorilla

By Will van de Wiel  |  26 Feb 2015

The comedian Frankie Boyle made some interesting points recently when he tackled the subject of causing offence in today’s world. As well as highlighting that there exists a face of public rectitude which bears little relation to the state of everyday morality for all – least of all the people who perpetuate it – one which, in essence, is a grotesque bear pit of judgement-cum-entertainment, he also referenced one of humanity’s biggest problems when it comes to appraising the things around us; namely, that we live in a world so complex, fast and information-laden that we simply don’t have time to form considered opinions about everything.

Time, as well as generality, is one of the primary sources of prejudice. For if you don’t have the time to thoroughly analyse something, then you rely on intuition – a sometimes magical, but often faulty mode of perception. The social scientist Daniel Kahneman made a distinction between two different types of reasoning in his hugely impressive book Thinking: Fast and Slow. At a basic level, he elaborates on a long-held idea in psychology that the brain can be divided into two parts; System 1, an automatic system with little effort and even less voluntary control that generates impressions and feelings that ‘are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2’, which is a part of the brain allocated to effortful mental activities ‘with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.’

The differences between the two systems and their method of interaction are the primary sources of cognitive biases and focusing illusions. Anyone who has the seen The Invisible Gorilla on YouTube will instantly understand the frailties of perception (in the original study viewers were asked to watch a short film of two teams in different coloured shirts passing a basketball around and count the number of passes. A woman dressed as a gorilla walks through and is on screen for nine seconds, yet over half the people who saw the video never noticed her. The focus on counting caused a blindness of the type long exploited by magicians).

Because System 2 requires mental resource and wherever possible the brain looks to preserve energy, it will often succumb to ideas generated by its counterpart with little or no reflection – human cognition is thus highly susceptible to outside influence or internal bias generated by the nature and saliency of information. Very often the information you recall quickest is the last and most memorable thing you heard; what social scientists call an availability heuristic (heuristics are essentially mental rules of thumb). Which, for instance, explains why most people fear flying more than driving, even though it is statistically far less dangerous, but is nevertheless mentally associated with more emotive stories of tragedy. Perception is also fuelled by your emotional state, meaning anxious people are more likely to notice negative words in a body of text or occurrences in their environment and interpret them in hostile way, while happy people are likely to do the opposite.

In football the processes of mind can have interesting effects on a fan’s opinions. Notwithstanding the basic tribalism that can lead two people to see the same event very differently, the unreliability of perception has been creating wearisome false clichés around players for a very long time. You know the sort: Glen Johnson can’t defend; James Milner can’t pass (this one was particularly strong around the time of the World Cup last year); Martin Demechelis can’t defend; Theo Walcott doesn’t have a football brain; Theo Walcott can’t cross.

The false cliché which sprung up around Theo Walcott was one of the more infuriating. Never mind the idiotic comments about his ‘football brain’ – or lack thereof – from Chris Waddle and Alan Hansen (comments which, to be fair, Hansen did say he regretted upon retirement); for several seasons you would hear people citing his inability to cross. This came to prominence, absurdly, in an age where the era of strike partnerships changed with the tactical switch from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 instigated by Jose Mourinho’s first tenure at Chelsea. At that time for Arsenal, Walcott and Robin van Persie became one of the most potent attacking wing/forward duos in modern Premier League history.

According to Opta, Walcott laid on more goals for van Persie than Dennis Bergkamp did for Thierry Henry, but it was ignored completely. The hallmark of a cognitive, or confirmation bias, is that an onlooker will disregard everything which disproves their theory and remember only those moments which confirm it. As Francis Bacon once said: “It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than negatives.”

So on the odd occasion that the talented, young, still-developing Englishman miss-hit a cross, the groan of onlookers transmogrified into more repetitive bleating of a lazy idea which bore little relation to reality. But you can understand the mechanisms behind it – for Arsenal fans, the anger is the motive power which leads to snap-judgment, because emotion like that needs blame to sate it. For any other fans, who probably didn’t watch Walcott that much, buying into the cliché became an easy way to form an opinion about something they simply didn’t have time to consider deeply.

The worst moments occur in the early stages of players’ Premier League careers, when patience is limited and judgment is game-by-game. None are immune; this has happened to luminaries like Thierry Henry (savaged by Jimmy Greaves in an article during his first year with the Gunners) and Cristiano Ronaldo – characterised instantly on these shores as a show pony and diver, because of an ingrained British prejudice towards flair players.

Of the current lot, someone like Eliaquim Mangala is a good example of a young player who looks a fantastic prospect for Manchester City but has had the odd defensive lapse as he gets to grips with his new surroundings. Lapses which have led many to write him off and question the 30 million pound fee City paid to Porto. The problem is that something complex and non-linear – i.e performance and human factors which involve being settled, happy and able to perform – are reduced to a simple narrative which becomes: he can’t defend. Life isn’t that straightforward, but we constantly need these reductive, simple stories to be able to apprehend our surroundings.

If you want any idea as to whether Mangala will make it or not, look to his assets: pace, power, ability on the ball, technique, aerial ability and fortitude. Don’t look for a rick against Stoke and imagine it defines him as a player, but the modern-day social media noosphere facilitates constant judgment and the disintegration of patience. In reality, evidence of his attributes at various points, given his young age, is a better basis for evaluating whether he will be a success in years to come.

