Friday, October 2, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance and College Football

I have to admit, from the very beginning, that this post isn't really about College Football. I am not currently in possession of a TV, nor do I have access to one, nor would I particularly have the time or motivation to watch one if I did. Therefore, I have watched only one college football game this season, and that was in person at Stanford Stadium (my second will be tomorrow, when the Cardinal play UCLA). I'm more concerned with expanding a little on this idea of "framing the discussion" (though that exact term won't show up here, the idea is present), since I've been thinking about it over the last couple days.

One of the purposes of asking questions, especially philosophical questions - and especially uncomfortable philosophical questions - is to broaden the spectrum of a conversation. We may all agree, in principle, how important education is, for example, but we are usually slow to consider what assumptions have lead us to that seemingly obvious conclusion (let alone to consider what we mean by "education" in the first place). Likewise, we may agree, in principle, in the value of a representational government without ever considering what the virtues and faults of such a government are, and how that form of government is influenced by outstanding circumstances like, for example, modern information technology. In general, most of what we do and think on a day to day basis is, ultimately, unexamined, even among the "well-educated." Ironically, we tend to become more automatic in fields that we know particularly well and use frequently. Driving, for example, is a fairly complex task that is essentially automatic, and how often do we contemplate the reasons for traffic laws?

That's a fairly mundane example, but the same goes for more intellectual pursuits, and more specialized fields of knowledge. Of course, one might say that PhDs of pure Philosophy avoid this by studying a question-oriented field, but that really seem to be the case, given the intense bickering and in-fighting that happens in Philosophy departments across the country (though limited funding and high competition for jobs might have something to do with that as well). Strong as the tendency to turn even the most complex thought-processes into repeatable and eventually unexamined habit is, the tendency to do so with already unexamined thoughts acquired merely by living in a society - that is, "conventional wisdom" - is even stronger. There are certain expectations that arise, not from any systematic decision that those expectations make sense, but by virtue of some long-lost and accidental situation, and these expectations dictate a substantial amount of our behavior.

The concept of cognitive dissonance, from what little I know about it, is something psychologists use to explain what happens when two of our ingrained intellectual habits come in conflict with each other. The basic idea is that, if you discover that something you really like (cheap prices) is closely related to something you really hate (draconian labor practices), your efforts to reconcile the two will lead to a compromise. As a result, you'll like or hate the objects in question just a little bit less, as you try to bring them somewhere closer together in your head.

There are plenty of examples of this concept at work, and if you pay attention, you might catch yourself doing it quite frequently (I know I do). The example I want to talk about is College Football polling. Cognitive dissonance is usually explained numerically, because a sliding, quanitative scale of likes and dislikes is an excellent heuristic tool. In the case of NCAA polls, however, the numbers involved are actual manifestations of the concept in action, albeit at a social and not personal level.

Since I now attend a Pac-10 school, I want to point to the dance that Washington, USC, and Stanford have participated in over the last few weeks. The perennial powerhouse USC lost to Washington - who went winless in 2008 - in week 2. USC had been ranked #3 (AP poll, that's the one I'm going to use), and Washington had understandibly been unranked. The outcome of that game was not enough to convince voters that USC is actually worse than Washington, but it was a kind of cognitive dissonance. As a result, USC dropped to #12 the next week, with Washington climbing into the top-25 at #24.

Unfortunately for the poll-voters, things are never that simple, and Washington was routed by the Cardinal last weekend, 34-14. Stanford is not ranked, and is not particularly thought to be that strong of a program. Of course, the voters took their cue here to drop Washington out of the top-25, but a few of them did - in a classic example of unexamined, reactive thinking - throw a couple of votes at Stanford, though not enough to breach the magical #25 barrier. The odd part about this is that USC jumped all the way back up to #7 at the same time. Extenuating circumstances aside, it's as if the voters decided that, really, USC isn't #12, and that they just kind of had a bad week in a tough stadium (Washington plays at one of the largest venues in the country). A little distance goes a long way in clarifying the real meaning of a terrible upset.

There's a similar example to step through involving California and Oregon, but we don't need to go there. Rather, the point is that there is a kind of unexamined assumption among fans of college football - an assumption originating largely from the way the sport is covered - that there is some mystical difference between a team that is #5 and a team that is #8, when in reality there is probably very little. The way that teams match-up against each other, where they play, who's injured, which coach has a better game plan, and whose kicker is hungover all have way more to do with which team wins a game - which team is "better" - than where teams sit in the polls. "Duh," you're probably saying, because we all see and hear about upsets all the time.

But my point isn't that upsets happen, or even that it makes sense that upsets should happen. My point is that, even though we all know that upsets happen and that's a part of the fun, we still buy into a ranking system that obviously does not and cannot function. Can you arrange 112 football teams linearly, from best to worst, in any meaningful way? Sure, we might all agree that USC is better than Louisiana Tech, but between USC and Louisiana Tech there are a bunch of teams that we don't agree about.* And that's the point; there is no meaningful and definitive way - even playing games - to determine which team is better than which. We complain about the BCS, but that's just a system for choosing two teams to play for a National Championship; if we chose four for a playoff, we'd have the same trouble, or if we chose eight, or sixteen. Even in NCAA Basketball, 65 isn't enough to satisfy people. And how often is the National Champion not, in reality, the consensus "best team?"

* (This is called a Posterisk - or at least, that's what Joe Posnanski calls it. Basically, it's an end note that doesn't happen at the end. Or maybe it's a footnote that occurs in the middle of the page because, really, there is no page for it to be at the bottom of.) For example, who's better, USC or Cal? Cal or Oregon? Oregon or Notre Dame? Notre Dame or Michigan? Michigan or Indiana? Indiana or Western Michigan? Western Michigan or Fresno State? Fresno State or Hawaii? Hawaii or Louisiana Tech? I don't follow the sport close enough to know of those are good examples, but I have a sense that you'd probably be able to argue both ways about each of those pairs, even though no one would argue that Louisiana Tech is better than USC.

The exercise is one in repetitive, habitual, and unexamined thinking. We feel the need to put things on a straight line because, really, that's just what we do. We see politics as being about left, center, and right. We see grades as being A to F. We see football teams as #1, #2, #3, and so on. We do all of this even though the reality we're dealing with - even in something as trivial and straightfoward as football - is way too complicated to fit in a single dimension (how much more so with politics or student assessment?). We open ourselves up to cognitive dissonance, and we let it work it's paradox-resolving sorcery, even though quick reflection would tell us that, just because Washington beat USC and Stanford beat Washington, that doesn't mean that Stanford should beat USC. So why should Stanford pick up votes? Is the subconscious that powerful? Is habit that strong?

It is quite common to hear about "thinking outside-the-box." In a way, we've even turned outside-the-box thinking into a linear phenomenon: "He's outside-the-box, but not as outside-the-box as she is!" We subject ourselves to the same vagaries of cognitive dissonance: "I thought he was pretty outside-the-box, but his solution to that problem was fairly uninspired, I guess he's not all that outside-the-box after all, and all that innovative thinking isn't all it's cracked up to be." Really, we don't need outside-the-box thinkers nearly so much as we need off-the-line thinkers. Right now, more often than not, we get stuck in one dimension. We'll deal with boxes once we get to three.

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