OPINION21 April 2016

What Amen Corner tells us about behavioural economics

Behavioural science Opinion UK

Market researchers can learn the lessons from sport and how unconscious processes are affected by extreme stress. By Richard Smith.

Golf ball

Like many sports enthusiasts, I was watching coverage of the Masters golf on BBC2 at the weekend but at around 10pm I decided it was time to hit the sack. Spieth was clearly going to win by at least five shots having birdied the past three holes.

Waking up the next morning and finding out that he’d actually dropped six shots over the course of the next three holes and lost the tournament was surprising to say the least.

What happens when sportsmen seemingly ‘choke’; do the wrong thing when you’d think it would be a lot simpler for them to do the right thing?

One theory is that under extreme stress they try to use their conscious mind to take control of processes which (for them) are so well rehearsed that they have become unconscious processes. In the language of behavioural economics, they are trying to perform a system 1 activity using system 2. On that painful third shot where he hit the ball into the water for the second time, Jordan Spieth was so focused on managing every element of his technique to land the ball safely on the green that he ended up doing the one thing he was desperate to avoid.

While we tend to think of system 2 as ‘us being clever’, in reality this mode is slow and uses up a lot more mental energy. Recently I read an article on PowerPoint presentation best practice in which it said that one should never have more than six items on a slide – on the basis that the brain can instantly register up to six items, but has to consciously count where there are seven or more items present. It struck me that one could refer to this as the ‘dice’ principle, in that when a single dice stops rolling we don’t need to count the dots one by one.

What does this mean for researchers?

  1. We need to avoid expecting too much rational (system 2 ) thinking of respondents. It’s counter-productive (tiring), and does not reflect how they think or behave in the real world
  2. If we ask respondents to break down a complex process (such as a shopping journey) that they largely perform beyond conscious awareness, at best we’ll get a synthesis (the ball in the water) of what they normally do in a real situation
  3. The pressure to perform (on both moderators and respondents) can induce behaviour that is unnatural and unrepresentative of what normally happens
  4. AND finally...when data is interesting it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong…sport shows us that the favourite doesn’t always win.

 Richard Smith is director at BDRC Continental


1 Comment

8 years ago

Great observation. I think the same thing happens in high pressure penalty shoot outs. Players go back to System 2 thinking, instead of just naturally kicking the ball without thinking about it . . .

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