Commitment Bias

The buzz among college basketball fans today was the play that happened at the end of the Univeristy of North Carolina - Duke University game yesterday. With the outcome no longer in doubt, Duke player Gerald Henderson's elbow connected with UNC player Tyler Hansbrough's nose. Duke is in dark blue; UNC is in white.

While the play itself is noteworthy for its blood and gore, what I want to talk about is commentator Billy Packer's reaction. He's not the guy heard speaking at the beginning of the clip, but rather chimes in a few seconds later with, "And you know he's a tough guy..." Even though many college basketball fans think Packer long ago lost his abilities as a commentator, I maintained that he was one of the few who added something to any telecast he covered. He's a guardian of the game, someone I respected for his analytical skills and basketball knowledge. Yet, he completely whiffed in his reaction to the play.

My argument depends on whether or not Henderson intentionally elbowed Hansbrough. I think it's clear that he did. I don't think Henderson set out to elbow Hansbrough from the beginning, but when he was up in the air, and contact with the ball was no longer a possibility, frustration took over and he took whatever he could get. For a split second, you can see him look at Hansbrough's face. He wanted his elbow to make contact with something. FWIW, about 95% of people I talked to and read on the internet today agree. That's also what the referees decided.

Yet Packer's reaction was something akin to what Robert Cialdini described in the chapter "Commitment and Consistency" in Influence. The play is difficult to pick apart without watching the replay at least a couple of times and in slow motion, but Packer formed his opinion before a good replay had been shown. Once committed to his opinion that the play was unintentional, every further replay could only serve to maintain consistency with that commitment. All new evidence simply reinforced his existing view that the play was unintentional. His disbelief only grew stronger. What resulted was someone denying reality as it happened. Watch the clip.

Why does commitment bias exist? Why do people tend to stay the course after taking a position? According to Cialdini, it's for the same reason we tend to keep promises and honor prior engagements: consistency is generally a highly beneficial personality trait. The downside to this tendency to follow-through with our commitments is that we're often biased from our initial judgments. If those initial judgments are wrong, we act foolishly.

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