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The impact of Confirmation Bias in athletes

The impact of Confirmation Bias in athletes

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

Have you ever wondered why we think the way we do? Whether there are special factors that guide our thoughts or our behaviour? Well, cognitive biases may play a role in this.

These are the shortcuts our brains take to allow us to process information more quickly. However, sometimes these shortcuts can lead to flawed decision making, which can really minimise an athlete’s performance. That’s why it’s important to consider how they can influence thoughts and behaviours.

Whilst there are many different types of biases that can impact athletes and coaches, researchers have shone a light on a specific one that seems to underlie them all: the Confirmation Bias. So, it only makes sense to take a deeper look into it and its impact in sports…

What is Confirmation Bias?

Confirmation Bias refers to the tendency to selectively seek, interpret and remember information that supports pre-existing beliefs.

For example, imagine that a coach believes that all dancers are good at high jump. Whenever this coach sees a person that is both a dancer and good at high jump, they will tend to place more importance on this “evidence” as it supports what they already believe.

There are three main ways that people can display Confirmation Bias:

  1. Biased search for information – This type of bias occurs when individuals such as athletes or even supporters actively seek out positive evidence that supports their expectations.
  2. Biased interpretation of information – This occurs when the same information is presented to people such as athletes, supporters or even coaches but is interpreted differently.
  3. Biased recall of information – This bias occurs when Confirmation Bias impacts how you remember past performances or experiences, which can influence perceptions and judgements.

Different types of Confirmation Bias and how they link to sports

Now we know the three forms that Confirmation Bias can take, let’s look at how the influence this can have in sports…

1. The Halo and Horns Effect – Biased search for information

This occurs when evaluators let a single positive trait or outstanding performance of an athlete overshadow other aspects of performance. For example, if a basketballer has incredible speed, coaches may overlook other areas of weakness, which could lead to an overestimation of the athlete’s overall ability.

The complete reverse of the Halo Effect is the Horns Effect. For example, if a netballer has one bad match, their teammates may view them negatively from then on, even if they have had good matches before. That one bad match becomes the dominant factor in the evaluation. It leads to individuals being judged in an unfair manner and therefore impacts how they are viewed as an athlete. Research shows factors such as team identification can influence this.

2. Self-Serving Bias and Locus of Control – Biased interpretation of information

This type of bias occurs when athletes attribute their successes to internal factors and their failures to external factors. It has strong correlations with the psychological spectrum referred to as the “Locus of Control”. This is how much control an athlete believes they have over the outcome of a situation.

There are two ends to the Locus of Control spectrum: internal and external Locus of Control. If an athlete has an internal Locus of Control, they believe the outcome of performance is within their control. They will usually attribute their performance to stable factors such as:

However, if an athlete has an external Locus of Control, they believe the outcome of performance is outside of their control. They will usually attribute their performance to unstable factors such as:

  • Luck or fate
  • Weather
  • The referee
  • Injury

Athletes with a Self-Serving Bias attribute their successes to internal factors and attribute their failures to external factors. This helps them to protect their self-esteem by maintaining a positive image and avoiding feelings of failure. However, this bias does have its negative consequences. It can stop athletes from taking responsibility for their own mistakes which prevents them from identifying areas of improvement which hinders their personal growth.

3. Selective Recall Bias – Biased memory recall of information

With this bias, many tend to minimise the less favourable performances and remember the more favourable ones. For example, think of England at the football World Cup. Many supporters will tend to remember 1966 when they won, and not 1950 when they failed to advance from the group stages.

This type of bias could be influenced by various factors such as:

  • Personal biases
  • Emotional attachment to a team or athlete
  • The desire to maintain a positive self-image

Whilst this type of bias can provide a confidence boost for athletes through reminiscing on their past successes and achievements, it can also lead to an increase in performance pressure. Athletes may feel the need to replicate their previous outstanding performances leading to an increase in stress and performance anxiety.

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6 tips to avoid Confirmation Bias

So, we’ve learnt all about how these different biases can impact athlete performance, coach decision making and spectator behaviour, but how can we avoid this? Here are a few tips to help you out:

  1. Seek different perspectives to broaden your understanding.
  2. Use a range of sources to make judgements and avoid relying on just one.
  3. Consider alternative outlooks to expand your thinking such as different training methods and tactical strategies.
  4. Question the origins of your assumptions and evaluate their effectiveness in your sport.
  5. Remain open to changing your assumptions based on new information. This can be done by engaging in team discussions or collaborating with coaches and other athletes.
  6. Embrace a Growth Mindset by remaining open to new information and adjusting strategies based on evolving practices and sports science.

Final thoughts

Confirmation Bias is a strong bias that affects how we understand things in sports. It can make us believe things that aren’t true and stop us from thinking clearly. But don’t worry! Implementing these principles can enhance your understanding and help you learn how to overcome Confirmation Bias.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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