Beware the Naysers

Sports commentators have always had a tough job. Fans have never wanted to listen to, or read, humdrum observations about what has, or may happen. We have always wanted something different; something that challenges the obvious, conventional view; something that offers us a fresh perspective on the gladiatorial contests we follow.

The pressure on commentators to offer this contrariness has only increased in recent years. Surrounded now by citizen-sports-commentators – YouTubers, bloggers, chat-roomers, Instagramers, Snapchatters, and the Twitterati – those in the mainstream media are obliged to be ever-more inimical and antagonistic if they are to maintain an audible voice amid the surrounding hullabaloo.

As an antipodean observer of Australian sport, my perspective could hardly be more distant, but to this outsider at least, few countries can lay as much claim to this kind of critical and negative sports coverage as Australia can.


The Media playing its part

Take cricket. By the early 1990s Australia was the best side in the world – in all manifestations of the game – and the new style of aggressive cricket promulgated by the Baggy Greens saw them dominate international competition for twenty years. Yet this didn’t bring them much love or adoration at home.

Paradoxically, it seemed, the more Australia drubbed my national side, the more Australians rejected them for their predictability, ruthlessness, and despotism; whilst the English became increasingly fond of its team of hapless incompetents who, despite being hopelessly mismatched, were nonetheless content to take the field for repeated lickings from the world’s cricketing bully.

The Australian press I read during this period seemed to criticise their national side for what they were not: they lacked grittiness; they had no scrappers; they had no modesty; there was too much polish and not enough struggle. Winners they may have been, but they were not winning in the right way.

It was contrary sports coverage of the utmost perversity. It was listened to, though, and, whilst not wanting to disparage the motivations of the sporting press, it is perhaps the popularity of the voice they create, not its reasonableness, which is most important to many of those doing the job. After all, they have papers to sell and rating wars to win.


Dismiss the subjective

And we might not like the fact, but, it seems, adopting negative, critical views like this does increase the number of those willing to follow us.

In a series of 11 experiments by Eileen Chou, from the University of Virginia, she found that naysayers – those who find fault and detract – were overwhelmingly more likely to be perceived as powerful leaders who should be followed, with study participants naturally drawn to those espousing negative restaurant reviews, unfavourable critiques of artwork, or gloomy assessments of politics.

Punters should beware of this in-built bias for the negative.

Long-term profitability comes from a capacity to dismiss the subjective and embrace the objective, reaching impartial assessments of sporting chance.

That’s why successful bettors rely on largely-quantitative models that attempt to assign numerical values to what has happened in the sporting arena in the past, and what might in the future.

If we are naturally drawn to negative information and data – those tidbits that tell us to reject the mainstream view – then it can be hard to maintain that objective focus. Instead, we get obsessed by the one metric that downplays a team’s chance, failing to recognise nine others that boost it.

Or we focus on the single injured player who will now be missing, ignoring the otherwise unchanged team who will take the field; or we listen to the extravagant paid-by-the-insult commentator, disregarding the measured voices who reach a unanimous, different conclusion.


Summary

Across the ten Ashes series between 1989 and 2007, Australia started at average odds of $1.36 to take victory in each one, yet they went on to win nine of them, implying that their odds for each should have been $1.11.

The sample is too small to make any certain claims about the undervaluing of Australia in each case, but it does raise an interesting question. Were those odds, which look generous now, the result of punters being influenced by those Australian naysayers?

Perhaps so, perhaps not. But either way, as punters we need to objectively assess all the information that comes our way, and not value the critical over the complimentary.


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