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By Rick Gaydos

A couple of years ago I was watching a local TV talk show. A panelist recommended a book that wasn’t typically sports-related but had an interesting title: The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us. The name alone got my attention.

I have read it three times and would highly recommend it to veteran officials or those just learning their sport.

Authors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons are professors who design and run university psychology departments. The premise of the book is fairly simple: What we see is not what we expect to see.

If you do a YouTube search for invisible gorilla, you’ll find a video of people passing balls to each other. Some are dressed in white, some in black. The video instructs you to count how many times the people in white pass the ball. In the middle of the action, a person dressed in a gorilla costume walks among those tossing the balls. Some people who watch the video are so consumed by the task of counting that they miss the appearance of the ape.

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Chabris and Simons believe there are six everyday illusions that profoundly influence our lives: the illusion of attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, cause and potential. All are things we deal with when we’re on the court or the field during a game.

Attention

You need to have it the entire game. If you are listening to the coach talk about a call you made earlier in the game, you are not paying attention to what is going on in front of you. You can’t listen to a coach and still focus on the game. Your attention is diverted and you will miss that foul or violation that’s happening right in front of you. The authors claim that only when you regularly look for and expect certain occurrences will they be more likely to be noticed.

Memory

Ironically, one of the examples in the book about the illusion of memory refers to the alleged choking incident of Indiana Coach Bobby Knight on Neil Reed, one of his former players. Over time, details fade. Have you ever made a foul call and then reported the wrong number? And then when you were questioned, you may have seen 21 foul the shooter but your memory is telling you that it was 12. Maybe 21 had just substituted for 12, or something similar to that. A sharp memory is key to good officiating.

Confidence

Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

That may remind you of a partner who took up part of the pregame complaining that he or she didn’t get better games on his or her schedule. Then you get on the floor or field together and you realize what the authors mean when they note, “The least skilled are the most likely to think better of themselves than they should — they disproportionately experience the illusion of confidence.” It’s easier to talk a good game than to execute it.

Knowledge

The illusion of knowledge in officiating is not just knowing but understanding and applying the rules. Don’t overestimate your knowledge of the rules.

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The authors refer to the questioning that you may get from a five-year-old, called the “Why is that?” theory. The next time someone is explaining a particular subject to you, ask them, “Why is that?” After a few “Why is thats?” they will soon get very annoyed. It means they have reached a gap in their understanding of the topic.

So when a coach says to you, “That was a travel, not a foul,” you can have the knowledge to explain in a diplomatic manner that the travel occurred after the foul was committed by his or her player on defense. There is no need for him or her to ask, “Why is that?” after your explanation.

The authors believe the illusion of knowledge convinces us that we have a deep understanding of what a project (game) will entail, when all we really have is a rough and optimistic guess based on shallow familiarity. No two games are the same, and the same two teams playing each other two weeks apart may not have the same outcome.

An example: An umpire tells you at a chapter meeting that he just came from a game in which he called two balks on a certain pitcher. Now a few days later you are the plate umpire for that same pitcher. Your only familiarity is a few tidbits of information you received from your chapter member. Thinking you have knowledge of what that pitcher is going to do when there are runners on first and third with one out is not true. You need to call the game as it unfolds in front of you.

Cause

According to Chabris and Simons, the illusion of cause is that interrelated biases contribute to the illusion. They believe those biases arise from the fact that our minds are built to detect meaning in patterns, to infer causal relationships from coincidences and to believe that earlier events cause later ones. Thus, you called a foul because there is no way the player would have traveled in that situation without being fouled.

Think about why ice cream consumption should be positively associated with drowning rates. More ice cream is eaten and more swimming is done in the summer when it is hot than in the winter. Therefore, more people drown when there is more ice cream being eaten because more people swim in the summer than in the winter.

To relate it to being an official, think of this. You are unfairly criticized by a particular coach because whenever you officiate his or her games, his or her team is always called for more fouls than the opponent. That seems fairly simple to deduce except for the fact that whenever you have officiated games for that team, it was playing an opponent with better ballhandling skills. When the team applied full-court pressure, it had a tendency to become more aggressive to get the opponent to commit a turnover. And during that aggressiveness, more fouls were being committed. So you being a referee for those games is not the symptom of more fouls; it’s the style of play.

Potential

The illusion of potential is that it leads us to think that vast reservoirs of untapped mental ability exist in our brains, just waiting to be accessed, if only we knew how.

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The authors referred to the 1973 bestseller Subliminal Seduction by Wilson Bryan Key, which mentions the famous 1957 experiment at a movie theatre in Fort Lee, N.J. The experiment ran for six weeks displaying messages at a rate of one three-thousandth of a second, once every five seconds. The messages “Hungry? Eat Popcorn,” and “Drink Coca-Cola” ran on alternate days. Results showed a 58 percent increase in popcorn sales and 18 percent increase in Coca-Cola as compared to the period before the messages were inserted into the movies.

What that means for you is that there is no quick fix to remedy all the issues we face on the field or the court. You cannot acquire skills without effort.

The authors agree that practicing anything diligently enough will make you better. Therefore, your potential of being a better official can only be accomplished by repeating the proper mechanics and re-reading the specific rules for your sport or sports.

In conclusion, Chabis and Simons mention that the six illusions have a common characteristic. In psychological lingo they call it fluency as you are processing a lot of information and processing it deeply with great accuracy and skill. But it is not necessarily illusion-free.

So the next time you get out there on the field or court, remember that there are a lot of reasons you just made that call.

Rick Gaydos lives in Deptford, N.J. and has officiated since 1998. He is a member of the New Jersey Baseball Umpires Association and West Chapter 5 Basketball Officials Association. 

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