It’s human nature to jump to conclusions based on prior experience. Though the bark of a dog or a baby’s cry could mean many things, the listener will experience an immediate reaction. If the initial reaction is that the dog is angry and the baby is hungry, they will be correct… occasionally.
Experienced professionals recognize that one’s immediate conclusions, if they are not examined, often are mildly flawed in some capacity or another. And occasionally, they may be extremely flawed, due to being made on inference rather than hard data. If a professional does not recognize the potential flaw in their initial reaction, they can develop mindsets, internal systems, and behaviors that reflect their faulty logic.
Everyone’s Dancing with Mary Jane
After a professional meeting regarding the prevention of substance abuse in adolescents, a school psychologist approached one of our partner coaches and gave him some startling news: I hear your powerlifters are all pot-smokers. Needless to say, this revelation took the coach by surprise. For 10 years he had worked with a local powerlifting team and had been passionate about using the sport to empower student-athletes. The stories of young people finding purpose, positive habits, and camaraderie on his team are many. This was the first he’d heard about their “problem.”
He wasn’t sure how to react, so he dug a little deeper. His colleague mentioned that she met with one of the members of his team and that the athlete told her that he and one of his teammates would smoke marijuana after a lifting session.
The coach was taken off-guard for two reasons. First, he knew that the young man she was referring to was seeing a school psychologist, but he did not know that he was self-soothing with cannabis (and he was careful not to pose judgement). He hoped that the athlete’s substance use habits did not go any further and that he was getting the help he needed. Second, he was confused by the idea that this somehow meant that his entire team was smoking after practice as well.
Though the conversation lasted only as long as their walk down the hallway, the coach soon learned that the young man told the psychologist that a lot of powerlifters smoke after difficult workouts. He assumed this was true based on what he’d seen from a popular powerlifter on Instagram.
The coach was not sure how to engage or proceed with his colleague and team, which is why he reached out to us.
The comment was oddly specific and a little extreme; based on a short conversation with one person, the psychologist made a broad and sweeping conclusion (your powerlifters are all pot-smokers), and happily jumped to it. This phenomenon however is all too common. She was succumbing to something called sample bias. She had based her conclusion on the few examples she happened to see, then falsely attributed those observations to the whole population.
She had experienced a very small sample (the young man in her office) whose unique situation (anxiety and other mental health concerns) directed him toward her support. She then extrapolated this sample to represent the entire team. There is an obvious concern with this approach.
In psychology this also fits into the category of what’s call an availability heuristic. A heuristic is a problem-solving approach that uses practical methods or various shortcuts based on experience to produce solutions to a problem that may not be optimal but are sufficient given a limited timeframe. Sometimes, all the information we have is that within our immediate vicinity. In those cases, the availability heuristic can be helpful in decision-making – we adjust our behavior based on our immediate environment. The heuristic becomes flawed, however, if we do not listen to the feedback from the methods we used to make those time-sensitive decisions. Imagine a pipe has a small water leak at a fitting. Your experience tells you something is loose, so you tighten the fitting, but it has no effect on the leak. If your only thought was, “well it must still need to be tightened”, you would continue to torque down on the fitting until eventually it burst, instead of stepping back and taking another approach.
When the heuristic approach goes wrong, practitioners rarely, if ever, conduct additional research to develop a more thorough understanding of a concept. Instead, they come to the flawed conclusion that they have learned something more expansive than science and logic would truly suggest.
Good, thoughtful educators will do their best to be self-aware enough to question their own experience and biases. Still, it happens all the time.
So how can we avoid this?
Slow it down
There are times, especially in the world of sports, when you’ll have to go fast – you’ll make split-second decisions and operate in high-action environments – but when you can, take a breath… slow it down. The ability to think both fast and slow is a defining characteristic of a good coach. Think fast when you have to. Think slowly (and deliberately, and thoughtfully) when you can. The high-quality thinking we do in these slower moments will increase the quality of our split-second decisions down the road.
Humility and Curiosity
It is not always enough to trust your gut, or even what you see. If you had never seen a forest before, then suddenly woke up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you might think that a forest was a dense collection of pine trees and firs. Without humility and curiosity, you’d be taken fully off-guard when, later in life, you enter a forest of oaks and maples, birches or bamboo.
If your only experience with Mexican food is Taco Bell, then you might hold tight to that concept. Without humility and curiosity, you might never experience the more thoughtfully prepared (sorry, Taco Bell) and vast-array of flavors available in authentic Mexican cuisine.
Humility will allow you to keep an eye out for possible sample biases. Curiosity will allow you to extend your understanding beyond whatever information is immediately available.
Do the Work
Increasing one’s understanding takes work. Even as a professional amasses a career worth of experience, their understanding is influenced solely by the people and situations that enter their life. To be truly thoughtful, to reach for thorough understanding, you’ll have to seek out opportunities to learn from other experiences and knowledge bases. In the educational environment, professional development is not a nicety, but a necessity. Break the barriers of your own availability heuristic and do the work it takes to understand and grow.
Enjoy the Trees And the Forest
Though some powerlifters might smoke pot, all powerlifters are not pot-smokers. There is no way that a statement so specific could be true for such a broad range of people and personalities. With this story in mind, the momentary misstep in conversation while walking down the hallway is a mere inconvenience – but if one were to develop mindsets, systems, and behaviors in alignment with that misstep, then that would be a true disservice to the students.
If the psychologist in the story could not relieve herself of that flawed idea, she would unfairly categorize powerlifters in the future. That would impact the way she attempted to treat and support the young people coming into her office.
The “powerlifters are pot-smokers” concept is meant to be a provocative, low-stakes introduction to a critical issue we see with teachers and staff today. When educators routinely fall victim to this sort of thinking, we find them prematurely labeling students, which can result in different treatment and lead to negative outcomes. Books are judged by their covers before they are ever read.
When we extend this flawed sort of thinking to our communities, we find the sort of mindsets, systems, and behaviors that lead to some of the most negative and insidious –isms that exist in the world. We might prematurely label the person with a certain skin color a threat and select our behaviors accordingly.
Sample bias and the availability heuristic are essential concepts for all of us to understand.
Knee-jerk reactions are human nature, and sometimes necessary in decision-making, but they are not enough. Coaches, educators, and leaders of all kinds will slow down this process when they can. They will maintain humility and curiosity. They will do the work it takes to deepen their understanding in order to make decisions that are truly well-informed.
It might not be easy, but it will be worth it. If we can help in any way, please reach out to us for support.
BLOG: Drog the Dogma, Make an Impact by Andy Holmes
BLOG: Coaching Key Components of Grit by Jim Davis
Jim is a former professional football player and champion powerlifter turned author, educator, and coach. He is the founding director of the Good Athlete Project (@goodathleteproject), Director of the Illinois High School Powerlifting Association (@ihspla), and the Staff & Student Wellness Coordinator at New Trier High School (@ntstrength), where he runs one of the nation’s largest strength programs. He was the 2018 NASA National Coach of the Year and has recently been recognized as a 2020 Semper Fidelis All-American Mentor by the U.S. Marines. His keynote and invited presentations have taken him all around the world (from L.A. to Ireland to Haiti) and his writing has been published in the Harvard Crimson, the Orlando Sentinel, the Psychologist, World of Psychology, and the USOC Coaching Magazine, among other journals. Jim is a graduate of Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Knox College. Find him on Instagram @jimdavis.art
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