I’ve been enjoying Michael Lewis’s new book, The Undoing Project, which picks up where Moneyball left off: When it comes to sports recruitment, if the numbers are more reliable than human judgment, the next question is why? What’s going on in the human mind that makes even the experts’ top picks hit-or-miss?

One answer is the inevitable confirmation bias. The following definition comes to us from our magazine’s recent Mental Health issue: “The tendency to experience the world through the lens of your already held beliefs. If you think, before you’ve eaten there, that La Frontera is a terrible restaurant…the odds are in favor of you hating it when you go there.”

You may have encountered this term recently–it’s getting a considerable amount of traction especially as a (means of coping with? weapon against?) the forthcoming presidential administration (e.g. “Trumpists will support Trump no matter what the evidence against him is”). However, confirmation bias is, in our terms, another universal (nonpartisan) cause for low eyebrows and a low anthropology. Make no mistake: “‘The confirmation bias is not specific to Donald Trump. It’s something we are all susceptible to,’ [said] the Columbia University psychologist Daniel Ames.” Ultimately identifying a confirmation bias in political opponents exclusively is just another result of confirmation bias–trivializing the people you expect to trivialize.


But, as promised two paragraphs ago, this story runs deeper than politics (and the current possible idolization of them), into every facet of our lives, specifically, here, with basketball. In his book’s first chapter, “Man Boobs” (a title which refers to the time the Houston Rockets passed up Marc Gasol because of his jiggly pecs), Lewis illustrates just how deep this bias runs:

If he could never completely remove the human mind from his decision-making process, Daryl Morey [the Rockets’ GM] had at least to be alive to its vulnerabilities. He now saw these everywhere he turned. One example: Before the draft, the Rockets would bring a player in with other players and put him through his paces on the court. How could you deny yourself the chance to watch him play? But while it was interesting for his talent evaluators to see a player in action, it was also, Morey began to realize, risky. A great shooter might have an off day; a great rebounder might get pushed around. If you were going to let everyone watch and judge, you also had to teach them not to place too much weight on what they were seeing. (Then why were they watching in the first place?) If a guy was a 90 percent free-throw shooter in college, for instance, it really didn’t matter if he missed six free throws in a row during the private workout.

daryl-morey-e1447165646754Morey leaned on his staff to pay attention to the workouts but not allow whatever they saw to replace what they knew to be true. Still, a lot of people found it very hard to ignore the evidence of their own eyes. A few found the effort almost painful, as if they were being strapped to the mast to listen to the Sirens’ song. One day a scout came to Morey and said, “Daryl, I’ve done this long enough. I think we should stop having these workouts. Please, just stop doing them.” Morey said, Just try to keep what you are seeing in perspective. Just weight it really low. “And he says, ‘Daryl, I just can’t do it.’ It’s like a guy addicted to crack,” Morey said. “He can’t even get near it without it hurting him.”

Soon Morey noticed something else: A scout watching a player tended to form a near-instant impression, around which all other data tended to organize itself. “Confirmation bias,” he’d heard this called. The human mind was just bad at seeing things it did not expect to see, and a bit too eager to see what it expected to see. “Confirmation bias is the most insidious because you don’t even realize it is happening,” he said. 

Insidious? Certainly when contributing to judgmentalism, racism, etc. But ‘insidious’ here, for Morey, refers not to the danger of myriad -isms. He points out that the insidiousness of the confirmation bias runs deeper than any century-specific political kerfuffle; instead it’s in humankind’s inability to control it–it controls us. We are captive to the Sirens’ song, Lewis says. “O ransom captive Israel.”

278360ce3b46cf9de880db984b006e3aA scout would settle on an opinion about a player and then arrange the evidence to support that opinion. “The classic thing,” said Morey, “and this happens all the time with guys: If you don’t like a prospect, you say he has no position. If you like him, you say he’s multipositional. If you like a player, you compare his body to someone good. If you don’t like him, you compare him to someone who sucks.” Whatever prejudice a person brought to the business of selecting amateur players he tended to preserve, even when it served him badly, because he was always looking to have that prejudice confirmed. The problem was magnified by the tendency of talent evaluators–Morey included–to favor players who reminded them of their younger selves…you saw someone who reminded you of you, and then you looked for the reasons why you liked him.

The mere fact that a player physically resembled some currently successful player could be misleading. A decade ago a six-foot-two-inch, light-skinned, mixed-race guy who had gone unnoticed by major colleges in high school and so played for some obscure tiny college, and whose main talent was long-range shooting, would have had no obvious appeal. The type didn’t exist in the NBA–at least not as a raging success. Then Stephen Curry came along and set the NBA on fire, led the Golden State Warriors to an NBA championship, and was everyone’s most valuable player. Suddenly–just like that–all these sharp-shooting mixed-race guards were turning up for NBA job interviews and claiming that their game was a lot like Stephen Curry’s; and they were more likely to get drafted because of the resemblance…

Maybe the mind’s best trick of all was to lead its owner to a feeling of certainty about inherently uncertain things. Over and over again in the draft you saw these crystal-clear pictures form in the minds of basketball experts which later proved a mirage.

Yet one thing is certain: We don’t like to feel uncertain. Especially when we are. From the perspective of a religion that insists unwaveringly on paradox–that three can also be one, that a dead man can rise from his grave–this is the sweet spot. Not tossing about in the throes of doubt necessarily, but resting in a God who resides in the space between what can and can’t be known.