Jun 18, 2010

blind spots

When I first joined McKinsey we had an off site team building exercise.  One of those outdoor, teamwork, trust your colleagues kind of deals.  One of the exercises was to pass each teammate through two wires strung horizontally without touching the wires.  One wire was 3 feet off the ground and the other was about 4 1/2 feet off the ground.  It was a tough exercise.  Once you had players on each side it was easy to pick one person up and pass them through.  But the first person across and the last person across was hard.  If you failed you started over again.

The first time we tried we ended up hitting the wire quite obviously.  We started over.  This time we made it all the way through.  We all congratulated ourselves.  Then the instructor said, "you hit the wire."  There was some grumbling of disagreement. "You hit the wire and I know that you and you saw it", he said pointing to two people.  The fact was we ALL saw it.  It was a minor brush.  Very slight.  But we hit the wire.  And we all saw it because we were all focused on the task at hand.  But no one said anything.  No one.

The whole point of this exercise was that it was virtually impossible to get through without hitting the wire.  And very often the mistake is so slight that everyone gives themselves a pass.  I'll never forget it because I compartmentalized the error.  Pushed it off into my subconscious brain.  No one else said anything so why should I?  Starting over was too painful.  It was a lesson in courage and brain hardwiring and speaking up.

Today there was lots of outrage over a referee calling back a US goal against Slovenia that would have won the game for them.  I haven't seen an explicit confirmation why the goal was called back but after viewing the clip I made the quick judgment that it was an offsides call.  The kicker was close to being offsides but undeniably NOT offsides.  (FIFA has since forced the removal of the clip on YouTube).

Before hitting play I had read the article which was critical of the officiating and was arguing this was such an egregiously bad call that technology should be brought to bear.  I had already at this point planted in my head that I was going to see a terrible officiating call.

I watched the clip and thought, "What an idiot ref.  They were robbed".  I then read more of the article that accompanied the post and also read some vitriolic comments about the ref.  Then I went back and watched it again.  "Unbelievable!  How blind is that guy?"

I was all ready to move on except something was bugging me.  And I knew what it was.  That "it" was sitting in my brain slightly cordoned off from my consciousness. Sufficiently separated that it didn't affect my thinking while reading and watching the entry but not sufficiently separated that it didn't cause some tension in my brain.

So what was "it"?

"It" was a guy on the US team that was slightly out of the primary viewing area.  Namely he wasn't involved in the ball play at all.  But your eyes cross his path as the ball is centered from the outside towards the guy who ultimately makes the shot.  This player was farther ahead than the goal scorer.  In other words he was the top candidate for being offsides.  But I didn't really look at him.  I was spending more time looking at the goal kicker.  Even on the replay.  Using the data to reinforce my unverified belief that it was a terrible call.  In my head I was anxious to see some serious ineptitude.

But that nagging feeling wouldn't leave.  Since I knew what it was I went back and looked at the play again.  this time focusing on that player I was actively ignoring before.  And I also was actively looking for where the ref was and how good his positioning was to see the call.

It turns out the ref was PERFECTLY positioned.  He had a straight view right down the line. And the player not involved in the play?  Well he was certainly ahead of the player who was guarding him.  There was another player farther back (behind the incidental and primary players) that was the 'last' man they had to stay behind.  And you know what?  It's impossible to tell.  It does look like maybe he was not offsides.  But the angle of the camera is slightly wrong.  It's not as good as the refs.  It's tough to draw the imaginary line at the defensive player.  But either way it is close.  It's not an obviously bad call.

I had almost fallen prey to the preconditioning my brain had had due to the reading and the surety with which the author had written about this terrible call.  This is the same thing I had succumbed to in the McKinsey exercise.  The brain just loves to shut down data that doesn't conform with your worldview.  But I feel it is terribly important to get your brain to knock that shit off.  Another reminder for me that being objective is an uphill, effortful job.

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