Heidi G. Halvorson On the Science of Perception & The Unrealized Biases Existing between Fans and Athletes

[x_blockquote cite=”Robert I. Sutton, Professor of Management Science and Engineering @ Stanford University” type=”left”]The best book ever written on why it is so difficult for us humans to communicate with others and what we can do about it. I was blown away by the masterful weave of stories, rock-solid evidence, and especially, advice that I can use right now to get my message across without confusing or pissing off the other people in my life.[/x_blockquote][x_blockquote cite=”Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific Director, Imagination Institute, University of Pennsylvania” type=”left”]Despite your best intentions, your perceptions of people are a mirage, contaminated by your past experiences, needs, and desires. This book will help you see yourself and others accurately — perhaps for the first time. [/x_blockquote]

Here’s a scary thought: Most of us don’t come across the way we intend. We can’t see ourselves truly objectively, and neither can anyone else. We puny humans have a strong tendency to distort other people’s feedback to our lens: the unique way we each see our world. We all know this, but like car accidents caused by texting, most of us don’t ever think it applies to us.

The scary part is that, unlike car accidents, this malfunction happens all the time, every day to every person. It’s just not blatantly obvious. No matter how clearly you speak and act, you have little control of how others actually interpret your behavior. The misinterpretations can cause big problems in your personal and professional life, because people may not trust you or like you, even if they have all the reasons to.

No one is exempt from these cognitive errors of judgment, but the least we can do is recognize they exist, understand why they matter and learn how to sport a clear pair of brain lens in the situations that affect our work, our life and our individual identity the most.

That’s the problem and the goal author Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, a social psychologist at the Columbia Business School, attacks in No One Can Understand You and What To Do About It.

Here are some top takeaways from the book that affects every human out there, but specifically sports fans and athletes: two parties that can’t stop hating and loving each other for their imperfections.

There’s three sides to every story: there’s one side, there’s the other side, and then there’s the truth.

When deep in a heated sports argument, both fans feels they’re speaking the truth and that the other side is distorting it. If you and I are arguing about any one of the thousand stories ever featured on a headliner like Lebron James, regardless of whose making valid points, both of us are likely to feel that the other person is taking our words and ideas out of context. It’s like someone giving the both of us 2 different kaleidoscopes, telling us they’re the same, and asking us to compare, contrast and debate. What could possibly go wrong?

What goes wrong is that in real life is that there are no physical kaleidoscopes that let us know we’re both seeing our points through different lenses; what goes wrong is that we all see the same objects on surface – whether it be the news, the highlights, the stats or the stories in question – and so neither side sees what the other side sees. Even though both sides are being equally rational, neither feels like the other is reciprocating.

Ms. Halvorson suggests that there are two reasons we’re hard to understand: one, that no one is actually an open book and two, that our words and actions are always subject to interpretation.

Both reasons come down to the ways we read people and make sense of them. We humans are stingy with our mental energy and processing capacity most of the time; we only spend the energy when we really have to. And for good reason too — there’s too much happening around us, too much to notice and understand to give every person and situation our full, undivided, unbiased attention.

So not only are you innately hard to understand, but the people observing you are hoarding their attention. Human thought, like every other complex process, is subject to the speed-versus-accuracy trade-off. Go fast, we make mistakes. Be thorough and diligent, and you take an eternity. We are…motivated tacticians — strategically choosing ease and speed, or effort and accuracy, depending on our motivation. Most of the time, just the gist will do, so we choose speed.

Boom. Think about all the sports information coming at our minds. Your Twitter, your Facebook, your RealGM, your Youtube channels, your Grantland stories, your Bleacher Report clickbait — and these infinite scrolls and clicks are just on the internet — and all the other sources on TV that attract and drain your attention 24/7 of sports content. For any one of us to fully and empathetically give each story our full unbiased attention, is not only impossible, but irresponsible.


We all know that our work, our families, our main personal responsibilities all take precedence over sports entertainment. After all, it’s not like we’re the ones out there playing in front of millions, it’s not like any of our debates or predications influence what happens on the court and, it’s not like our livelihood depends on how right or wrong we are in our conversations.

Since sports conversations aren’t all that important, in the big picture, we process them with a quantity-over-quality mindset.

In this mindset, we use shortcuts, specifically heuristics and assumptions, to help us not only process all this infotainment overload but to also raise what we feel are strong, valid points and arguments against the views of others. After all, we still want to be seen as smart, credible sports fans who know their shit.

So what heuristics and assumptions are in play here? They’re biases, and the book lists a whole bunch of them, that affect people’s perception of others. Let’s look at a few of them that affect sports fans the most:

1) Confirmation bias – the most prevalent, influential assumption and it means that when other people look at you, they see what they expect to see.

If people have reason to believe you’re smart, they will see evidence of intelligence in your behavior –whether or not there is any. If they have reason to believe you are dishonest, they will interpret a lack of eye contact or awkward body language as evidence that you have something to hide–as opposed to evidence that you are shy, or distracted, or in gastric distress.

Confirmation bias is shaped by many factors. Stereotypes about the groups to which you belong, your apparent similarity to other people the perceivers know, and culture (yours and theirs) are among the most consequential. And of course, their own past experience with you, if they have any, plays a major role.

Think about Lebron James: his play on-the-court, his behavior off-the-court and his followers (both sides of lovers and haters with very little room for anyone else in between). Think about where the confirmation bias could help or hurt you in seeing him fairly.

It’s all fun and games when we talk about sports figures, but guess what the human mind works the same way for distant star athletes, as it does for just about every ordinary person you interact with day in and day out.

2) Primacy effect – it means that the perceiver’s first impression of you is likely to be a lasting impression and to influence how he or she interprets everything else about you…until something big happens and you form a new first impression.

Think Derrick Rose. Our first impression of him from day one of entering the league was “he’s humble” and every time he signed an autograph, thanked God in his interviews and gently asked the question “Why can’t I be MVP?”, we reinforced that thought in our mind that “damn, he is humble and he’s a baller, unlike all these other prima donnas.” And then his injuries hit, our first impression faded, and our anxiety of his return to the game formed a new first impression: “he’s a wuss, he’s cocky and arrogant, he’s not the same old DRose, etc.”.

If we remove the primacy effect, i.e., form a fresh impression of players every time we see them, we can form fresher and clearer judgments about the latest story on him. Again, it goes back to the question of “is it worth it for me to give this person the undivided, unbiased attention?”. If the answer is no, then maybe the next question should be “is it worth it for me to give this storyline, for example, about the drama between him and Jimmy Butler based on pure fan and media speculation, a conclusive judgment?”

3)  Stereotypes – the thing we all claim we never do, but do more than we’ll ever realize unconciously. That’s the harsh truth, but here’s the gentler one: we don’t do it, according to Ms. Halvorson, because we’re horrible bigots, but because our human brain is wired to use information about categories to understand members of those categories.








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