Thursday, October 14, 2010

Word of the Day: recall bias

recall bias
Were the 2008 NBA Finals a "six-game sweep"? Or is that recall bias in action?

recall bias (ri'-kahl bi'-uhs) noun. Intentionally or unintentionally innaccurate recollection of past basketball or basketball-related events due to personal biases.

Usage example: I remember Kobe quitting during Game 7 of the Lakers' 2006 first round series against the Suns. But other people remember it differently. What gives?

Word History: A few years ago, I jokingly told my buddy Mister P that he sufferes from recall bias because, after a pickup game, he can't seem to accurately recall how well (or how poorly) he actually shot the ball. Specifically, unless he hits 80 percent of his jumpers -- which is fairly unlikely -- he'll tell me something like, "I shot like shit tonight." Is going 4-for-10 on threes in a pickup game "shooting like shit"? It feels that way to Mister P. So much so that he might tell you he went 2-for-10 or provide some uglier (and equally inaccurate) shooting statistic.

When I give him the actual number, it almost always takes him my surprise.

According to mediLexicon, recall bias is "systematic error due to differences in accuracy or completeness of recall to memory of past events or experiences." Furthermore, the article Recall Bias can be a Threat to Retrospective and Prospective Research Designs says "[recall bias] arises when there is intentional or unintentional differential recall (and thus reporting) of information." Stuffy scientists may tell you I'm bastardizing the definition a little -- or a lot -- but the point is, the way we remember things is highly dependent on our point of view and personal biases.

That's why it can be so hard to find "The Truth" when talking about basketball, whether you're discussing the results of a weekly pickup game or the NBA Finals. In fact, let's take the 2008 NBA Finals as a perfect example. After the Celtics clinched the title with a whopping 131-92 win in Boston, Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe said: "What we had, ladies and gentlemen, was the first six-game sweep in NBA Finals history. The Celtics dominated the three games in Boston, and they absolutely, positively could have won all three games in LA."

Really, Bob? In Game 1, Boston was behind by five points at halftime and led by only four points heading into the fourth quarter before winning 98-88. A solid win, but hardly dominating. In Game 2, the Lakers outscored the Celtics 41-25 in the fourth quarter and nearly pulled off one of the great comebacks in Finals history. In Game 4, the Celtics did pull off one of the great comebacks in Finals history: L.A. jumped out to a 35–14 lead after 12 minutes -- which was the largest first-quarter lead in NBA Finals history -- and led by as many as 24 points in the third quarter before Boston's comeback.

Still, the Celts' performance in the Game 6 clincher was so overwhelming that, in retrospect, it may have seemed like the Lakers never really had a chance. It certainly seemed that way to Ryan, not to mention ESPN's Marc Stein.

And yet...if we add L.A.'s Game 2 comeback and subtract Boston's Game 4 comeback, the Lakers could have won it in five or six games, right? Or maybe it would have gone to seven. Who knows? The point is, the series wasn't a sweep, and only the final game was truly uncompetitive.

So why did Ryan and Stein -- and so many other people -- see the series as so thoroughly lopsided? Recall bias. It's funny, too, because recall bias usually affects more subjective judgements. Such as, say, whether or not Kobe quit on his team during Game 7 of the Lakers' first round series against the Suns back in 2006. With the 2008 NBA Finals, we have actual scores and results that show us close games and near misses, not to mention the fact that six games does not equal a sweep.

Regarding the "Did Kobe quit?" question, that's been a hot topic of conversation on this site. In fact, it still pops up in the comments section now and again. As everybody knows, Mamba had led an undermanned Lakers squad to a decisive seventh game against a superior Phoenix team. L.A. fell behind by 15 at halftime despite Kobe's 23 points (including 18 in the second quarter). So, in the second half, Bryant came out and...took three shots (missing them all) and scored only one point as the Lakers lost 121-90.

Did Kobe quit?

Kobe says he didn't quit, that his passive play really was part of the game plan. And Dave McMenamin of (like many before him) has provided many facts and figures suggesting that the 2006 Lakers had a better chance of beating the 2006 Suns when Kobe wasn't taking lots of shots and scoring 40+ points. That Lakers team, they will tell you, beat that Suns team by pounding the ball inside against a smaller Phoenix fountcourt.

