The brain and betting: How belief bias and confirmation bias makes you see and hear what you want to see and hear, creating your very own “echo chamber”.
Earlier blog posts on mental mistakes have uncovered that the human mind has its flaws. Basic patterns in our brains, who are originally designed to help us survive, evolve and reproduce at any cost, cloud our judgment and impact our ability to make rational decisions.
This can obviously be a challenge when sports betting, playing poker or making financial decisions.
Two such mental flaws are belief bias and confirmation bias, which are both fairly similar. In this article we’ll look at how our existing beliefs and values makes us interpret information subjectively rather than have an open mind – and we seem almost powerless to stop this from happening.
A cognitive bias is, according to Wikipedia, a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment. Thus, humans tend to make decisions or take action based on irrationality. In the article series “The brain and betting” Netbots Norway explore these cognitive biases and how they might affect decision making in gambling.
Belief bias makes you immune to criticism
We tend to automatically defend our ideas and views without really questioning them, making us immune to criticism even if it’s logic and valid.
Belief bias is, according to Wikipedia, an extremely common flaw in the human mind. It is described as the tendency to accept arguments that support a conclusion that aligns with a person’s values, beliefs and prior learning, while rejecting counter arguments due to the same reasons.
In practice this means that your existing beliefs, outlook on life and previous experiences clouds your judgment when evaluating objective information. This also means that you will accept arguments that lead to a conclusion you agree with, even though you do not even understand or see the logic in the arguments.
Religious and even political beliefs can play a strong part in belief bias. Most of us have encountered people who make totally irrational decisions and conclusions based on religious beliefs. In these covid-19 times the widespread resistance to vaccines can be another example, as large groups of people are so skeptical of vaccines that objective research on the topic does not affect their view at all.
Belief bias is often exploited in mass communication such as politics and marketing. A politician can focus strongly on providing results that people like to hear about, such as decreasing unemployment or building more hospitals. This will typically be accepted by many people even though there might not be any realistic plan on how to achieve these goals. Likewise, marketing often focuses on what people want, such as being popular or successful; carefully overlooking that a pair of shoes or a brand of shampoo probably won’t help either your popularity nor your success.
Confirmation bias is the echo chamber in your mind
Confirmation bias is the tendency to treat information in a way that supports your existing beliefs. Basically, you see and hear what you want to see and hear.
Or, as Wikipedia describes it, “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.” People have a habit of accepting information that supports their existing views while ignoring info that does not. Also, people are often less critical of dubious news sources that support their opinion while overly critical of sources of information that do not.
This sounds similar to the belief bias and we’ll look at the differences later in this article, but confirmation bias seems more researched. Some explanations given for this bias is simply wishful thinking, the limitations of the human brain to process information and the stress of being wrong. Sometimes it is just easier to accept a conclusion that you made previously rather than doing a neutral and scientific assessment that might lead to a change of opinion and even the forced admittance of error.
In social media you typically get lots of fuel for your confirmation bias because you and the social media algorithms both work actively to provide you with only information you agree with, leading to the so-called “echo chamber” where opposing views are filtered out.
One form of confirmation bias is biased search. You are on the lookout for information to support a purchase, investment or some other important decision, but what you’re really looking for is not objective information but rather “evidence” to support your existing opinion. This can affect even scientists looking to prove something, as topics and questions that would really test the conclusions being proved are overlooked or given less value.
Biased search transitions into biased interpretation, and you can quite often see two individuals interpret the same piece of information very differently. For example, a married couple might disagree on the need of buying a new car. The person wanting a new car will probably search for information highlighting the benefits of driving a modern car and everything he/she finds, for example on road safety or yearly cost, will be interpreted in a way that supports the purchase. The other partner in the couple will do the opposite, looking for information that supports driving an older car and even creating a calculation that shows the financial benefits.
What are the key differences between the two?
Reading the above you might fail to see the differences between belief bias and confirmation bias, and they are subtle. The important thing is to be aware of how your brain treats information.
One could say that belief bias is the phenomenon of maintaining existing beliefs when faced with new information, while confirmation bias involves how you look for and treat information in order to support existing beliefs. As mentioned, the differences between the two are subtle.
How do these biases affect your sports betting decisions?
As the two biases are so similar we will treat them as one in this paragraph – as for practical purposes in sports betting they both affect how we obtain, interpret and use information. Whether you place or accept bets.
It’s very common in sports betting to have a gut feeling about a bet and then treat all information about that event to suit your gut feeling. For example, you might have a strong feeling about the odds offered on Liverpool to win at home versus Leicester. When you start looking for more information, you underestimate the problematic injury concerns in Liverpool while putting too much weight into Leicester missing a rarely used striker. Your brain might even consider Liverpool a better option than Leicester just because Liverpool have a bigger name in world football and more championships. The mind is desperate to sort and categorize information, and back in the days it was crucial to survival. Your brain prefers information that does not change.
Many “betting experts” are prone to this, recommending a bet to their followers and then providing only the reasoning that speaks for the bet, neglecting to post any info that could have a negative impact on the expected outcome.
When receiving new information, always take it seriously and consider how this impacts your decision. Let’s say you have decided to put a bet on Juventus playing at home to AC Milan, because AC Milan are missing their talismanic striker Zlatan. It looks a great bet and you’re looking forward to the match, but right before you place the bet it’s known that Zlatan has a certain chance of playing. How do you deal with this information? Even though Zlatan was so essential in analysing the match to make a bet, you might have found so many supportive arguments for betting on Juventus (because confirmation bias has made you look for supporting information rather than objective info) that you will place the bet anyway.
What can you do?
It’s general advice for gamblers, poker players and sports bettors to try to take emotion out of it as much as possible. Keeping a cool and open mind is essential when dealing with information making decisions such as placing bets or investment, focusing on logic and facts rather than feelings and emotions.
By all means use your experience, but remember that learning from experience might be a wolf in sheep’s clothing as you are prone to lots of biases including belief and confirmation bias. It helps tremendously to be aware of this and constantly question why you think the way you do.
For example, if you’ve grown up in England in the 1990s you will probably have a gut reaction that Manchester United is the greatest football team in the world, and even though they have fallen far from that position now it can be difficult to make your mind adjust to that fact. Be aware why you make decisions, writing down your reasoning and being especially aware if there’s something illogical based on beliefs, experience or history that creeps in and disturbs your decision-making.
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Lars Dybwad has a passion for sports betting and worked for five years as the “betting expert” in Dagbladet, Norway’s second largest newspaper. Dybwad is not a native English speaker and hopes you find his command of the English language charming rather than annoying.