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Question Yourself: What a Common Play in Basketball Teaches Us About Ourselves

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If you’ve ever played or watched basketball, you know this play. The scramble for the loose ball. A player deflects a pass. Shawn Bradley [that lanky dude from Space Jam] is awkward, as per usual, and drops a pass thrown his way. A player dribbles the ball off of their own foot.

Two players from opposing teams scramble for it. Neither gains control of the ball yet both appear to have hit it. The trajectory of the ball is somehow altered and is sent careening out of bounds.

Neither player claims responsibility and both parties immediately launch into an over-the-top performative and surprisingly unnecessarily animated game of finger-pointing. Both players are suggesting that the other is at fault for the ball being sent out of play, each making the case for their team retaining possession.

Back when I played, there were more than a few times where I knew it was out off of me but I still plead my case. I’d wildly flail my appendages and point in the opposing team’s direction, loudly yelling about how it was off of the other player. However, maybe there’s actually something to this. Maybe we can actually learn about our own perception of the events in our lives because of a loose ball in basketball.

Are these players lying? Are they certain the ball went out off of them but pretending it didn’t to gain a competitive advantage? Or do they actually think it went out off of their opponent? Do two competitors participating in the same play experience it differently?

Much to my delight, researchers at Arizona State University who found themselves with way too much time on their hands somehow managed to get themselves paid to figure that out. Their findings were published in Science Advances.

Don’t Trust Your Perception

Ty Tang, a doctoral candidate in cognitive science, says that, in general, our subjective experience [“he touched it last!”] of an objective event [a loose ball that two players are chasing] is not trustworthy. ‘It’s very possible that people experience two different orders of events, two different experiences of reality, even though they experienced the same event.”

To test this, he ran three different experiments with ASU students. In the first, he had students sit across from one another with a divider between them. The divider had a slot for their hands and when a light flashed, each person tapped the other. They then indicated who they thought tapped first.

Most people perceived their touch as happening first. He then replaced the second human with a mechanically operated switch and got similar results. In the final experiment, they removed the element of touch and replaced it with a clicking sound. People still thought their touch happened before the click.

This bias makes sense in competitive situations. Coming back to the loose ball: it’s advantageous to believe that you touched it before your opponent indicating that they touched it last and your team should have possession. But what about outside of that?

“I have been up against tough competition all my life; I wouldn’t know how to get along without it.” – Walt Disney

What does this mean for us?

I’m still not convinced this wasn’t all just a thinly veiled excuse for a doctoral student to write a paper about basketball – but there’s interesting implications for our own understanding of reality.

Tang suggests this bias might be a result of our proclivity for attempting to predict what’s going to happen in our world and trying to build a mental model of reality before things have actually occurred.

First, we can learn to distrust our own judgments of events that have occurred. This doesn’t mean we should walk around in a constant haze of doubt, second-guessing everything that has happened to us. That wouldn’t get us anywhere, except maybe in an asylum. Instead, what we can do, is use the knowledge that our own perception is limited and biased as a launchpad for examining other ways of being in and seeing the world.

We can also entertain the idea that someone else’s perspective on an event is not only a valid interpretation but is equally as “real,” especially to them, as our own. This leads us to our second important takeaway.

“The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.” – John C. Maxwell

Tang says, “Sometimes people actually do have different experiences of what happened and they’re not lying – they might have actually just experienced it that way. We can be more sensitive to other people’s perspectives. He says that “we really just want people to be more understanding of other people’s perspectives.”

These findings can facilitate a deeper understanding of our world and the perceptions that shape as well as develop a deeper empathy towards one another. Or maybe it was all just a clever ruse for a bored, overworked and underpaid grad student to write about basketball.

Tang ends his discussion with this: “We have identified what may be a principal cause of arguments in ballgames, and it’s about time.” Get it?

How do you handle conflict caused by a differing of opinions or perspectives? Share your tactics below!

Kyle Bowe is a blogger and entrepreneur. He blogs about all things personal development and human potential. The central question he tries to answer through his work is “What does it mean to live on purpose?” He is the host of the Aligned Influence podcast where he discusses entrepreneurship and personal transformation with entrepreneurs, dreamers and doers. You can find him online at his website or sign up for his newsletter here.

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