Of course, Mamba's (and McMenamin's, and whoever else's) insistence that he didn't quit could easily be recall bias. Certainly, anybody who watched Kobe throwing listless passes to Kwame Brown in the post and then parking himself five feet behind the three-point line and just watching the play unfold with a surly scowl would tell you there might be some recall bias going on. Conversely, Kobe supporters will insist that Bryant's words are the key testimony -- after all, he lived the situation and anyway why would he misrepresent the truth about whether he quit on his own team? -- and that the facts clearly indicate he couldn't have quit. After all, he was just doing what Phil Jackson told him to do.

The real whammy is this: Both sides of the argument, and Kobe himself, could all be (and probably are) suffering from recall bias. Frankly, everybody involved has reasons to recall events in their own specific way...reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not Kobe actually did quit. My point is not to re-open this particular can of worms -- let's face it people, we're never going to know one way or another -- I'm only trying to illustrate why determining what really happens from situation to situation is quite tricky.

On the subject of recall bias, consider the curious case of Gilbert Arenas, the former Clown Prince of the NBA. From the beginning, Arenas was just as eccentric as, say, Dennis Rodman or Ron Artest ever was. And yet his shenanigans were always met with laughter and approval. Choosing the number zero because that's how many minutes people predicted he'd play in the NBA? Ha, ha, that's Gilbert. Stuffing the ballot box to make the All-Star team? Ha, ha, that's Gilbert! Concocting imaginary feuds with various opponents to psyche himself up for games? Ha, ha, that's Gilbert!! Relentless practical joking, which included the theft and even destruction of his teammates' personal property? HA, HA, THAT'S GILBERT!!!

A few years back, those were the kind of things that built to his reputation as one of the great whimsical figures in league history. His high-scoring performances and game-winners helped, but Arenas was becoming a legend for just being Gilbert.

Then Arenas brought unlicensed (and unloaded) handguns into his team's locker room to threaten a teammate. Suddenly, perception shifted. Now Gil's past behavior wasn't funny anymore. In fact, people were suddenly looking back and seeing those incidents -- like, say, shooting a teammate's cousin with paintballs until he cried -- in a much darker light. His behavior was now deemed the product of a troubled mind rather than a fun-loving, whimsical one. Once Arenas crossed that line, finger guns would never again be funny.

Take this most recent incident, in which Arenas faked a knee injury so his teammmate Nick Young (who ended up scoring a team-high 24 points on 10-for-14 shooting in a 107-92 win) could get a rare start:

Following the game, Arenas told reporters it was all a ruse in order to give Young the opportunity for more playing time.

"I know he's kind of frustrated he's not getting a chance to crack the three position, especially since we're going three guards, so I told him I'd go ahead and fake an injury or say something's wrong with me so you can start," a smiling Arenas said in the locker room.

When asked about the health of his knee, Arenas said, "I'm fine," and indicated he would play on Thursday in the Wizards' final home preseason game against Milwaukee.
Arenas was fined, as he should have been. You can't lie to your coach, no matter how seemingly noble the reasons were...even if the teammate you "sacrificed" for played great and your team won. However, the situation didn't end with a fine. Arenas is being crucified on blogs and in newspapers everywhere. Which is probably fair, but think about it. Imagine if the "Ha, ha, that's Gilbert!" Arenas of, say, four or five seasons ago had done the exact same thing. Would he still have been fined? Probably. Would the general public have thought any less of him for doing it? Probably not. Hell, he might have been celebrated. Now when people think back to what Arenas has done, they perceive his actions and motives very differently.

If you think about it, the situation can be downright scary. What's real? We live in a Wiki culture where the truth seems to be defined by a general agreement of the majority. But that's dangerous. As Leonard said in Memento: "Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts."

But what constitutes the facts? People like ESPN's John Hollinger are trying to formulate statistics that can give us the objective reality of basketball, but those numbers tell us that Corey Maggette is better than Kevin Garnett. And that's not right. It couldn't be.

If we can't have 100 percent accuracy in our memory or statistics, what can we believe in?

Whoa. I didn't mean to make this post so heavy. Honestly, I was just wondering why, when I make a sweet move in pickup ball, it looks so damn clunky on video. Sorry 'bout that. I promise to stop talking about social construction of reality and get back to fart jokes asap.

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