This heuristic has the wind at its back!
Mike Allen, the astute Politico reporter and analyst, was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe today, talking about the strange and entertaining Republican race for the party’s presidential nomination. Mitt Romney is still hanging in there, but he keeps getting challenged–most recently by Newt Gingrich. Allen was criticizing Romney for basically blowing off the Iowa caucuses in January–the first real test of candidate strength and appeal. It’s folly, he said, for any of these Republicans to take the long view and ignore early contests like the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary: “It’s all about momentum.”
I admire Allen’s political savvy, but not his grasp of human psychology. The fact is, there is no evidence for something called momentum in political races, nor for that matter in any social endeavor. We get the idea of momentum from the very real fact of physical momentum–which any bicyclist knows about–but it’s a mistake to imagine that physical law shaping politics, social movements, sports, or even in our personal lives. To do so leads to all sorts of misjudgments, which I explain in much greater detail in the following excerpt from On Second Thought. Just for the record, the list of past winners of Iowa and New Hampshire includes: Tom Harkin, Dick Gephardt, Ed Muskie, Mike Huckabee (who trounced Romney last time around), Pat Buchanan, Hillary Clinton, and Paul Tsongas. Here’s more
“In the old “Road Runner” cartoons, the luckless Wile E. Coyote lived by the laws of cartoon physics, defying Newton as he hurled himself through the American southwest in pursuit of his nemesis. In one classic scenario, he would run off a cliff, where he would stand for a few seconds suspended in mid-air. Only when he looked down, and realized his mistake, would the force of gravity kick in, plunging him to the desert floor below.
Why did Wile E. Coyote’s misfortunes make us laugh time and again? Sure, the exploding Acme products were good for a chuckle, but it was really the outlandish misuse of physics that made the “Road Runner” one of Looney Tunes’ most popular features in the 1950s. Though physics may not seem like a natural for humor, in fact defying Newton’s laws is funny. And it’s funny because we all have a heuristic sense of what’s physically possible and what is not.
The momentum heuristic explains why we can interact with the physical world so effortlessly, whether it’s ducking a dodge ball or driving a car in heavy traffic. We move through our world and rarely collide, and amazingly we don’t need any calculations for these complex actions. We simply “know” in our neurons. But as with all heuristics, the momentum heuristic is imperfect; the same basic sense that helps us navigate the environment can be misapplied to our social world. Our brain takes ideas like momentum and trajectory and applies them to events and social situations that have nothing to do with physical movement. We “see” these physical forces where they may not exist—leading to inaccurate judgments and choices.
Let’s look at some experiments. Psychologist Neal Roese of the University of Illinois is one of a cadre of psychologists who have been examining people’s perceptions of motion to see how they affect social judgment. In one experiment, for example, he and his colleagues turned to a not-so-looney subject: serious highway collisions. Roese had volunteers watch two computer simulations of head-on collisions, each one prepared for use in an actual courtroom trial. In one case, a car attempts to pass a tractor-trailer on a two-lane highway, crashing head-on into a second tractor-trailer. In the other case, a tractor-trailer swerves to avoid a slow-moving car that has just pulled into traffic; the truck crashes into a bus coming in the opposite direction.
For the purposes of the study, some of the volunteers were spared the worst of the mayhem, viewing simulations that stopped short of the actual crash. In addition to watching the videos, Roese had the volunteers read descriptions of the accidents and view diagrams, much as if a lawyer were presenting traditional courtroom testimony. All were then asked to estimate the likelihood of an accident occurring, as a juror would do. The most interesting finding was that, even when they just saw an incomplete simulation of the accident, stopping just short of impact, volunteers “knew” that a crash was inevitable. Apparently when people perceive a dynamic event—with motion, momentum, trajectory—their intuitive physics clicks in and they become hyper-confident about the outcome.
Roese calls this new psychological phenomenon the “propensity effect,” which is just one form of the momentum heuristic. This gut-level feeling is probably most familiar to sports fans: For example, baseball fans see a ball hit toward the outfield bleachers and “know” that you can kiss that one goodbye. Indeed, fans say the actual homerun is a letdown after the momentary excitement of “knowing.”
