Illusion Of Explanatory Depth

You want to be profitable, right? If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be on this website. Well, let me tell you something. Whether or not you become a winning punter will be determined by your answer to one question. Which is bigger, your ego, or your discomfort when you lose money?

I’ll explain why this is the most important question for you to consider later, but first, indulge me…

The Spray Bottle

Here’s a question for you. How does a spray bottle spray liquid? Before you answer, though, do me a favour… Give me a number from one (shallow) to seven (deep) for how well you rate your understanding of spray bottles.

Now, write down for me, if you will, a detailed description of the workings of that spray bottle. Include diagrams. Make your explanation as comprehensive as possible.

Having done that (which I know you haven’t, which makes you disobedient, as well as overconfident), would you now please re-rate your understanding of spray bottles using the same scale as before.

According to the results of a wide-ranging series of studies conducted by Yale psychologists Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in the early 2000s, the likelihood is that you would have initially rated your understanding of spray bottles much higher than you would have after been called upon to provide the detailed explanation.

The Confidence of Humans

In their studies, participants were given 48 phenomena, ranging from the prosaic (how does a zip work?), to the complex (how does the brain co-ordinate behaviour?) and asked to follow the same procedure as above. Prior to rating their understanding, though, participants were given two scaled descriptions of a crossbow and GPS receiver, showing the depth of explanation required to award self-ratings of one, four and seven.

With these expectations firmly in mind, participants rated their knowledge of the 48 phenomena. They were then asked to produce the most detailed explanation they could, with diagrams, of four of those phenomena, before re-rating their understanding. Next, they were asked a question about each of the phenomena, to test their knowledge, and then again asked to re-rate their understanding.

On average, participants’ confidence in their comprehension of these phenomena dropped by around one-and-a-half points across the course of the experiment. The initial confidence they exhibited in their understanding of how a variety of things in their world work had been eroded: they knew much less than they had initially thought.

Rozenblit and Keil first used Yale graduate students as their guinea-pigs. An arrogant bunch, presumably. The thing is, in 11 further follow-up studies, with participants from diverse backgrounds, the results were consistent. Even when participants were told that they would later be tested to see how good their self-assessment was, they still grossly overestimated their knowledge.

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

Writing in 2002, Rozenblit and Keil termed this tendency the “illusion of explanatory depth”, arguing that “people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.”

Any parents reading this are likely unsurprised by the duo’s conclusion. Parenting provides daily reminders of how little you comprehend of the world. Once, my failure to be able to explain to my eldest how cars move led him to frustratingly unleash a series of follow-up questions. It turned out I was similarly inept when it came to train locomotion and plane flight, too. And how high is the sky? Jesus, how could I not know these things. Looking up, considering my deficiencies, I was ready to pray for salvation. It didn’t come. The next question – “Why is my poo brown?” – felled me.

The work of Rozenblit and Keil has been replicated by others. In 2013, Philip Fernbach and colleagues demonstrated that political opinions are shaped by our understanding of controversial issues, even when it turns out our knowledge of those issues is severely lacking. And in a 2006 University of Liverpool study, it was found that, when asked to draw a sketch of how a bicycle works, nearly half of participants, despite initial confidence, made significant errors. Do a Google Images search to see some hilarious designs.

How does this relate to my betting?

As punters, this illusion of explanatory depth should terrify us. Because whereas my failure to be able to explain the reasons for the brownness of poo has no consequence beyond the erosion of my parenting self-esteem, my inability to fully comprehend the probability of an outcome of a sporting event costs me money as well as pride.

Ask yourself an honest question about the last event you bet on. Did you have a deep understanding of the variables that you considered when assessing the fair odds for all the possible outcomes? Do you fully comprehend the method you are using to calculate those fair odds? Can you explain how you chose the amount of money you staked?

If I now asked you to write down a detailed answer to the questions above, with diagrams and charts where necessary, would you be able to?

Which brings us back full circle to the first question in this article. Which is bigger, your ego, or your discomfort when you lose money?

Improving your punting

The reality is that most punters are unprofitable because they have a misplaced sense of confidence in their understanding of the sporting world, and are deficient in comprehending betting theory. And rather than facing up to their shortcomings, they would rather kid themselves. So, they don’t keep a detailed betting record, preferring instead to remember intermittent wins, dismissing more frequent losses as the result of misfortune or indifference (telling themselves that losses were only “fun” bets). Their betting losses become a form of tax: a price they must pay to protect their self-esteem.

Betting records don’t tell the whole story, of course. Even profitable punters will delude themselves to some degree, in some areas of their betting.

The key to all of us improving our profitability – from the serially insolvent to the wildly lucrative – is to be open to searching out those areas of self-deception.

To make your chances of success higher, it’s worth doing two things. First, specialise. It’s far easier to have a greater depth of knowledge if you limit your betting to, say, one-day international test matches. Second, keep a detailed betting record and be disciplined in faithfully documenting your bets. Nothing highlights an illusion of profitability as starkly as a big, fat, stinking minus number in the running total column

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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