February 28, 2013

What can colonoscopies teach us about cricket?

The way we remember players' careers affects our judgement of them

My theme is happiness and memory, but it begins with an unpleasant question: what can colonoscopies teach us about cricket? A colonoscopy is when… No, on reflection, I'm not going to go there. You can google.

Anyway, Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for economics, used colonoscopies to devise an experiment that addressed a central question about human experience. Do we remember the amount of pain (or pleasure), do we remember the sum total? Or do we instead remember the peaks - what the pain or pleasure felt like at its most intense? And how important is our final recollection of the experience?

Two groups of patients experienced painful colonoscopies. Patients in Group A experienced the usual procedure. So did the patients in Group B, except a few extra minutes of mild discomfort were added at the end. Which group suffered more? Group B experienced all the pain of Group A, and then some more. And yet, because the procedure ended less painfully, patients in Group B said they minded it less.

The two crucial factors were the intensity of pain at its most intense and then the level of pain at the end of the experience. Kahneman called this the "peak-end" rule. In contrast, the overall duration of the experience had no effect on the way people rated total pain. Kahneman termed this "duration neglect".

In other words, our memories are very ineffective at quantifying the sum total of the pain (or pleasure) we have experienced.

I strongly suspect that the same biases affect our judgement of "great" and "less than great" sportsmen. First, we remember the highest achievement and the lowest dip rather than the sum of the competence. Secondly, our assessment of the whole career is distorted by the way the story ends.

The first bias leads us to underestimate excellent players who never achieved a concentration of brilliance. Compare the careers of Tony Greig and Andrew Flintoff. Greig has better overall statistics, but his achievements were spread out more evenly, which is why Flintoff is probably regarded as the greater player. During the 2005 Ashes, Flintoff was such a talismanic force that he became a national hero. We need not take anything away from Flintoff to see that we have missed something in our judgement of Greig.

And yet the first bias also leads us to misjudge essentially good players who suffered one mistake that lingers in the memory. The England footballer Gareth Southgate was an intelligent, underestimated player, who is unfairly remembered for missing a crucial penalty in the Euro 1996 shootout.

The second bias - the distorting effect caused by the way the story ends - explains why great sportsmen are so obsessed with their swansong. They intuitively grasp that the final chapter carries undue significance. They see their swansong as linked to their legacy. The problem, of course, is that holding on too long for the perfect ending has the unpleasant consequence of making the desired finale even harder to achieve. As you perform well less often, the probability of writing a happy final page becomes progressively less likely. If Sachin Tendulkar's career peters out, for example, it will disproportionately affect the way he is remembered (though his 81 last week shows he can still influence vital matches). Arsene Wenger, now eight seasons without a trophy at Arsenal, is already suffering that fate. He is an unquestionably great manager. And yet his relative lack of recent success is souring his whole reputation.

That is unfair, which is why I am now going to argue slightly against my own column here a fortnight ago. I think there are times when we should try to fight against the tyranny of our memory. We should try to remember the sum of the experience rather than only the "peak" and "end". We should try to be grateful for the total contribution of the player, not just the shortfall between what we see now and the memory of his greatest achievements.

A friend of mine has loved and studied Bob Dylan for 45 years. He is a world expert. And yet he invariably rushes to criticise Dylan's latest album. In fact, I sense that my friend's frustrations with Dylan's work today poison his attitude towards the singer's entire corpus. I try to take a different view. Given all the happiness Dylan has given me, I feel only gratitude for still further, new pleasures I get from his work today - even if it is a lesser type of pleasure that I now experience. Some fans believe that artists "owe" them an output of a requisite quality. I think it is me, the fan, who owes a debt of thanks.

The same problem afflicts great film directors. A colleague of mine recently complained that Woody Allen's To Rome with Love wasn't as good as Annie Hall or Manhattan. Well, no, it isn't as good. But can't we enjoy To Rome with Love without the experience being contaminated by comparisons with Annie Hall ? I think we can, and, indeed, that we should.