These findings have important legal implications, because computer simulations are increasingly used in courtrooms as a form of persuasive evidence. But the implications are much broader than that. Apparently, when it comes to motion, the mind plays tricks, distorting what we think we know about where things are heading—not only physical objects but life events as well. Our innate sense of the physical world—and impersonal forces like speed and momentum—may carry over directly to our understanding of the psychological world. Again, look to the world of sports: Fans and players both will swear to the validity of momentum in athletic contests, both individual momentum and team momentum. Players, for reasons not fully understood, will suddenly go “on a roll,” or they’ll get a “hot hand.” Or they’ll just as suddenly lose their momentum, and the contest will shift in an opponent’s favor.
Is this just magical thinking, or is there something to the idea that psychological momentum affects performance? Psychologists have begun to study the link between what they call intuitive physics, the “propensity effect,” and seemingly unrelated attitudes and beliefs, with some interesting results. Indeed, some have begun work on a unifying theory of psychological momentum that begins with the basic laws of Newtonian physics.
Newtonian physics says that momentum equals velocity times mass. It’s simple. But what does this mean in the realm of human motivation and performance? Well, according to these theorists, psychological velocity is provided by some important event. In sports that is usually a “big play” that turns the tide: a key interception in a football game or a steal and slam dunk in hoops.
Mass, according to this theory, is provided by the social context: How important is the game? Is a team emotionally invested in the outcome of this game more than others? I live in Washington Redskins country, where the biggest game of the year is always against the Dallas Cowboys: It’s a major topic of conversation not only on Sunday but for the entire “Dallas Week” leading up to the game. According to psychologists, this unusual focus and attention qualifies as mass: When combined with the velocity from a big play, it can produce psychological momentum, the sensation of an invisible force at work in the realm of emotions.
Our expectations—and even our regrets—can be shaped by the momentum heuristic. In one study, Ohio University psychologists Keith Markman and Corey Guenther recruited a group of knowledgeable basketball fans and had them view a film clip from an actual basketball game, a 1998 contest between Duke University and the University of North Carolina. The Redskins-Cowboys rivalry pales next to this college rivalry between the Duke Blue Devils and the Carolina Tarheels, and in 1998 the Devils were ranked #1 in the country and the Tarheels #2.
In the 10-minute film clip used for the experiment, the Blue Devils ran off 15 unanswered points, although they trailed the Tarheels during the entire segment. Duke ended up losing the game to North Carolina, 97-73, but the study volunteers didn’t know this (and interviews revealed that none of them recalled this game). The psychologists stopped the film every minute and asked the fans these two questions: Who has the momentum now? Which team do you believe will win the game? After viewing the film clip, they were asked what specific event during the game was most important in shifting the momentum of the game.
When they analyzed the data, the psychologists found some confirmation for their notion of psychological momentum. Most of the “fans” perceived that Duke had momentum during the game, and most predicted that Duke would go on to win. When asked, the volunteers named a technical foul against one Carolina player—or a key rebound and three-pointer by a Duke player—as the turning point that gave Duke the momentum.
Markman and Guenther wanted to further explore the analogy between physics and psychology, including the idea of mass. Remember that mass, in the psychological sense, is the emotional importance of an event. In a second experiment, they had volunteers read a description of a hypothetical basketball game involving a team called East Midland, a very competitive squad. Some volunteers read a scenario in which East Midland played Millersville, another team in their division. Others read a scenario in which East Midland played West Midland, a cross-town team with whom they have had an intense 90-year rivalry. In both scenarios, East Midland wins a hard-fought game and is going on to play Conner for a playoff spot.
Which East Midland team has the greater momentum going into the game against Conner? This is the question the psychologists asked the volunteers. And they found what their theory predicts: Fans believe that a win against a long-time rival would give east Midland more momentum than a more neutral win, even though both are just as important in the standings. This lends support to the idea that “mass,” in the form of emotional importance, contributes to psychological momentum.
