Prime time Kobe and the Superlative Test

Why do you think Kobe is an MVP player? Hopefully, because you’re at this blog, you don’t. Still, many fans do. I just finished Mindless Eating and some of the research that shows why we’re so prone to mindlessly eat sheds some surprising insights as to why so many people think Kobe is one of the NBA’s elite.

Because we’re told he is

Priming is a concept in psychology that means you’re given a hint or direction towards an idea. For instance, using phrases like “free throws”, “slam dunk”, etc. will get you to think about basketball. One of the easiest ways to prime someone though, is to just blatantly tell them what you want them to think. In one case researchers had people eat yogurt in the dark. The reasoning given was that they were testing yogurt for soldiers and a common case would be eating in dark and cramped areas.The flavor of the yogurt was chocolate. However, subjects were told the flavor was strawberry. No one questioned this! In fact, a few subjects said it was their new favorite strawberry yogurt.

Sites like ESPN and use things like PER and EFF to rank players. These will tell us that Kobe is an elite player. Even if we don’t believe these stats matter, we’re being primed into believe Kobe is an MVP worthy player! The simple act of being told this idea can actually work to get people to believe it. Sure, movies like Inception act as if changing someone’s perception or ideas takes science fiction level technology like dream infiltration. In reality, simply priming someone with an idea is enough to get their senses to betray them.

Our perceptions can be fooled

Alright, so in the study mentioned above, the people were in the dark. Maybe it was just sensory deprivation that lead to being able to so easily fool people, or maybe not. In a real world example, a Navy chef did not purchase enough cherry jello for a long trip. Two months in and the crew was up in arms over this. He did the only logical thing, he added red food coloring to the lemon jello he had been serving. No one complained. A subtle tweak to people’s perception was enough to change their reality. Things like instant replay and Sports Center are enough to distort the perception of Kobe. If it looks like Kobe is a good player, then we’ll think he’s a good player. Again, if our taste buds can easily be fooled by visual manipulation, why not our eyes?

We fall for the superlative test

In a land rife with many metrics — yes, this site does contribute to those — and various tests for elite players, I would like to add a new test: “the Superlative Test” When I discuss players with people I often ask for facts to back claims. I like to start counting the superlatives listed. Often times in lieu of actual stats I’m told a player has “heart” or “the desire to win” or “a killer instinct”. Additionally when I mention a player that is not commonly thought of as good I’m told “they’re a hustle player” or “they’re a good role player”. Superlatives in the place of stats often indicate to me that the analysis I’m receiving is likely sub-par.

However, there’s a more important question. Is this kind of talk enough to actual influence people? You bet it is! In another study researchers took a day old piece of cake. In one case they just called it “Chocolate Cake” in another they would fancy it up. For instance, it might be called “Belgium Black Forest Dark Chocolate Cake” In every instance of the fancy title, people rated the cake as tasting better! What’s more, no one caught on that the cake was simple store bought run of the mill chocolate cake. In fact, in examining fancy titles used by restaurants, some words for cake don’t even make sense. As Mindless Easting wisely observes: what does it mean for cake to be “velvety”?

If a few buzzwords are enough to make us rate ordinary cake better, then I have no doubt it works with players. In fact, my advice is to use the superlative test both with menu items and NBA players. A lot of impressive sounding buzzwords that don’t seem to contribute may mean you like a player or food more than you should. In fact, it seems like this occurs yearly in the NBA draft.

Summing Up

It’s easy to think that our beliefs, observations and senses are hard to mess with. This is simply not the case. It’s rather easy to buy that Kobe is good and that the reason we believe this is grounded on a solid foundation. However, it turns out that it’s very easy to build a foundation on deception. The very way we taste food falls victim to this on a daily basis! It’s wishful thinking to believe our thoughts and views on sports don’t fall into the same traps. Maybe this post will help you look out for these and my personal hope is that it will keep you from thinking Kobe is an elite player.



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