Avoiding Tribal Thinking

In September 2000 I travelled to Dublin, in Ireland, to visit Leopardstown Racecourse and watch the Grade 1 Irish Champion Stakes. I took more cash than I’d ever held before. In the novelty currency of the Irish Punt, I gave most of that money to a rails’ bookmaker, backing the odds-on $1.72-shot, Giant’s Causeway, in the big race.

Giant’s Causeway won, just.  In a heart-stopping final two furlongs it twice looked as if he would be beaten, initially when Best of the Bests challenged him for the lead, and then when a flashing Greek Dance almost ran him down at the finish. Twenty minutes after the race, still shaking, I collected an even-larger wad of cash from the bookmaker and, in awkward largesse, paid for a slap-up meal with my dad and fiancée to celebrate the winnings.


This bet was just one of many during this time which was ill-advised. There were high-points – like at Leopardstown that day – but also crushing low-points, and the period was unprofitable.


Despite the rationalisations I might have provided to others and myself, about how, despite the short odds, it was a value bet given the paucity of the opposition, I had backed Giant’s Causeway that day for one simple reason: he was one of my tribe.


Growing up, my dad had regaled me with stories of the Irish racing operation, Ballydoyle, and their breeding arm, Coolmore. The myths told and retold in our household were those of the infallibility of Vincent O’Brien, Lester Piggott, and John Magnier; and the invincibility of their charges like Sir Ivor, Nijinsky, Roberto and Alleged.


As an adult – and a punter – it was natural that my loyalties would be with the most recent incarnation of the Ballydoyle operation: the horses I backed more than others were trained by Aidan O’Brien and ridden by Micky Kinane. They were my team.


Any punter reading this will likely recognise this state-of-mind. 


“We all get drawn to bets because they represent what we want to happen, rather than what we think is likely to happen.”

If you’re a lifelong fan of the Essendon Bombers, you’re more likely to back them. It would be disloyal to lay them. You’re also more likely to back the Wallabies, Wallaroos, Socceroos and Kookaburras over another national team.


This kind of punting loyalty is an example of a confirmation bias at work: you think there is something inherently better about “your” team; you seek evidence to confirm that belief; and then you invest your money on the back of that belief. This kind of thinking explains why the odds offered on national teams frequently shorten in local markets just prior to the start: patriotic punters sitting down to watch the event can’t stop themselves from wading in.


Involuntarily supporting one sporting team over another is not a rational choice, of course: it’s emotionally driven, coming from our innate desire to belong to a tribe.


Tribalism is a fundamental human characteristic which is deep-rooted in our evolutionary history. In early human civilisations, belonging to a tribe was a necessity. To be ostracised from the group was to die. This has remained true until relatively recent history, meaning that humans still inherently value the group over the individual. 


“Even when we might rationally dislike the tribes of which we are members, if there are no better options, we prefer to follow that crowd than strike out on our own.

This tendency has been repeatedly demonstrated in academic studies. In the 1970s, British zoologist, Desmond Morris, published The Soccer Tribe, demonstrating how fans of different soccer teams shared all the characteristics you would expect to see in any tribe, from the rituals, to the heroes, to the elders and followers, to the common tribal language. There was little about the behaviour, it seemed, that fitted with the modern, global, civilised world.


Morris’ observations, whilst offering a new way to think about fandom, was not revelatory, though, when it came to the general human experience. The existence of tribal behaviour in modern human society was already well-established. For example, Muzafer Sharif’s 1954 Robber’s Cave experiment had demonstrated that well-adjusted middle-class school boys would quickly descend into violent, tribal behaviour. And the results of the study probably came as little surprise to William Golding, whose story of a tribal conflict in his novel of the same year, Lord of the Flies, was inspired by his experience of boarding-school life and World War Two.


More recently, work by Webber et al (2014) has even suggested that unintended patient harm can be, largely, attributed to tribal behaviour among different healthcare professionals, who fail to work effectively with clinicians in other disciplines, because they are not part of their tribe.


These studies, along with many others, demonstrate that even though we might be able to recognise tribalism in our own behaviour, the evolutionary pull towards group behaviour is nonetheless too strong for most of us to resist. We take unconditional pride in the rest of our tribe and conform to its thinking.


This predilection for tribal thinking presents risks for punters. Blind acceptance of the facts accepted by your tribe – that your team is better than another, for example – leads us to fuzzy thinking about the best course of betting action.


Throughout a series of articles looking at the unhelpful cognitive biases we possess, we have found that the solution is to implement disciplined processes which circumnavigate our evolutionary hard-wiring.

“In this case, though, we have a further option: we can change tribes.”

There are a group of punters who are data-led, skeptical and contrarian. They go against the crowd and scoff at those muddled thinkers who bet emotionally. They are a small and select tribe and, by nature, they tend not to meet up.


I know that if I’d joined this tribe as a young adult, I wouldn’t have backed Giant’s Causeway that day.


As a passionate sports’ fan and punter, Jack has written about sports and betting for over a decade, winning the Martin Wills Award for racing journalism in 2002 and writing Winning on Betfair for Dummies, first published in 2006 and now in its second edition, having sold over 35,000 copies in two languages.

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