I have not been a competitive athlete since high school, and I don’t watch sporting events as much as I once did. But I confess to using these phrases like “hot hand” and “on a roll”—and believing them. It feels like a physical force. And this goes beyond sports. People perceive momentum in the stock market, in political campaigns, in progress on social issues like gay marriage. It’s even apparent in people’s perceptions of their own personal performance, in relationships and school and careers.
Consider Jane. Jane is a made-up character with a lot on her plate. Her apartment is a mess because she has been so busy lately. She’s finally got an open Sunday without obligations, and she sets an ambitious agenda for herself: clean her entire apartment and write a 20-page paper on the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The researchers asked volunteers to read a scenario in which Jane starts cleaning at 1:00 in the afternoon, hoping to finish both tasks by 9:00. But some read a scenario in which she plodded along steadily, while others read about her getting on a cleaning roll and zipping through the mopping and dusting and scouring almost effortlessly. Then they asked the volunteers to imagine her writing the paper.
The psychologists want to see if residual momentum from one event can carry over to another, completely different event. And that is exactly what they found. Those who “watched” Jane sail through her household cleaning thought Jane was more likely to “have the wind at her back” when she started writing, and that she was much more likely to meet her self-imposed 9:00 deadline.
Unless Jane’s mother phones.
The psychologists decided to complicate matters for Jane, to see if they could experimentally make her lose her momentum. They wanted to see if it is harder for someone with momentum to get back on track than it is for someone just plodding along. So in a final study, we rejoin Jane while she is actually writing the Emily Dickinson paper. She is half way through, with just two hours left to deadline. Again, some of the volunteers read about Jane being “on a roll” and “focused” while others simply read that she was writing the paper.
Jane is annoyed when her mother rings. She knows there is no such thing as a brief conversation with her, and that she will likely be on the phone for 45 minutes. But she’s a good daughter and she picks up the phone anyway. How difficult will it be for her to get back in the groove after this unexpected interruption?
Volunteers believed it would be very difficult for Jane to regain her momentum. As with an automobile that is cruising along a highway and is then forced to stop, it takes effort to regain lost momentum, to get back up to speed. Or at least that is how many people conceive of it.
So let’s assume for a minute that Jane is indeed thrown off by her mother’s ill-timed phone call; that she loses her sense of momentum and gives up on the Emily Dickinson assignment. No, let’s make it even worse than that: Let’s say she never finishes the paper and ends up failing the course. How will she make sense of that later on? Well, if she’s like too many of us, she will convince herself that her failure was inevitable. Here’s how.
If momentum and propensity are all about the future and where we (or others) are heading, the flip-side of momentum is hindsight. We are constantly looking back at events and actions to explain how we ended up where we did. Unfortunately, the lens we use for looking back in time is often badly distorted. Psychologists call this lens the “hindsight bias.” We know it as the familiar I-knew-it-all-along syndrome.
Hindsight bias means that we are much more likely to see an outcome as inevitable once it has occurred than we were before it took place. That may seem obvious, but it’s not simply that we learn from experiencing the events. It seems that our memories of past events are eclipsed by new, more powerful memories of what actually happened in their wake, so that we are psychologically incapable of being honest with ourselves about what we really knew earlier.
This cognitive bias is double-edged. It can keep us from ruminating endlessly about what might have been, what we could have done differently, and so forth—and thus allow us to look forward and move on. On the other hand, believing bad outcomes are inevitable makes it difficult to learn from mistakes, and indeed can keep people from taking personal responsibility for their actions.
So how do we get rid of this delusional thinking? How do we more honestly examine the connection between actions and consequences? Well, it’s not easy, as it turns out. It would seem that the way to “undo” the I-knew-it-all-along effect would be to come up with alternative explanations. Considering Jane again, she could, instead of concluding that her failure was a foregone conclusion, say something like: If I had just ignored my mother’s call, I would have completed the paper and the course. That if-then explanation should deflate the sense of inevitability.
But it doesn’t—at least not automatically. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true in many cases. Psychologists call these alternative explanations “counterfactuals,” which is just a jargony way of describing events that didn’t happen—but might have, would have, could have. Neal Roese—the psychologist who ran the auto crash experiments—has also run several experiments to untangle the relationship between hindsight bias and counterfactual thinking.
