Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Confirmation Bias" or "China Syndrome"?

Some may be familiar with the China Syndrome as the hypothetical idea of a nuclear reactor melting down and burning through the earth straight through to China. Fewer may be aware of the idea of Confirmation Bias where an individual uses and recalls information, accurate or not, in a selective manner, to confirm a belief they hold. I am seeing these two in a cause-effect relationship for referees, among others.

My impetus for this post was an email I received from refereeing legend Angelo Bratsis, citing a very good article, Referees and The Confirmation Bias, from epltalk.com. While I will not go into the article per se (but please read it), it reminds me of a real need in refereeing and in life about getting objective opinions.

As we are all aware there are several sources of opinions about a referees performance, all of which are subject to some form of bias or another, even the most objective ones. On one end of the spectrum I would put spectators who are generally both unaware of the nuances of THE game, and have a declared bias for a particular side. We all expect this as fan(atics) are there to cheer for a team. I continue on this spectrum of least objective to most, to include commentators, local media, players, and coaches (in order).

Note that while players and coaches clearly have a bias, I believe they have valuable information to share as well and should be carefully listened to to derive that message during a match.

On the more objective side are referee self evaluation, other referees and assessors in ones immediate sphere, and rounding out with assessors/instructors/inspectors and other trained 3rd party observers, regardless of discipline (again in order).

Let me say that while I believe there is a "spectrum of bias", I also believe there is no such thing as a lack of bias and to be honest this is a good thing at times in my opinion. An evaluator needs a hint of bias to be able to have context in the current situation. For example, does a referee go into a U-10 local match in the same way he goes into a MLS final? I hope not. The experience itself lends to a bias. Not of one team over another, but of context that the latter match will require different skills to be brought out. Assessing a match is much the same, one needs context to be able to understand how to react to a given situation and know what to look for.

So what does this have to do with the title?

By way of a recommendation I would suggest as a referee to expose yourself to as many different types of matches and situation as possible. Also, seek out as many diverse opinions as possible about not just your performance, but also how you "are" inside the field. An example to explain ...

As I have stated here, I was also an indoor referee for a very long time. It is where I picked up many of my skills that I carry today. One day I received an impromptu assessment from someone who I did not expect, yet was extraordinarily insightful ... the bartender. As I came to find out, he would watch me and like any good assessor would dissect my performance. His suggestions to me were simple, elegant, and spot on. His most insightful comment was about I used to tip my head back and lift my nose after calling a foul. He recognized that it was a reflex, but it looked disrespectful to some players. Since then I have corrected the mechanic with better results.

So what's the point?

My point is simple. Take all the feedback you can get, from all the sources you can get, and learn to parse the useful information from the non-useful. Keep in mind that your own nemesis may have the key to your survival, and your biggest friend your unhinging, neither with intent. Seek critical opinions and question them. The wider the net you cast, the less chance of any confirmation bias.

To listen only to the glowing comments and ignoring the rest, will certainly one day lead to an epic meltdown inside the field, on the scale of a China Syndrome.

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