Saturday, September 29, 2012

Upon Further Review

According to the 2004 film Finding Neverland, the original director of the Peter Pan stage play, fearful of a lack of reaction by staid Victorian audiences, brought in children from orphanages to seed the audience.  When the children clapped and cheered wildly, the older folks followed suit.  Unfortunately, the Internet tells me that this is pure artistic embellishment.  Audiences loved the play without any external psychological prodding.

But I don't doubt that in the event it had been necessary, such a ploy would have been successful.  The famous Asch conformity experiments of the 1950s showed that people will almost always alter their perception if they feel that the are out of step with a majority.  It's not that they change their minds, it is that they literally change their understanding of what their senses apprehend.  The authors of the book Scorecasting actually attribute much of the home field/court advantage in sports to officials being unconsciously influenced by  home crowds.

Of course, being a Green Bay Packers fan, I would see evidence of such an influence in last Monday night's already historically infamous outcome.  Naively, I wasn't stressed out when the officials first indicated a touchdown for Seattle on the game's last play.  Knowing that all scoring plays are now reviewed on instant replay, I was fully confident the call would be overturned.  So when my confidence was shattered, I was left looking for explanations.  How can someone be that incompetent-- to assert something as true when there was "incontrovertible visual evidence" to the contrary?  Clearly, the referee was not the best at assessing what had been happening at "game speed," but could he really be that bad at judging slow-motion replay?

Clearly, his ability to perceive had been altered by the environment he was in.  In addition to attempting to judge the outcomes that had already occurred, he was clearly conscious of the outcomes that could result from his assessment of the replay.  The Seattle fans were cheering deliriously, convinced that their team had won.  A principle of psychology is that it is always harder to give up something that you think you already have than to miss out on something you never counted on (which is why games that involve blowing a big lead always feel worse than games where you rally but come up just short, even though they are both losses).  Seventy thousand people would have blown up in (irrational) anger had the call been overturned.  Never mind the millions of people who blew up on Twitter, the immediate context governed the official's mindset.

But the millions of people on Twitter did end up having an effect.  I have seen some people argue that the deal that was reached this week between the NFL and the regular officials could not have been the result of public pressure.  This sentiment rests on the notion that NFL fans are essentially a captive audience, that no amount of poor officiating could turn their eyeballs from their TV sets.  But as I previously discussed in relation to NBC's coverage of the Olympics, there is a psychological cost to bad P.R. that wears on those who have no concrete fiduciary incentive to make concessions.  Bill Simmons argued the same in a recent column for Grantland: "as soon as the commissioner and these owners were put in the position of dreading interactions with everyday people, this was over. So I'd argue that we DID have leverage, and we used it the old-fashioned way."

But Simmons is still privileging immediate physical interaction as the context that normalizes perception.  As our interactions become increasingly mediated by technology, I wonder to what extent the principles of crowd influence will need to be examined and reevaluated.  For a couple of generations now, television has made events accessible to mass audiences, but only in the last few years have they truly become communally shared events.   And just as people have long looked to others to validate their perceptions, people are now turning to the digital crowd.  What that means is still being worked out, but perhaps we can hope for a day when it is truly impossible for anyone to "seed" a desired response, and perhaps we can hope for a day when officials (in all walks of life) will be influenced by more than just the sentiments of the immediate crowd.


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