The Situationist

Archive for October 29th, 2007

The Situation of “Winners” and “Losers”

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on October 29, 2007

a-rod.jpgBaseball fans face a bit of a puzzle in making sense of the game’s greatest hitters. We’ll get to the puzzle, but, first, some background for the non-aficionados.

Question: who had the most homeruns this season?

The answer is Yankee third-baseman Alex Rodriguez, better known as A-Rod. He muscled 54 home runs during the regular season, a particularly impressive feat given that he plays in Yankee Stadium, which, with its deep left field, has historically been inhospitable to right-handed power hitters. Although the situation has seemed stacked against him power-wise, A-Rod thrived this year–much like he has every season. In fact, A-Rod recently became the youngest player in baseball history to reach 500 career homeruns and he is on track to smash the home-run records set and re-set by the likes of Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, and most recently Barry Bonds. In addition to going yaaarrrrrrd, A-Rod has led the league in runs scored, runs batted in, total bases, and extra-base hits. He also shares the MLB record for most home runs in the month of April, hitting 14 in 2007.

In short, A-Rod is a phenomenal player — arguably the best ever and certainly among the very best in his generation. At least in the regular season, that is.

You see, A-Rod, also known as “Mr. April through September,” has been notoriously unimpressive in the playoffs (though he showed glimmers of is regular-season greatness in this year’s post season). The stats confirm the perceptions and explain the collective disappointment among his home-team fans and the serious doubts relentlessly raised about his ability to hit in the biggest games, when it really matters. NY Post columnist Filip Bondy, for instance, recently lamented, “The same man who homered 54 times during the season hasn’t managed to loop the ball over the infielders’ heads even once.” Similarly, Yankees minority owner Barry Halper drew headlines a couple of years ago for asking, “An A-Rod experience? How about he hits a few balls through the infield in the postseason? That’s the kind of A-Rod experience I’d like.”

So why does A-Rod devolve from the best hitter in baseball to a black hole in the lineup, from MVP to MD[isappointing]P, when it comes playoff time? Does he just not care? Is he lazy? Does he lack the will to win?

Far from it. In fact, A-Rod is one of the most driven players in the game. As Kevin Kernan reported in the New York Post this summer: “Alex Rodriguez’s sprint to 500 home runs is not just about his incredible talent, it’s about work ethic, too. Rodriguez is not only the most talented player in baseball, he is the game’s hardest worker.” But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, another question and some more background.

So if A-Rod is a post-season home-run dud, who is the post-season dinger king?

being-manny.jpgRed Sox Nation proudly gives you none other than Manny Ramirez, the 2004 World Series MVP who already has 24 post-season homeruns (and counting), more than any other player in the sport’s history, and who leads all players in this year’s playoffs in home runs and runs batted in.

His at-plate prowess notwithstanding, Manny “Who Cares?” Ramirez, may be better known (often inaccurately, in our view) for laziness, detachment, and a lack Red Sox spirit. He’s the kind of player who, through slothful and apathetic base-running, turns a near home-run (and easily a two-bagger) into single, as he did in the AL Championship Series last week against Cleveland. Commentators and fans alike have an expression for his lah-ti-dah recalcitrance — it’s just “Manny being Manny.”

Manny was being Manny again last week when, with the team on the brink of elimination down 3 games to 1, the blasé bopper responded to a question about his team’s dire situation with his own questions: “Why should we panic?” In classic Manny-speak, he went on: “If it doesn’t happen, so who cares? There’s always next year. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.”

To many die-hard Red Sox fans (who know that “next year” may not come around for something closer to a century and who seem to think that planet’s very existence turns on the outcome of a baseball tournament), that sort of talk is barely forgivable. The reaction on sports radio and sports blogosphere was swift and merciless. Consider, for instance, comments by Chris Ruddick of The Sports Network, who blasted Ramirez:

Enough is enough with him . . . he pretty much confirmed what everyone has believed all along — he could care less whether he wins or loses . . . . This winter, though, they should make every effort to get him out of town. Send him to the West Coast, where baseball is treated with nowhere near the intensity it is in Boston. He’d be a perfect fit in Anaheim.

Run’mouttatown! Of course, the fact that losing a baseball game is “not,” in fact, “the end of the world,” was somehow lost on many of Manny’s critics. In the end, Manny was forgiven, not because of the truth of his statements, but because of the pop of his Louisville Slugger which helped propel Boston over Cleveland for a trip to the World Series this year!

A Rod and Manny

So here’s the puzzle: Why does “crewcut A-Rod” with his unparalleled talent and undeniable desire to win, flop in the post-season while “Manny dredlocks” thrives, nonchalantly carrying his team to the big show while rewriting the record books for post-season offense. More succinctly, why does Mr. Baseball falter when Mr. Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy dominates?

