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How to Pick a Winner: A Psychological Trick to Improve the Odds

How to Pick a Winner: A Psychological Trick to Improve the Odds post image
Does thinking too specifically about a bet make you more likely to lose?

I’m not, as they say, a betting man; but if I were I’d put down the form book and spend my time studying a new paper by Yoon et al. (2013) published in Psychological Science.

The Korean researchers are fascinated by the question of whether thinking more carefully about a bet can actually make you less likely to win.

In their first test of the idea they looked at 1.9 billion bets placed on baseball and soccer through a Korean company called “Sports ToTo”. They wanted to see how people did when betting just on who won compared with when they tried to predict the exact score.

Obviously getting the final score right is harder than just predicting the outcome; but when you guess the score, you are also predicting the outcome.

What they found was that across all the games, when people made a bet on the score they won 42.2% of the time, but when they just tried to predict the outcome they were right 44.4% of the time.

Not a massive difference admittedly and it could just be a statistical anomaly or something to do with the way people bet through this company. So they then took this finding to the lab to see if they could replicate it under controlled conditions…

The experiments

Participants in three experiments made predictions on the 2010 World Cup, the 2012 European Football Championship and the 2011 Asian Cup. For each event, half the participants tried to predict the score, while the other half just tried to predict the outcome.

This time the superiority of just predicting the outcome rather than the exact score was clearer. On the World Cup performance went up from 41.4% for the exact sore to 46.5% for the outcome; on the European Championship it went up from 47.8% to 53.5% and on the Asian cup it went up from 45.8% to 50.4%.

In other words people predicting just the outcome rather than the score increased their chances of being correct by about 5%.

Think global

What’s going on here? Why do people do better at calling these matches when they just predict the score rather than being more specific?

The researchers think it’s essentially because by trying to be too specific, we trip ourselves up. For example when you try to guess the score of a soccer match, you are more likely to focus on specific factors like the form of the striker, their goalie’s recent divorce settlement or the colour of the manager’s shirt. In doing so you neglect the fact that the match is an away fixture.

When you just try to predict the outcome of the match, though, you’ll tend to take a more global view. This encourages you to concentrate mainly on really important factors.

So, will these results generalise to other decisions outside sporting events? Is it better not to think too specifically about a job candidate’s skill-set or a potential partner’s Toby jug collection?

Who knows? But it’s a nice example of when concentrating too much on specific details gets in the way of effective decision-making. And we’ve all done that.

Image credit: Roger Price