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Monday, August 4, 2014

NFL Players Aren't As Bad As You Probably Think

I've written previously about how what social psychologists call "heuristics" guide (usually unconsciously) the conclusions we draw. One, for example, is priming, which is where our subsequent actions are affected by prior cues. For example, in an experiment students at New York University were asked to assemble four-word sentences from a set of five words. For one set of students, the scrambled words included words associated with being elderly (e.g., “forgetful,” “Florida,” “wrinkle”), and when they were asked to walk to a room down the hall, those who had assembled sentences using "elderly" words walked more slowly than those who had not. Anchoring is another. Most of us make our judgments in comparison to alternatives. For example, a $25 bottle of wine seems expensive next to $5 bottles but cheap next to $150 ones.

Still another is the availability heuristic. This is the tendency to make judgements about the frequency of an event based on how easy it is to recall similar instances. As the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman notes (Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 130),
A salient event that attracts your attention will be easily retrieved from memory. Divorces among Hollywood celebrities and sex scandals among politicians attract much attention, and instances will easily come to mind. You are therefore likely to exaggerate the frequency of both Hollywood divorces and political sex scandals.
This heuristic explains why most people probably overestimate how often professional football players are arrested. In fact, a recent study by FiveThirtyEight ("The Rate of Domestic Violence Arrests Among NFL Players") found that the arrest rate for NFL players is much lower compared to national averages for men in their age range, as the graphic below illustrates:


The blue dots indicate the rate for NFL players; the red dots indicate the national average. For almost all types of arrests, the NFL rate are lower than the national average (i.e., the blue dots are to the left of the red dots). These results may prove to be an inconvenient truth for those who dislike professional sports, but they are what they are.

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