The same point may even apply to friendship. Must we remember a long, sustaining friendship that ends in brisk estrangement as a "failure" overall? Surely the happiness was real at the time?

All of which is another way of saying that fans ask too much of players. Watching sport when you care passionately about the outcome is often a frustrating experience. Why can't players perform at their best more often, especially when it matters most? Why can't they produce careers with the shape and narrative that gives fans the most satisfying experience? The short answer is because sportsmen are human beings. They are not entirely in control of form. The muse comes and goes.

Sport, ultimately, is about pleasure and entertainment. But our assessment of that pleasure is determined by our memory, and memory is skewed

I can't improve upon the story Dylan tells in his autobiography Chronicles. He had, metaphorically, lost his voice as a songwriter. He reached out for advice. A producer replied: why didn't he just write some new songs that were as good as "The Times They Are A' Changin" and "Masters of War"? Gee, thanks for the advice.

Sport, ultimately, is not about winning and losing, or even about achievement or excellence. It is about pleasure and entertainment. But our assessment of that pleasure is determined by our memory, and our memory is skewed by the "peak-end" rule and "duration neglect". Tastes and judgements, as Kahneman concluded, "are shaped by memories, and the memories can be wrong".

So we should, I believe, try a little harder to remember the sum of the happiness that great players have given us, not just bemoan the shortfall between their finest hour and their present ordinariness. For our own sakes, as well as theirs.


My thanks to Kieran McMaster, an ESPNcricinfo reader and cricket statistician. McMaster wrote a brilliant response to my column about measuring greatness two weeks ago, reminding me that Kahneman had addressed similar questions from a different perspective. I interviewed Kahneman here but I'd failed to make the connection until McMaster prompted me.

Another ESPNcricinfo reader, Xolile, made an observation that is now even more pertinent, given that this column at least partially opposes my previous one: "When Ed first started writing I optimistically judged him to be a man who values reason. But time has revealed that Ed has a preference for the heroic, the sublime and the mysterious."

I can't imagine a more central tension. And, with luck, I look forward to examining that tension for the rest of my life - without, I hope, ever entirely resolving it.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rahul on March 1, 2013, 18:33 GMT

    One word : Respect !!

    This human psychology is so deep. In fact, I am such an ardent Sachin fan but still remain disappointed with him because he doesn't satisfy the script I have in my mind for him.

    That's the tragedy of fans. They want their versions of story to come true. This stops them from enjoying the present.

  • Santosh on March 1, 2013, 17:04 GMT

    Good article. One thing though. If someone is comparing players from different era, they would remember and appreciate a player from current era as opposed to one from the past. I've seen what Flintoff is capable of, whereas all I knew about Greig is from reading about him, not by seeing him in action. If I were to rate who is better, I would be inclined towards Flintoff because of this.

  • Dummy4 on March 1, 2013, 12:42 GMT

    Great article! Refreshingly original. Brilliant writing. Enjoyed it..

  • Gareth on March 1, 2013, 11:38 GMT

    I agree that peaks are remembered the most, especially when they are against worthy opponents. To correct the latest comment by Rajiv, Flintoff is not remembered as a great all-rounder on the basis of just one series - England's breakthrough series wins in WI and South Africa in 2004-05, and the 7 out of 7 Test Summer in 2004 saw similar dominant performances from him. He also had a strong series as captain in India, to secure England's first draw in 20 years. Flintoff in the Ashes is most remembered as the 2005 series captivated the nation. A factor in Greig's lack of status is that many of his great performances came overseas in an era when these Tests were not televised in England. Greig averaged 47 with the bat and 28 with the ball in away Tests, but unfortunately he will be more remembered for the home Tests where he averaged 35 with the bat and 38 with the ball as these are the Tests the majority of the England fans were able to watch.

