Obedience to Authority

In November 2016, physicists Magneijo and Ashfordi announced to the world that they had created an experiment that will offer conclusive proof as to whether their theory of a variable speed of light is true.

The announcement was met with an underwhelming response. Underwhelming, because if proved correct, they will debunk a cornerstone of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which has represented the accepted paradigm of physics for the last hundred years.

Suggesting that Einstein is wrong takes some chutzpah. Most people who try to understand his work – wrestling with even the most straightforward of his ideas like the one about a woman on a train travelling near the speed of light perceiving things differently to a man on a station, stationary – give up. It just asks too much of the average human brain.

Instead, we accept that we don’t really know why, but we know that Einstein must have been right. After all, his face – framed with what looks like recently-electrocuted white hair – has become the iconic image of smart. If we want a representation of cleverness, we think of him.

The history of scientific thought, though, is littered with examples of established intellectual titans who assure of things that turn out to be wrong. Whether it’s Aristotle’s theory of spontaneous generation, Le Verrier’s Planet Vulcan, Schiaparelli’s Martian canals, or Pons and Fleischmann’s cold fusion: accepted wisdom can be mindlessly accepted and repeated for generations before someone notices the error. Einstein, himself, has been proved wrong before, when the findings of the Hubble telescope debunked his theory of the static universe.

Quite why humans so readily accept the conclusions of others is interesting. Many of us would like to think that we are healthily sceptical when it comes to what we believe, and yet all of us act on and then pass on knowledge that we have been told – even if we haven’t verified that information ourselves.

Perhaps we do it out of laziness: if it says it on Wikipedia, it must be true. Or perhaps we are a naturally trusting species: if another human being tells us something, why would we assume they were wrong. Or perhaps it’s just efficient: we don’t have time to check everything and, whilst some things we are told will turn out to be false, the majority will not be, especially if we are told it by experts.

Perhaps, but in a set of ground-breaking experiments first conducted in the 1960s, American psychologist Stanley Milgram offered a theory of the human condition which may provide another reason as to why we blindly follow what others inform us of.

In those experiments, Milgram found that hundreds of subjects, no matter the gender, race or age, were prepared to deliver what they believed to be possibly-fatal electric shocks to another human being. The reason, it seemed, was that a scientist in a white coat was telling them to, and in a world where we are socialised from birth to obey authority figures, how could the subjects rebel?

At the time – controversially – Milgram offered his obedience experiments as an explanation of the Nazi Holocaust, supporting Primo Levi’s view that it wasn’t “monsters” we needed to be frightened of, but rather “the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions”; the ordinary people who would do what they were told because a man with a moustache instructed them to.

It might seem a stretch to move from the world of debunked theories of quantum physics and the Nazi Holocaust to the, perhaps, more mundane world of punting, but bettors need to be aware of our cognitive bias to believe what authority figures are telling us.

For example, when assessing the likely going at a racetrack, are you more likely to believe the readings of a penetrometer, or the musings of the winning jockey from the first race, who thinks the ground is riding slower than advertised?

Across all sports, there are well-established “truths”, that as punters we can sometimes take for granted.

Many believe that Flemington is a track that favours hold-up horses, whereas Caulfield, Moonee Valley and Geelong favour those who lead. How many punters have really tested those theories, though? How many have used a statistically valid method to measure track bias?  How many have then seen whether any track bias returns a profit?

Likewise, the pitch at The Gabba is accepted to be full of pace and bounce, favouring fast bowlers. Fiji are unpredictable and have a weak front row. Del Potro has a weak backhand. Mile Jedinak has a fearsome long-shot. All of them are believable and all may be true, but just because pundits utter them, it doesn’t make them so.

An awareness of our tendency to believe and obey authorities is particularly important when betting in-play. Recognising that commentators have a difficult job to do – to constantly talk in an attempt to describe the action occurring – we should also recognise that some of what they say will not be valid. It is for this reason that many in-play horse racing punters turn off the sound.

What Milgram teaches us punters, then, is that when it comes to parting with our money, we need to be sceptical of what others are telling us, especially authority figures, as they are just as prone to uttering untruths as the rest of us, however unwittingly.

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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