One simple answer is that “randomness happens.” It’s true that many apparent “streaks” should be attributed to chance and statistical probability than to the dispositions of those individuals who happen to be on the fortunate or unfortunate side of the same coin. We don’t want to rule that possibility out — in fact, it is a factor that we have emphasized in a previous post and which is the topic of the excellent blog “The Hot Hand in Sports.” But the fact that A-Rod and Manny consistently fizzle and thrive respectively during the playoffs, year after year, suggests that there may be more to the patterns than just happenstance or luck.

So, to solve our puzzle, we think it might be helpful to talk about some lessons from social psychology — lessons that may initially seem to have little relevance for the ballpark.

Researchers have demonstrated that, because of pervasive negative (and positive) group-based stereotypes in our culture, members of those groups are often at risk of being stigmatized (or esteemed) by the stereotype:

“African Americans, for example are likely to be well aware that stereotypes accuse them of being intellectually inferior and aggressive; and women are well aware that stereotype accuse them of being emotional, bad at math, and lacking leadership aptitude.”

As Claude Steele (among others) has detailed, the anticipation of being reduced to a negative stereotype can, in some circumstances, yield a self-fulfilling dynamic, which he calls “stereotype threat.” At-risk individuals often experience a kind of anxiety, self-consciousness, or disruptive psychological state that itself can undermine performance. We have discussed the causes and consequences of stereotype threat in other posts (including “Your Group is Bad at Math,” “Gender-Imbalanced Situation,” “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” and “Don W-Ho?.”)

When stereotype threat is activated (for example, when a math test is described as “diagnostic” of intellectual ability), performance is significantly lowered by members of a stigmatized group (though it is “lifted” by members of groups associated positively with intellectual ability). And when the stereotype threat is not activated (for instance, when the same exam is framed as “non-diagnostic” of intellectual ability) the performance of members of the stigmatized group rises (and that of the other group falls). The presence or absence of stereotype threat thus has a significant effect on performance of groups with otherwise comparable skill levels.

As the research has demonstrated, someone who is very talented and accomplished can be reduced to mediocrity or worse when the disruption of stereotype threat kicks in:

“[T]his situational predicament does not require the stigmatized to have any internal doubts about their ability, or their group’s ability, in those domains. In fact, the effects of stereotype threat may be most acutely felt by those individuals who are invested and skilled in the targeted domain, or by those individuals who at least care about the social consequences of being judged incompetent in that domain.”

This suggests another way in which stereotype threat can lose its teeth. Indeed, the research has shown that there are many individuals who are members of a stereotyped group but for whom the risk of being negatively stereotyped along a given domain seems to have no bite – namely, those individuals who do not consider success or failure in that domain an important element of their identity. Put differently, there is no “threat” in stereotype threat when the individual does not care.

Although the long-term implications of “not caring,” would likely harm a person’s performance, “not caring” can be an extremely effective means of improving one’s performance on a specific test on a given day – particularly when the alternative would be caring a great deal while fearing that one will confirm others’ negative expectations.

You see where this is going. Return with us to home plate and the “test” of the major league playoffs. Ian Herbert recently wrote a terrific summary of the psychology of batting. To understand that, it’s necessary to understand something about the “automaticity” of batting (for a related post, see “The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players“) Herbert explains that although the game’s greatest hitters make it all seem easy, “the scientific consensus [is] that hitting is basically impossible. That’s right, impossible.” Consider the what’s involved:

A ball thrown by a major league pitcher reaches speeds of 100 m.p.h. and an angular velocity (the speed in degrees at which the ball travels through your field of vision) of more than 500 degrees per second. A typical human can only track moving objects up to about 70 degrees per second. Add to this the fact that it takes longer to swing a bat than it does for a pitch to go from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt, which means a hitter must start his swing before the ball is released and has less than a half a second to change his mind. All that equals impossible.

Part of what makes batting possible is that the professionals are better than average at keeping their eye on the ball — though none can actually continue to watch a pitch from hand to bat. Another part of what makes the impossible feasible is that the pitcher’s pitches are not totally random in terms of placement, velocity, and so on, and the batters can take cues from the pitcher’s body position and arm speed, from the batter’s own situation (the count, the number of outs, and so on), and from the ball’s early location and spin to estimate where the ball will be when it moves from hand to plate a split-second later. Of course, very little of this is conscious and calculated. The body reacts automatically, informed as it is by practicing the fundamentals and fine-tuned by the rewards of successes and the penalties of failures. If you’re really really good, you might just manage to get a hit thirty percent of the time.

What about the clutch-hitting situation? Is there any reason that one’s performance could be affected by the importance of the moment? Ian Herbert writes:

Research dating back to a 1984 study by Florida State’s Roy Baumeister . . . and including work by . . . Sian Beilock [at University of Chicago] suggests that if you put a player in a pressure situation, he develops a greater than normal self-focus — what we colloquially call trying too hard. When you learn a process like a baseball swing, it is important to practice it step-by-step, and novice hitters actually think through their actions of shifting their weight, rotating their hips, and so forth. But experts do this naturally. Indeed, . . . when expert hitters were asked to focus on a particular part of their swing, it adversely affected their performance.

