Why acknowledging the halo effect and availability heuristic can help you become a better bettor

Why acknowledging the halo effect and availability heuristic can help you become a better bettor

The vast majority of people who bet on sports are first and foremost fans of the particular sport in question. They are likely to have accumulated knowledge about tennis, football, rugby or athletics long before they sought to make money from their predictions about it. It is partly for this reason that many sports bettors rely on their intuition when it comes to backing their forecasts with money.

Relying on instant reactions or gut feelings can be useful when you are trying to work out if someone is annoyed with you. However, it is not an ideal tool to rely on in the world of sports betting – in part because of a phenomenon known as the halo effect. This term refers to a cognitive bias in which our (often incomplete) impression of a person affects what we think about their character. For instance, we are more likely to associate positive characteristics with a photograph of a good-looking, smiling individual in a magazine than someone who is scruffily dressed and scowling, even though we do not know anything at all about the personalities of the people in question.

Our brains are programmed to evaluate information quickly, which can lead us to rush to judgments that are not necessarily accurate or fair. If someone is told that Bob is intelligent, industrious, stubborn and envious, and that Tom is envious, stubborn, industrious and intelligent, they are more likely to have a favourable view of the former – even though the characteristics listed are exactly the same but merely written in reverse. We crave coherent narratives, so we are liable to hurriedly conclude that we would prefer to have a coffee with Bob than Tom, rather than carry out a more thorough (and accurate) assessment of their respective beings.

To take things back to the world of sports betting, let us swap the names of Bon and Tom for Manchester United and Manchester City, and the characteristics to results and performances. Our judgment becomes influenced by the order of the information, and the varying importance we attach to particular moments.

The availability heuristic is one such example – the easier an event is to recall, the more significant we are likely to treat it. And it is no coincidence that we tend to recall the events to which we had a strong emotional response, so an entertaining 5-4 win is more likely to stick with us than a 2-0 victory low on incident, even though the latter may have been a more complete performance.

Sticking with football, let us examine the case of the Brazil national team. Five-time world champions and winners of the Copa America, South America’s continental competition, on nine occasions, the Selecao are revered around the globe for both their success and their style. Most spectators thus have a favourable view of Brazil historically, but this could lead to them being overestimated ahead of a contemporary tournament.

Indeed, three of their World Cup triumphs came between 1958 and 1970, with the other two falling in 1994 and 2002. In the last four editions of the competition, they have reached only one semi-final – and that ended in a humiliating 7-1 defeat by Germany on home soil. Yet despite an average recent record, bettors will always back them to emerge victorious, partly because of the halo effect and the availability heuristic.

Confirmation bias also plays a role. Not every supporter or bettor will have been around to witness the exploits of Pele, Carlos Alberto et al. at the 1970 World Cup, but the media perpetuates the idea that Brazilian footballers are naturally more gifted than their counterparts from rival countries. This can lead to contemporary Selecao sides being overestimated, although that humbling loss to Germany five years ago may diminish or even end that perception.

The halo effect can also be seen when successful football players move into management. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and FrankLampard are genuine club legends at Manchester United and Chelsea respectively for what they did during their playing careers. However, the pair had no experience of top-level management before taking their current jobs at their former clubs. Even so, many recall the many positive moments they enjoyed while representing United and Chelsea in a previous capacity, and therefore overestimate what they might be able to do from the dugout in the present day.

The halo effect can also work the other way around. If you arrive at the hotel you have booked for a two-week stay and find no one is at reception, this can instantly set off negative thoughts in your mind – which can in turn affect your view of the accommodation for the remainder of the fortnight. In the betting world, a memorable bad showing can cause you to underestimate a team in the future because you discard the less recallable matches in which they performed well.

The order of events matters. When Rory McIlroy failed to capitalise on a four-shot lead in the final round of the US Masters in 2011, he was labelled a bottler by the media. Before the tournament he was one of the most highly-though-of names in the sport, but a memorable collapse on the big stage stuck with people going forward – much more so than the two majors he won subsequently. Had he posted his two victories first, then collapsed in the final round of the Masters, the overall view of his golfing ability would have been much more favourable.

Intuition is very important in real-world situations, but it is best to ignore it when you are engaged in betting. To do so, challenge your immediate, ‘gut feeling’ conclusion by searching for three counter-arguments, and always try to widen the data set as much as possible. Confront truisms and simplistic media assessments, and undertake your own objective analysis of a team or player, casting the net as wide as possible. If you follow these steps, you will be a more successful bettor in the long-term.


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