Most of the studies involved imagined scenarios, like missing a plane or failing an exam. In every case, the study volunteers concluded that the untoward event was completely predictable—that is, they demonstrated the hindsight bias. Then Roese asked them to counter that biased thinking with “what if” thoughts: If I had studied more, I might have passed. If I had been more organized, I would have made my flight, and so forth.
These cognitive antidotes failed. The induced thoughts were meant to “undo” the delusional thinking, but in most cases they did the opposite—they reinforced the sense that the outcome was inevitable.
Imagined scenarios are tricky, however, and Roese wanted to test this idea in the real world. So he and one of his students, Sameep Mania, decided to study the minds of football fans at nearby Northwestern University. Spectator sports provide an excellent psychology lab, because the passionate involvement in the games can intensely focus both emotion and thinking—at least for a brief period of time. Any normal distortions in human reasoning are exaggerated.
Roese and Maniar picked three Northwestern football games during the 1995-1996 season for study. Northwestern is part of the Big Ten Conference, and these were all conference games, and all played at Northwestern’s Dyche Stadium: against Wisconsin in October, and then against Penn State and Iowa in November.
An unexpected twist made the studies even more intriguing than anticipated. Although Northwestern—the Wildcats– plays in the prestigious Big Ten Conference, it is not a football powerhouse. In fact, the Wildcats are not very good compared to their conference rivals. But 1995-1996 was a Cinderella season for the Wildcats. Against all expectations, the squad defeated all three of these rival teams; indeed, they crushed all three teams, and went on to win an invitation to the 1996 Rose Bowl.
So it was a unique opportunity to study the hindsight bias. The psychologists asked Wildcats fans before each of these games to predict the likelihood of a Northwestern victory, and also to predict the point spread: Would they lose by more than 10 points, or less than 10? Or would they win by more than 10, or less than 10? They also had them predict the likelihood that they would gain 350 yards in any of the games—an indicator of total dominance.
Then they watched the games. Afterward, the researchers asked the same group of fans these same questions again. They corralled them as they were shuttling back to campus and asked them to recall their expectations before the games were actually played. And as predicted, they found that the Wildcat boosters exaggerated their powers of prediction: Even though theirs was an unrated team with low expectations for victory, the fans recalled otherwise, believing that they had known “all along” that upsets were in the making.
Then the psychologists tried to undo this delusional thinking. They had some of the fans imagine how the game might have turned out differently: “We might have lost if not for that penalty on the kickoff” or “If not for that fumble, we could have really dominated.” The idea is that imagining an alternative outcome—an alternative to reality—might weaken the illusion of inevitability. But as with the lab studies of missed planes and failed exams, imagining a different past only served to reinforce and inflate the fans belief that they “knew it all along.” Their thoughts seem to go something like this: Things could have gone otherwise, sure, but they didn’t. It must be fate.
So what do we make of these cognitive peculiarities? Let’s move outside the Wildcats stadium, and beyond sports altogether. A sense of inevitability and predictability in life can certainly be tonic. It’s calming to know that you don’t have complete control over every outcome, and it’s probably unhealthy to obsess about what might have been. Obsession can be paralyzing.
On the other hand, a little regret may not be a bad thing. Much counterfactual thinking is just that, regretting a mistake than we might have avoided, imagining how we could have made things turn out better. Such what-if thoughts happen on their own, all the time, and it may be that hindsight delusions and regret are two sides of the same cognitive coin, partners in the mind. Indeed, it may be the interplay of these heuristic forces that lets us make sense of the world.
Robert Frost’s 1920 poem “The Road Not Taken” captures this psychological dynamic more lyrically. The traveler in the poem faces two diverging paths in the woods and must make a choice. It’s a difficult life choice, and after some internal debate he chooses. The final stanza captures the interplay of one’s powerful sense of momentum and doubts about life’s inevitability. He pictures himself in the future, looking back at his choice:
“I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
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