  • Dummy4 on March 1, 2013, 7:40 GMT

    I've said it before and I'll say it again. Flintoff had ONE good series, but is remembered as a great all rounder! Vaughan had 6 great months in 2002 and is remembered as something special! Sri Lanka's World Cup win in 1996 was thanks to 3 wins by default, and Kalu averaged 12! Yet people like Robin Smith, Graham Thorpe who were consistently good are never remembered! Rubbish!

  • Dummy4 on March 1, 2013, 4:24 GMT

    The Bob Dylan example resonates with me. Not really Dylan, but the tendency of art lovers to remember only the peaks, for bygone eras, and only the lows for the present. People should get out and buy the music of the present if they really want a future generation to keep the music habit alive, but they spend too much time lamenting the bad of today and too little finding out what might be good. Coming to cricket, it's possible that Dravid's efficient consistency would have eventually gone against him had it not been for one last hurrah in England. But it shouldn't be just 3 centuries or the double ton in Adelaide that a prolific career is remembered for. Rather, for his ability to soothe nervous dressing rooms with his reliability and the lengths he was prepared to go to for the sake of the team, be it opening, batting at no.6 or keeping wickets. Dravid had the same effect in Tests as SRT in ODIs, he assured fans that India was not out of it as long as he was at the crease.

  • Michael on March 1, 2013, 2:45 GMT

    This would explain why I do not see Kallis as being in the same class as Botham, Imran, Kapil or Hadlee, even though I can see from his stats that he is a great all rounder. I struggle to remember any individual performance of Kallis's, but he has been amazingly consistent.

  • Alexander on February 28, 2013, 20:57 GMT

    Ed, as always, you have written another pleasurable read that delves into the sportsman's fabric. Since Peter Roebuck passed away, only yourself and Martin Crowe seem to be able to provide intriguing insight on the reason why sport, in particular cricket, captures the imagination and soul of the game and it's personalities. Your articulate nature presents arguments based upon realistic assumptions and facts, and they are compelling to read and further discuss. In fact, I almost wish you had expanded this column to rehash upon the 'World XI' debate of a team picked on one performance in their zenith to one that maintained consistency throughout a lengthy career. It would be worth the comparision with the aforementioned Flintoff circa 2005 Ashes and a Matt Hayden 2001 India verses a more established team of constant performers. But again thank you and well written as always.

  • Stephen on February 28, 2013, 16:44 GMT

    One wonders to if one remember not only the peaks and troughs, but also the first time something new is done. One certainly remembers one's first colonoscopy. But, should one be sufficiently blighted to be on one's third or forth, even if has been more painful subsequently, do we not remember most the first time. In general, one always remembers the first time. Could it also be so with cricket. We remember Sobers as the greatest genuine all-rounder as he was the first one to do it all for about 10-12 years. How about Kalis? Not so much perhaps. Who was the first to 300 wks? Why Fred Truman of course, in no less than 65 old-time Tests. Who was the second?... LR Gibbs in his 75th (old style) Test. Perhaps the colonoscopy teams A and B should be recalled after a few years and given the same procedure. Which to they rate the worst? Then we can see if there is something to be said for the first time glory.

  • Stephen on February 28, 2013, 16:28 GMT

    Tennessee Williams wrote in his play "memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantely in the heart." And so, I got to thinking that, certainly in cricket, don't we place a higher premium on flair when remembering achievements. Perhaps because of the crucifix pose we rate Flintoff over Greig. Do we not rate Lara's 375 over Hayden's 385? When we think of the premier Aussie fast bowler, we think of Lillee (Strike Rate 52.0 in Tests) first over Mc Grath (51.9). We rate the peaks in the short career of vanGogh over the lifetime of consistency and foundation building of Cezanne, his post-impressionist peer. Thus, while assessing varying levels of consistency over a career is a matter of statistics, mere mathematics, cricketing joy dwells in emotion, which, in turn, is rated by the peaks and troughs it brings. Great job Ed.