The same dismissals were made of Patrice Evra, of Nemanja Vidić, of Martin Demichelis. Opinions are contagious, and confirmation biases become self-fulfilling. Demichelis was pilloried during his adjustment period in English football and yet Manchester City won the league with him as a mainstay. You can guarantee the next time he makes a mistake, though, the cliché about his worth as a footballer will reappear.

The tactical evolutions in football can have insidious effects on the way players are judged, too. But the complexities are ignored for the simpler narrative of the under-performing individual. Let’s take the plight of modern full-backs. Have many times have you heard pundits or fans utter the words – ‘well (insert one of: Kyle Walker, Gaël Clichy, Glen Johnson, Patrice Evra, Danny Rose, Aleksandr Kolorov, Branislav Ivanović etc) is great going forward, but he can’t defend.’

The role of the full-back has changed hugely in the last decade. No longer are they expected to go no further than the halfway line; instead, often because of inverted wingers, or the shift from wide men to multi-functional forwards, full-backs are many teams’ primary source of width. They are expected to be at once a main attacking presence and a key component of the defence. They spend so much time out of position that the actual parameters of defending have been altered. Modern teams are susceptible on the flanks.

Many of the above mentioned players have performed in defensive rearguards for their sides, and shown more than enough positional awareness, doggedness and athleticism to defend, and do it very well. But the second an opposing team, pressing high, catches an opponent in possession and breaks quickly, the full-back is very often the first point of criticism. Now, none of this is to say that the kind of players criticised in these circumstances are immune to bad performances, but the point is that the undertakings of individuals who are part of a collective is more complex than is regularly reported.

Primarily, people subtract the human element from football to a quite staggering degree. A lot of that comes down to the money involved – how can he be tired or under-performing when he is on £100,000 a week? The money in football is generated by its popularity and no matter how deep your envy, it doesn’t make the players any less human or immune to the everyday maladies and irritations suffered by the average person.

Often biases are not pernicious, but sometimes they mislead. In the case of the England national team, the clichéd arguments about foreign players, lack of young English footballers and all other airy webs of theoretical conjecture as to our failure become a gross kind of blame externalisation. There were no great English players in the early 1990s when foreigners were scarce (unless you’re looking for Carlton Palmer to get back in the England team) and nowadays, for any player to make it in a what is a high-class meritocracy, he has to have special ability, like Daniel Sturridge, Jack Wilshere, Harry Kane, Nathaniel Clyne, Theo Walcott, or Raheem Sterling…players good enough to perform on the world stage. Would you swap them for the Costa Rica team which did so well at the last World Cup?

England’s problems very rarely stem from the repetitive media arguments about passing and technique – arguments not borne out by individual club careers. The real answer is within ourself, now without; it’s about our identity – our inability to perform on the biggest stages, be that a nervousness brought about by the media or pressure generated internally by the players who are susceptible to the clichés written about them.

Yes, we should invest more in grass roots and coaching; yes, we could do with a philosophy at national level that is consistent and does not reflect the awful veering back and forth between managers who are the antithesis of each other every single time because the familiar clichés about failure – once again fuelled by anger and heartbreak – lead to predictable media-driven panics at the FA.

But like Spain before their period of success, the biggest obstacle seems to be a mental one. We need to learn not to go into our shell when misfortune or red cards or bad decisions or disallowed goals occur. Winners see those moments of disaster as opportunities to show their mettle. Instead of focusing on our attitude and lack of resilience, which has cost us time and time again, we predictably blame our set-up. Will we ever see past the clichéd arguments?

Probably not, because, quite simply, the tidier a story is, the more prone it is to narrative fallacy and many of these ideas have been communally reinforced over time. Plus, the more emotive it is, the more likely it is to get attention; witness the success of the Daily Mail website – the most viewed in the world – as image, provocation, simple narrative and inflammation of the passions all combine in a voodoo-like vortex of magnetic attraction.

Despite its pitfalls, though, you cannot escape subjectivity. Perception is at the heart of existence, and if you really consider it, there is no such thing as pure objectivity; the best you can strive for is an aggregate consensus, but even then I would argue that a generally agreed principle is a human principle and therefore still a bias. I worked at the BBC once, and it was fascinating to see how many people would phone in about some news report or story and yet accuse the corporation of bias. One caller would follow another with a completely antithetical opinion about exactly the same content. The point is not to make no judgments, as they are the stuff of life, but to give yourself the best possible chance of appraising something in a balanced manner.

It’s a truism that the fewer facts you have about something, the stronger your opinion, but let us hope that in domains where unconsidered thoughts can birth enmity and hatred in football stands, and in a world where we are bombarded daily with messages we do not have time to sort, human beings can embrace the power of both intuitive and reflective cognition, and learn to filter the right sort of information; to avoid ensnaring bias and prejudices, to understand exactly why England failed in a penalty shoot-out and learn from it, and to give Theo Walcott a break if he miss-hits a cross.

Will van de Wiel is a producer, writer and editor whose work can regularly be found in The Green Soccer Journal.
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