In 2001, I took a flight from London To Dallas-Fort Worth.  I had a conversation with the man sat to my right and it changed, from that point forward, how I bet. I’ve been profitable ever since.

The flight took place shortly after a major airline crash. He was an air-flight crash investigator, conducting work to determine the cause of the recent accident. Once over the nerve-wrenching occupation of my fellow passenger, I asked him what the early indications were: what had caused the recent crash?


His answer was illuminating. Accidents, he said, are never caused by one thing. The media, post-crash, will clamour for a single, easily-fathomable explanation, but the reality is always more complex. Faulty tyre material might receive the blame on the front pages, but there were always multiple contributing factors, he explained. Debris on the runway, tyre pressure, degree of landing, speed of landing, the weight of the aircraft, engineering procedures, air-traffic control directions, and numerous others: they all played a part in the recent accident, he explained.

His job was to attempt to quantify the degree to which each of these factors contributed to the crash and offer the various industries associated with air flight ways to improve.

The conversation made me realise two things. First, we love a narrative with a simple story. Second, real-life is rarely as straightforward as those narratives suggest, it is chaotic and complex.


We Love A Story

Humanity, it seems, as well as being riddled with the innumerate cognitive biases we have explored elsewhere on this site, is also a sucker for a good story. Take my own above. It’s a beauty, with a clear cause-and-effect structure. Once I was unprofitable. I had this Damascene conversion, based on a single conversation with a wise man. I became profitable.

I have told the story of the flight investigator many times. It always seems to go down well: after, people seem to accept that life is indeed complex, and that many different factors underpin any event. It’s especially useful for deflecting blame if I seem to be the one responsible for a mistake or failure.

The problem with the story – neat as it is – is that it’s probably made up. It’s true that I was flying a lot on that route during that period. It’s true that I sat next to lots of different people and had some conversations. I have a vivid memory of one of them being a flight investigator, but I’ve told the story so many times now, I’m not sure if that vividness is not just my own creation. It’s also true that I began making fundamental changes to my betting at around that time, and became more analytical; however, I was not profitable until later, and certainly wasn’t consistently so. I re-read a book earlier this week, which contained a similar flight-investigator story. I wonder if the story really happened to me at all.


The Black Swan 

In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb writes about the power of stories and the risks that they hold for us. Whilst stories help us process the myriad of information we are inundated with into well-ordered packages of cause-and-effect, they can be disastrous when we are trying to assess information analytically and objectively. Defaulting to simplistic explanations of why an AFL team unexpectedly lose a match – a star player was injured in the opening minutes, for example – will mean our future predictions of their performance will be based on an inaccurate starting point.

Taleb suggests our attraction to simple stories is a result of sensory overload. In a world where information bombards us, we need ways of process it, and stories, with their familiar structures, provide this.

As punters, though, we need to guard against this. In our ancient human past, when we had no way of recording what had happened, other than in our memories, we required mental shortcuts to help. Now we have spreadsheets and the like, there is no need to trim off the messy and inconvenient data that doesn’t fit the story. We can keep and assess more of it.

To do this, though, we need to guard against our instinct to find simplistic explanations for the sporting phenomena we are observing.

One way to do this is to adopt a cynical and skeptical view of all media coverage of sporting events. The sporting press search for stories in the events they cover because that’s what their audience want. One manifestation of this is that they focus on sporting personalities. After all, all good stories need characters – preferably heroes and villains. Ask yourself this: in analysing the outcome of a horse race, how much insight can a jockey or trainer really provide? Or what use is a team manager’s view of a refereeing decision post-match?


Conclusion

Being aware of our cognitive need for a simple story and repressing it at all costs is a necessary step for any would-be profitable punter to take. It’s like the time I was on a flight from London to Dallas-Fort Worth…


ABOUT THE AUTHOR – JACK HOUGHTON 

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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