Monday, June 14, 2010

Embracing Mistakes

Though I'm not normally a sports fan, it's been hard to avoid the attention of the World Cup. One of the biggest stories comes from America's tie with England, mostly thanks to a missed block by English goalie Robert Green (video here). He has been getting flack from announcers and fans alike. Even traditional sports like baseball and football can become intense in America, but the World Cup seems to be more like the Olympics than anything else. It's a rare combination of athletics and national patriotism. Mistakes not only let your team down, they let your nation down.

The pressure of professional sports is one of thrilling parts of watching, but it is also a good picture of what the real world is like. This Nike commercial does a great job of showing the short and long term international reactions to World Cup matches. Make a mistake and often you are ridiculed by all. Whether it was careless or intentional, it's often treated the same. To admit you're wrong may even make things worse. There is evidence many women prefer arrogant men.

In a recent article in the Boston Globe, the author describes that our mistakes are actually a result of our greatest strength, inductive reasoning. In any given situation, we can determine not just a possible answer, but a probable one. For example when a student stares at their belly button in class, I infer they are texting. In most cases I am right. Every so often I'm wrong. It is our focus on the wrongs that make us less likely to take the chance. Saving face trumps getting it right.

Here is another real life example from soccer (football). Statistically speaking a goalie is more likely to block a penalty kick if they stay in the middle of the goal. However, it is better for a goalie's reputation to fail while diving to block than to fail standing still. So they dive, either right or left. Similarly, it is optimal for the penalty kicker to aim for the upper third of the goal. Though it is more likely to miss the net completely, it is much less likely to be stopped by a diving goalie. Again, most players avoid this strategy because being blocked by a goalie is more honorable than missing completely.

Placing such a higher weight on failures compared to successes greatly decreases the number of successes. Understanding and accepting that our inductive reasonings skills are mostly right can have huge societal benefits. It helps us understand our own failings and be patient with others' failings. Hopefully it will also help us be weary of those who seem to be absent these mistakes, namely celebrities and politicians.

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