Last time we looked at the dangers of primacy and recency bias: how the order in which we receive information can affect the weight we give to it. Attempting to limit these biases – by repeatedly reprocessing the information with different starting points and in a different order – can decrease our confidence in our predictions, likely benefiting our betting bank.

That’s because betting predictions are complex and uncertain, and deserve to be treated with scepticism. To understand why, let’s take a horse race as an example.


Limitations of racing

First, we are never able to gather all the existing data on which to base our prediction. We might have the racing record for all the horses – finishing positions, times, weights, and the like – and we may have even converted these into some kind of rating which allows us to directly compare each horse. We may have other data, like how well horses from a stable are performing, or an interview with a trainer who has admitted his charge to be short of the necessary preparation.

We can’t know everything, though. Some information is kept from us. Other information, like a horse having an underlying virus, may not be known to anyone.

Second, it is difficult to accurately quantify the likelihood of all future events. What are the chances that a horse will get blocked by another? What are the chances that the jockey will start at too fast a pace? What chances that the jockey will fall off? How close will a horse get to its best historical form? Could it surpass that form? By how much?

Some of these questions can perhaps be discounted as so unlikely as to not be worth considering. Jockeys do fall off in flat races, but not very often. Some of the questions are theoretically quantifiable, or at least can be considered statistically, such as the likelihood of horses running to a particular level. But how do you predict jockey behaviour? What about the chaotic movement of horses in a race?

Accepting that we can never have perfect information, either about what has happened, what is happening, or what might happen, is fundamental to becoming a winning punter.


The jinx

We have probably all experienced a fellow punter, announcing that such-and-such is a “certainty”. We have probably all been guilty of being that punter. The reality is, though, that complexity and certainty repel each other.

The work of Pennsylvania University professor Philip Tetlock provides a helpful way of understanding this. Over a 20 year period, Tetlock recruited a wide-range of experts from various fields of expertise and asked them to participate in tournaments to predict future events. On average, these specialists performed only slightly better than if the predictions had been made at random.

Perhaps most interesting, though, was Tetlock’s analysis of which forecasters performed best, finding that the higher the media profile of an expert, the worse they were. Tetlock suggested this was because the qualities that make someone attractive to the media weren’t the same characteristics that made someone an accurate probabilistic thinker.

In this work, Tetlock outlined two styles of cognition, which he called the hedgehog and the fox, suggesting that we all had typical ways of thinking that lay somewhere on the spectrum of these two extremes.


The hedgehog

Hedgehogs, according to Tetlock, were drawn to big ideas and governing principles, believing that everything can be explained by reference back to these underpinning narratives of human history.


The fox

Foxes, on the other hand, were quick to recognise chaos and complexity, finding uncertainty in data and believing that multiple shaping factors underpinned most situations, not all of which could be known.

Using questionnaires to judge the cognitive style of the experts in his study, Tetlock found that it was those closer to the fox way-of-thinking that were better at making forecasts. Hedgehogs, meanwhile, were better at being on television.

In other work, Tetlock found that being held accountable for predictions can make all people more reserved in the forecasts they make. They are more likely to question their own rationales. As punting is typically an individual pursuit, with punters not being openly answerable to anyone else over the long-term profitability of their betting, instilling this accountability is difficult.


Make yourself accountable

A first step, though, is to keep a detailed betting record. Set a day each month where you will review performance and analyse your behaviour.

In this way, at least, you will become accountable to yourself: too many punters have no clear idea about their profit-and-loss over time, and are therefore likely to significantly overestimate their success. In addition to this, get in the habit of entering a bet on your record before you place it. The mere process of writing it down gives you more time to judge whether it’s sound or not.

If possible, you may want to make yourself accountable to someone else. Knowing that a friend or spouse is going to review your betting record at the end of each month will make you more fox-like, and more profitable as a result.


Conclusion

It’s clear that you constantly need to check your thinking. If you find yourself referencing generalisations – “that team always fades in the final stages of a match”, “that jockey is a liability”, or “this player struggles with left-handers” – then you need to tame your inner hedgehog. Set the fox on it.

Betting is complex, and needs to be approached as such.


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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