The most insidious cognitive bias

Jeremy Lin was an incredible athlete on the basketball court. Back in 2010, he had the fastest first two steps in the NBA. He had an explosive start and could change directions quicker than any of his peers. And yet, most teams refused to draft him because they thought he was not athletic. The New York Knicks benched him for most of the 2011-12 season, and only brought him on when most of their players were injured. Jeremy Lin led a dramatic turnaround against the New Jersey Nets. He then put up a string of memorable performances and earned the the nickname (Knickname?) “Linsanity”.

Why was one of the most athletic players in the NBA repeatedly rejected for not being athletic enough? Perhaps it was because Jeremy Lin was the first Asian American to play in the NBA.

Most NBA coaches and scouts held a long-standing prejudice against Asian players for not being athletic enough. “Me and John [Wall] were the fastest people in the draft, but he was athletic and I was ‘deceptively’ athletic,” Lin said during an interview. “I think I’ve been deceptively ‘whatever’ my whole life.”

The coaches and teams who had excluded Lin weren’t intentionally racist. Their best judgement was compromised by confirmation bias – perhaps the most insidious of cognitive biases.

Confirmation bias binds us to our first impressions. In most cases, we have no idea about the real reasons for why we form a first impression – a person could remind us of our father or a situation could remind us of an event from our childhood. Nevertheless, once we have a first impression, we go ahead in search of information that confirms and reinforces it. Athletic and good looking players are routinely overestimated across sports. And even as NBA scouts saw a lightning quick Asian player, they chose to remember instances where he wasn’t athletic, or compared his technique to substandard players.

Confirmation bias is deeply ingrained in how our brains work. We simply do not know why something appeals to us. Since this process is unconscious, knowing about the bias offers no protection from falling for it. You cannot change what you have no control over. Nevertheless, our minds readily supply a reason when asked for one, which is what makes this bias insidious.

Mitigating confirmation bias is crucial. We can guard against it by instituting statistical systems that aren’t fooled by these biases. Back in 2010, the system used by the Houston Rockets had pointed out that Jeremy Lin was an exceptional athlete, but the teams decision makers had overruled it. Another means to mitigate a bias is through diversity. When we work with people of diverse backgrounds, the individual biases that they bring could be mitigated in aggregate decisions.

In 2012, just before Jeremy Lin sparked the “Linsanity” movement, the New York Knicks had thought of releasing him. Lin, a Harvard graduate, had decided to quit basketball if he was released. A lucky break came in to rescue his career and gave us one of the athletic players in the NBA from the clutches of the most insidious bias that dictates how our minds perceive the world.

Inspiration: The Undoing Project – Michael Lewis

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