#5: Are You Anchored to the Past?

We are sometimes wrong about today because we were right about yesterday

We make sense of the world by telling ourselves stories about it. This is necessary, we are hard-wired to do it, and we all know the pitfall: our stories can be simplistic, and distance from the truth can harm us.

There is another pitfall, though, beyond this. A story that is both useful and somewhat true can cease to be that way. But we don’t update the version in our heads. In other words, we get anchored to the past.

So today, I’m going to give three examples of this anchoring effect at play. Rishabh Pant has been the victim of it, while Rahul Gandhi, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been beneficiaries. Let’s begin with Gandhi.

The Only Relevant Question About Rahul Gandhi

The discourse around Gandhi seems to revolve around one of the following questions:

1. Is he smarter than he gets credit for?

2. Is he a good human being?

3. Would he be a better prime minister than Narendra Modi?

It doesn’t matter how you answer the above questions, because they are all moot. In the context of our democracy, only one question matters.

1. Is he a competent politician?

The answer to this is not subjective. We have a sample size, and we have numbers. The Congress, once the behemoth of Indian politics, won 44 seats in the 2014 general elections, and 52 in 2019. The BJP has become stronger through this period. If anything, Gandhi has a good Twitter game, but that is not the battlefield on which elections are won.

He also avoids internal elections within the party, despite his rhetoric about the importance of inner-party democracy.

In episode 157 of The Seen and the Unseen, Ramachandra Guha referred to him as “a born loser.” There is no evidence to the contrary.

If, like me, you are against Narendra Modi and believe a strong opposition is necessary for our democracy, this should concern you. I know from multiple insiders that it does concern leaders within the Congress – but they will not rebel for the rational reasons I outlined in this column on game theory.

What is the anchoring effect here? It is the notion that the Congress is feasible only if it is led by a Gandhi. The issue with this is not the feudalism, but whether it works. The feudalism within the congress worked for them once; it does not work for them now.

The feature has become a bug.

And yet, too many people are anchored to that old idea of what is good for the Congress. That’s good for Rahul Gandhi, but bad for our democracy.

Oh, and let me say this once again: it is irrelevant whether Gandhi is compassionate or supports good policies or would be a good prime minister. Those would be true of many within his party. All that matters is whether he can win or not.

All Hail Rishabh Pant

I have been saying for years that Rishabh Pant is a generational talent, good enough to play Test cricket as a specialist batsman. I was mocked for this, but I now stand vindicated. A friend indicated as much a few weeks ago:

Ravi Shastri recently said of Pant: “I think in the last two months what he's done to win matches for India, there'll be players who won't do it in a lifetime.” I agree, and am glad that this is beyond argument now.

But until just months ago, during the last IPL, people kept mocking Pant. Why did they do this? They were anchored to the past.

We carry a received notion of what a good batsman should look like, and we are suspicious of those who do not conform. This suspicion is not new. Purists thought Don Bradman was bound to fail when he appeared on the scene because his technique was so unorthodox. Ditto Steve Smith. Ditto Virender Sehwag, who was typecast early in his career for being a limited-over basher, but would now walk into the all-time Indian Test XI.

And ditto Pant.

My initial impression of Pant when I first saw him play was that his hand-eye coordination was great, but his balance was bizarre. So often, he would play a great shot and fall down. Balance is supposed to be an integral aspect of good batting. But while his balance was suspect in the first few IPLs he played, his batting was not.

His stats were insane in both the IPL and first-class cricket. (A triple hundred and a 50+average before he came anywhere near the Indian side.) And I quickly reminded myself that if he did not seem to be a solid batsmen, the problem lay with me and not with him.

As a chess enthusiast, I had seen how wrong received notions about correct play could be when Alpha Zero came upon the scene. As I described in this old column, Alpha Zero, using machine learning, discovered new heuristics for playing chess that were at odds with what we had believed. It did things humans would never do – favouring activity over development in some situations, for example – and showed us a new way to play that top players have already started learning from.

If there was a machine-learning AI program that factored in the laws of physics and human physiology to teach itself cricket, we would discover that some of our orthodox beliefs about the game are wrong. We are anchored to the past.

By the way, an unrelated argument against Pant goes that he may be a good batsman, but he’s not our best wicketkeeper, and so shouldn’t play in that role. This is still an open debate. There is a tradeoff involved: you sacrifice wicketkeeping efficiency for added batting depth. Whether it is worth it depends on the balance between runs lost due to wicketkeeping errors vs runs gained by that extra batting heft.

We can only estimate this over a long period of time, and it may be moot if Pant shifts to being a specialist batsman someday. Eitherways, we should reconsider our notions of what the optimal wicketkeeper should do. Don’t be anchored to a past notion of that.

Ronaldo and Messi are Liabilities Now

In an old episode of my erstwhile podcast, Econ Central, I pointed out that whichever team gets Lionel Messi next may suffer from the winner’s curse. He is a liability now because he does not do enough work off the ball, and modern teams require all their players to press. You can’t just hang around and wait for the ball to come to you so that you can show your genius with it.

In that episode, I’d referred to an excellent piece by Jonathan Wilson that backed this up with numbers. Wilson’s just written another piece underscoring this, and making the same point about Cristiano Ronaldo. The money quote about Messi:

In 2009-10, Messi averaged 2.1 tackles and interceptions per league game; this season that is down to 0.7 (despite Barça having far less of the ball now and so need to win it back more). His brilliance may at times paper over the cracks, but then he is often also the cause of them.

It is possible that the commercial appeal Messi and Ronaldo bring to a football club as a brand may outweigh the possible damage they do to the club’s results on the field. But if they remain in demand, I suspect it is because we are anchored to how they once used to play – and highlights of how they play with the ball reinforce that. They were the greatest players of their era, and possibly of all time – and I am not surprised it is difficult to look past that.

But We Need Stories, Don’t We?

Indeed we do. But we need to watch out for our tendency to recoil when a notion does not fit our vision of the world. This happens a lot with new ideas – and the world is changing at a faster pace today than it ever has before.

When you have some quiet time to yourself, think about whether you are making this mistake in your own life.

I keep reminding myself when I hear something outlandish that I must remain humble. There are many things I do not know, and what I think I know may be outdated. When I account for that possibility, the world seems so much more beautiful.

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