Olympic bias

I love the Winter Olympics. It gives me a chance to watch things I think I’m moderately good at myself (like snowboarding and ice-skating) as well as things I’ve never done, but in which I rapidly develop self-appointed armchair expertise (like curling).

What both have in common is that they expose my own cognitive biases. The former remind me of my own inadequacies on the snow and ice and, far from making me feel confident, have the opposite effect of reinforcing my inner doubt. The latter, on the other hand, fill me with false confidence that they can’t be that hard and that with a bit of practise, I could probably be OK at them.

Both perceptions are obviously flawed. Just because Olympic snowboarders do amazing things on a half-pipe, doesn’t have any bearing on my own (lack of) ability. They hone their skills for years, making huge sacrifices to be able to compete at this level. I snowboard for one, maybe two weeks a year. I’m also a few decades older than them. Yet my opinion on my own skill set, is somehow anchored on what I see on television.

Equally, my perception that curling “can’t be that hard” is baseless. It must be difficult. But by leveraging the expertise of the commentators and because I’ve seen how it works closeup I can fool myself and start to believe that I have a talent for something I’ve never even attempted. Maybe my own Dunning Kruger Effect in action?

Of course this feeling of proximity to what is going on is what makes it such compelling viewing. And why there’s a big take-up of people trying out winter sports after the Olympics finish. We’re brought into a world in a way that takes us close to the action and where we feel part of what’s going on.

Part of the reason it works so well is the novelty value of watching these events. Our brains naturally focus on things that are unfamiliar, rather than familiar.

We know this intuitively. Listen to a new song you like and it feels fresh. Listen to it a few more times and the impact is dulled. The Winter Olympics is exciting because its only on once every four years; as an annual event it would be much less compelling.

Of course the people for whom it’s really compelling are the athletes. Years of preparation and it all comes down to how they perform in the spotlight.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they also suffer from cognitive biases.

A fascinating NBC article highlighted the seemingly counter-intuitive fact that bronze winning medalists tend to be much happier than silver winning ones. The reason that’s the case is because both of them will compare what they won with the closest alternative. For bronze medalists, it’s usually a case of them looking at the fact they’ve won something, rather than the very real possibility of winning nothing.

We’re naturally loss-averse, so a bronze medal is far better than no medal. The silver medalists on the other hand, look at how close they came to winning gold and see silver as less good than gold. In both cases the perception of the value of their medal is anchored in the alternative scenario that their medal position tells them was a possibility.

You can read the article here. And no this isn’t a new phenomenon as this BBC article from 2012 highlights. There’s even something called a “Silver Medal Face”..

All of which reinforces the fact that we’re not naturally rational. Whether we’re armchair experts or Olympic athletes.

Luckily there is a way for the armchair experts, if not the athletes, to deal with their cognitive biases. Which is to confront them with reality. In my case that involved climbing to the top of the Olympic ski jump in Sapporo and seeing it for myself. As you’ll note from the photo above, I did it in summer. On that basis, I’m under no illusions that ski jumping is hard and not something I should ever contemplate doing. Still fancy my hand at curling though…

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