Confirmation Bias and the Sweater Vest

If you live in Columbus, Ohio then you know there was no bigger story than last week’s revelation that Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel admitted knowing about some rules infractions by his players nearly a year ago. If you don’t live in Columbus it’s still likely you’ve heard the story or read about it in the news. And for those outside of the United States think of one of the most revered coaches you know then imagine that person caught in a scandal that seems to go against everything you know about his or her character.
Jim Tressel is known sometimes called “the vest” because he’s brought the sweater vest back into style, at least in Columbus, Ohio. By way of quick review, Jim Tressel has been the head football coach at The Ohio State University for a decade and his success exceeds even the great Woody Hayes’ in many respects. Having won the Big Ten title seven times, including an unprecedented six times in a row, the Buckeyes have played in eight BCS games, three national championships and won the national championship in 2002. You would be hard pressed to find a coach more successful on the field and yet for all the on the field success many would say Tressel’s off the field accomplishments have been even more impressive. His charity work, fund raising and focus on developing young men into good, productive citizens have been held in high regard by all those who know him. It’s not uncommon to hear people say, “If I had a son I’d want him to play for Coach Tressel.”But this post is not so much about Jim Tressel and the controversy he finds himself in right now as it is the reaction to the news. It’s fierce from both sides – loyal supporters of Jim Tressel and Buckeye Nation and those who are glad to see the coach and program tarnished. I’ve read the new stories, Facebook posts, Tweets, etc., and it made me think about a psychological principle I thought would be good to explore — confirmation bias.Confirmation bias is nothing more than the term we use to describe the reality that most people look for information that confirms current beliefs or places more emphasis on information that confirms their current thinking. For example:

  • Republican supporters will look for any and all reasons that Democratic initiatives are wrong, bad or could be better. By the way, Democrats view Republican initiatives through the same distorted lenses.
  • Criminal prosecutors start with the thought that the person they’re prosecuting is guilty and look for information to build that case. Of course, defense lawyers take the opposing stand.
  • When it comes to race, religion and sex we all have preconceived ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, and that shades how we view those who are different than we are.

We’re selective in what we choose to consider and how much weight we put on certain information when it comes to decision making. In the case of the Jim Tressel news story, for those who’ve observed the coach for a decade or more his actions seem inconsistent with previous actions and stated values. It’s only natural to then search for a reason that explains such behavior.On the opposite side, for people who either dislike the Ohio State program or hold a belief that cheating goes on in all highly successful sports programs they come from a position where they don’t look to his prior actions and ask, “Why?” because they place more weight on anything that appears to confirm the belief that everyone cheats in big time sports programs.The goal of this post is not to convince anyone of innocence or the guilt of Jim Tressel because in the coming weeks and months we will hear and see more information. The point is to make us all aware of the reality that we’re impacted by confirmation bias every day and knowing that, if we want to make the best decisions possible, then we need to take this psychological principle into account as we process information. Simply put, we would do well to occasionally try to put ourselves on the other side of the issue.

  • Republicans and Democrats each have agendas and voters to satisfy but with the government gridlock we see I’m willing to bet the average American would like to see the two sides work together more to push agendas that would benefit more Americans. How much could it hurt if each side looked for what’s right in the other side’s proposal?
  • Prosecutors don’t get paid to let criminals go but it would be nice to see fewer innocent people go to jail. Likewise, defense attorneys don’t want their clients to go to jail but we’d all be better off if a few more criminals were off the streets.
  • When it comes to race, religion or sex, we would do well to try to understand those who are not like us rather than focusing differences.

One thing I’ve learned over time is when I do try to understand the other side rather than just convince them of my rightness or their wrongness they seem to open up. People appreciate being heard and that leads to interesting dialog.When it comes to Jim Tressel and the situation he finds himself in, only time and the revelation of more information will allow for a final decision. For most of us his situation will not impact our relationships with loved ones or the ability to put food on the table. No, it’s mostly fodder for social media, talk radio and debate at the lunch table. Having said that, it’s not insignificant if we allow it to change us in a positive way and I think one way is to make us stop and consider our own confirmation bias.Brian, CMCT
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.

2 replies
  1. Cheri Allbritton
    Cheri Allbritton says:

    Very thoughtful post Brian and I agree. I believe more people would like to see two opposing sides get together to find solutions to issues and problems. As far as Coach Tressel goes, he may have made a bad judgement call in this instance but only he knows the reason why he kept quiet. Everyone else is only guessing. It's a shame in our society today that all good works suddenly mean absolutely nothing in the face of a situation that could have been or not unseemly. Does this mean he has less influence as a coach and community leader? Will he less inspiring? Only time will tell, but shame on us for speculating about details of a situation to the point of tarnishing not only Coach Tressel's reputation but the reputations of the Athletic Director and the University President for standing behind him.

  2. Brian
    Brian says:

    Unfortunately I think he will be less influential because his authority has been called into question. There will be people who won't pick up his book, doubt what he says, etc., because of this. As is the case with almost anything, there is opportunity for redemption. The public seems to have embraced Michael Vick for the most part so that tells me there's hope for anyone who has fallen from grace.


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