Abundant ink has been spilled on the subject of Pete Carroll’s decision to pass on 2nd down from the 1 yard line in the Super Bowl two Sundays ago. Some have come out and bombastically stated that it was the WORST CALL IN SUPER BOWL HISTORY!! Others have concluded that, in fact, Carroll was entirely justified in the decision he made.

Now, this commentary won’t focus on whether the play call was justified. If you’re looking for that I can refer to a couple of people who have done way more analysis than I am willing to do on the matter and you can read their posts here, here, and here.

What I want to focus on is something far more universal: how we, as humans, are designed to reconcile our initial emotional response to a situation when subsequently presented with conflicting factual evidence. Carroll’s decision is the perfect example of a situation that has evoked a particularly strong opinion that has subsequently been corrected by thoughtful investigation.

If I’m honest, my first reaction to Pete Carroll’s decision to pass was that Carroll was a goat, a choke artist, and a guy who is too smart for his own good and has no business being an NFL coach (or something like that).

I also may have sent off an email to some football crazed colleagues first thing Monday morning with the subject line “Pete Carroll is a fool.” My logic went, “how could a guy with arguably the most powerful running back in the NFL choose to pass on the one yard line with 26 seconds left and one timeout remaining after said running back just gashed the Patriots defense with a six-yard run that put them on the goal line?”

And, more importantly, how could any reasonably knowledgeable football fan think any differently?

You can imagine then how badly my ego was gutted when the first reply I received on the matter started with the words “Don’t believe the hype” and then proceeded to explain why the play call was, in fact, justified, and why analyzing these things by focusing on outcomes was, in fact, “a losers game for the feeble minded.” (emphasis mine).

Needless to say, I was shocked and appalled (and apparently feeble minded) that anyone could disagree with my indictment of Pete Carroll’s play call, especially from a colleague who had actually played professional football!

And then the evidence started to pour in:

  • Seattle wanted to use all of the clock (26 seconds) and use its three plays and there was no way, with one timeout left, that they could run the ball three times – they could only run the ball twice, at most.
  • In the 2014-15 season teams threw 66 TD’s with 1 INT on passes from the 1-yard line. That 1 INT was by, you guessed it, Malcolm Butler two Sundays ago (ie no one had been intercepted throwing from the 1 yard line until Russell Wilson threw the game-ending interception last Sunday).
  • Passing from the 1-yard line resulted in touchdown conversions 60.9% of the time, as opposed to 57.1% for running the ball in 2014-15.

I could go on and list more of these points, but I think you get the idea. There was enough evidence to support the view that passing the ball at some point in the three play sequence was – even if not optimal – at the very least defensible.

Still, despite all the evidence, I desperately wanted to cling to my initial belief that Pete Carroll was a fool. And yet I couldn’t.

And therein lies the problem of coming to such strong, emotional, and steadfast conclusions about anything, whether it be football or investing. Every situation, and the truth surrounding it, is colored with many shades of grey. More importantly, these emotional positions prevent you from seeing any of the grey that might help you develop a true and full understanding.

In fact, there is a name for this; it’s called cognitive dissonance. Put simply, cognitive dissonance is a psychological condition wherein a human being holds two or more contradictory beliefs. The fact that the beliefs are contradictory creates an intense discomfort within the person and causes them to actively avoid information that contradicts their initial belief.

Unfortunately, it is precisely the consideration of contradictory evidence that actually allows us to develop a more thorough understanding.

Investors succumb to this behavioral shortcoming constantly and this psychological process binds people to specific narratives or investment methodologies that hold them hostage even as the facts struggle to set them free.

You see, it is downright impossible to make rational decisions (or anything that might resemble a rational decision) when in the throes of an emotional response. I know this because it happens to everyone, including myself, and this Super Bowl incident is the perfect reminder that we are all susceptible to it and would do well to be on the lookout for emotions that sabotage our rational cognitive functioning.

At the end of the day I’m not feeble-minded, or a fool. I was simply born with the same faulty cognitive wetware as everyone else. And it is small events like this that serve as a reminder of the insidiousness of our lizard brains.


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