In other words, if a batter begins thinking about an otherwise automatic process or otherwise becomes self-conscious, performance suffers. And here we think that the lessons of stereotype threat and of batter’s-box psychology converge.

a-rod-frustrations.jpg

Why does Rodriguez seem to fall apart when the season is on the line? We suspect, you guessed it, that A-Rod may care too much and, consequently, must deal with the added anxiety that a lackluster performance will confirm the negative conception of him as a post-season loser, a conception that has been haunting him for years. It is as if, in the big games, he’s saddled with the proverbial monkey, which prevents him from relaxing and allowing his own motor memory to do what it otherwise clearly knows how to do.

We recognize that, in a way, this is not news. Many commentators, such as Selena Roberts of the New York Times, believe that A-Rod has tried too hard to succeed when it matters the most, which in turn has caused him to fail (since his mechanics are adversely affected and he is no longer “in the zone” that serves him so well during the regular season). Others summarize A-Rod’s stats with a single word: “choke.” Indeed, the folks at tradearod.com have compiled a list of associated names, including “Please Opt Out Rod,” “Buzzkill,” “Mr. Springtraining,” and, of course, “Choke-Fraud.” Along those lines, sports blogger Josh Bacott explains that “the name Alex Rodriguez has become synonymous with . . . shrinking at the moments his team needs him most.”

What social psychology helps us do is better understand the source of A-Rod’s difficulty in clutch games and to understand that there is nothing particularly unusual or unforgivable about it. But it does more than that.

If the stereotype-threat analogy has any relevance, it helps us see that the problem is not a function merely of A-Rod’s disposition (as the kind of person who is “clutch” or the kind of person who “chokes”); it also reflects the expectations and conceptions in A-Rod’s situation, surrounding him like the chalk of the batter’s box or the love-him-when-he-succeeds-but-despise-him-when-he-fails fans. And those expectations, reactions, and resultant anxieties may be a big part of what leads to the pop-ups, double-play balls, and strikeouts that disproportionately characterize his playoff at bats. When sports writers and commentators and fans dispositionalize a player as “Mr. Clutch” or as “Mr. Choke,” they are influencing what they assume they are only describing. Blaming A-Rod is, at least in part, creating A-Rod.

At the very moment when A-Rod is attempting to be the hero or avoid being the villain, he ought to be watching the pitch. For most players, that is easier said than done — unless, perhaps, you’re a very strange bird . . . unless, in other words, you’re Manny Ramirez.

“Being Manny” and “not caring very much” at the dish may be the best way for a good hitter to be great. And, if you look at what the experts have to say about Manny’s notorious apathy, they seem to understand that it may well be the secret to his success. In response to Manny’s scandalous comments last week, Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said: “When I hear that I say, that’s why Manny Ramirez is the kind of hitter that he is. There is a certain relaxation about Manny.”

manny-being-manny.jpg

“Calmness, yes, [he] essentially has it at all times. And when he’s got a bat in his hand he uses it effectively because of that focus. He’s just not tight. He was trying to say ‘you know, let’s don’t panic. We’re going out and play this game. We’re going to have fun . . . that’s how I took it. . . . I think what you see in that is the essential Manny Ramirez, and one reason why for seven consecutive years we’ve seen an exceptional offensive [player].” This “calmness,” of course, is not meant to suggest that Ramirez lacks effort. In fact, as Bruce Allen of Boston Sports Media Watch carefully notes, Ramirez is renowned for his pre-game hitting preparation. Still, as his teammate and possible 2007 American League MVP, Mike Lowell, has said, Ramirez “has a [hitting] ability that I don’t understand . . . it’s just unbelievable.”

In the long run, athletes and others face a kind of trade-off between being committed to hard work — and all the elements associated with a “winning attitude” over the long haul — and to something like apathy or nonchalance when it comes to execution. True, practicing can make the impossible simple, but caring too much can make the simple impossible again.

If our argument has any validity, it suggests an unconventional lesson: the secret to success is, at least at times, not caring. In a world in which many assume that winners and losers are determined by “heart,” “will,” “a sense of urgency,” “the eye of the tiger,” and so on, Manny reminds us that maybe we can succeed by keeping things in perspective. “Winning attitudes” are great, but there’s a lot to be said for a a little ho-hum mixed in. Why is it always “Manny being Manny?” Maybe more people, including Alex Rodriguez, should consider “being Manny.”

But that’s not the “lesson” that motivated this post. We’re not really that concerned about explaining the divergent records of two great baseball players. Our hope is to help raise a possibility that might be a little harder to accept. That is, performance on “tests” that our society routinely uses to determine, not the outcome of a ballgame, but the opportunities and resources that individuals receive — that is, the winners and losers in “life”– may largely reflect the same sort of phenomena. Scores on exams that help determine, among other things, which applicants gain admittance to which colleges or have a shot at which jobs, may reflect something as seemingly trivial as self-fulfilling expectations and stereotypes and not simply be, as commonly supposed, a means of separating the “deserving” from the “undeserving.”

We’ll have more to say about this in subsequent posts.

Posted in Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | 6 Comments »

 
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