The Science of hypocrisy and why we call Jose Mourinho a genius

Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the week’s football action and the stories making the headlines across the beautiful game

Despite the hype, the 'Red Monday' mega match between Manchester United and Liverpool was a bit of a damp squib. 0-0 draws are never that entertaining, but this one was particularly dour. Not a great reflection on either manager then, or so you would think? But in the post-game analysis and discussion, the result has been declared a 'classic Mourinho performance'. But if you think about it, what has Mourinho done? He's orchestrated a bore draw. There are plenty of managers at big clubs who have delivered the same on plenty of occasions. The reign of Mourinho’s predecessor Louis Van Gaal was notable for plenty of turgid draws, including in big important games. But Mourinho has been given a benefit of the doubt and the reason why this position has become so pervasive speaks to human behaviour and the nature of how we consume sport.

Mourinho is widely considered a footballing 'genius'

So how does an idea like this become so widely accepted, to the point that it is regurgitated in pubs and offices all over the country? There are two human behavioural traits that explain the spread of ideas like this. The first is something known as confirmation bias. What it means in essence, is that we are more likely to accept something as true, if it fits with our pre-existing beliefs. When presented with the same evidence, we'll each draw conclusions based on our own experiences. Similarly a psychological concept called cognitive dissonance says that when presented with new ideas or facts that don’t fit our beliefs; we manipulate those facts rather than change our pre-existing beliefs. We’d rather dismiss or justify contrary evidence, than change our actual beliefs.

You can see how this can have a real effect on how we understand football. Two United managers - Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. Both entirely capable of producing a 0-0 draw on a Monday night in Liverpool. But the discussion around the two identical performances will be entirely different. With Mourinho, it’s a reflection of his managerial class, his ability to neutralise an opponent and orchestrate a point from a tough away tie. Because we’ve been told over and over again that Mourinho is a great manager, a theory that reaches the same conclusion satisfies our appetite for confirmation, and as such, takes hold instantly. But LVG, who was on the back foot early in his United reign, received none of this benefit. A point away at Liverpool in his final season in charge may well have been seen as a decent result, but you can guarantee that the conversation the next day wouldn’t have been about his managerial skills or a supposed ‘The Van Gaal’ effect. More likely it would have focused on Liverpool failing to win, or it may even have gone as far as to focus on LVG’s reputation for producing turgid football and blame the poor nature of United’s attack on him. On the 17th of January this year Van Gaal went to Anfield and won 1-0, a great result. But look at this tweet from Squawka football from that day -

Victory for LVG is presented as a smash and grab

The result is described as a ‘smash and grab’. Van Gaal WON THE GAME and still can’t get the respect Mourinho gets for a bore draw. Confirmation bias shapes the way we see evidence and the conclusions that we are willing to accept, to the extent that are more willing to give credit to Mourinho for a 0-0, than to give it for Van Gaal for an actual win. Managers aren’t treated equally, because no one is treated equally; it’s our existing beliefs that shape our judgements.   

The second crucial point about how these narratives spread speaks to the nature of sports discussion itself. Sport punditry in 2016 is about, above all else, narratives. Our collective attention span is so short, that unless you can explain it in a tweet, it probably isn't going to land. Long detailed explanations about the tactics behind the United-Liverpool stalemate, not effective. Big grand statements about 'The Mourinho effect', easy to repeat, and easy to share. And it's that ability to be passed on that's key. In a more connected age, if an idea is shareable, it only takes one influential talking head to make it take hold. That's exactly what happens with basic narratives like 'The Mourinho effect'.

It’s been pretty well-established fact of human behaviour that people are more likely to respond to emotional narrative driven arguments that rational factual ones, because decision making is an emotional process. Many of us thought Michael Gove was talking complete nonsense during the Brexit campaign when he said ‘The British people have had enough of experts’, but when a majority of Brits decided to listen to the Leave campaign’s story-led campaign rather than the logic driven economic arguments of Remain, he was largely proven right.

How do you think Donald Trump has survived to this point in a Presidential campaign despite a lack of political experience and an apparent disregard for the most basic rules of what a politician can and can’t say without being forced to stand down?  It’s because he tells a story about America in disarray and needing to be ‘made great again’ that is easy to consume, share and doesn’t require a huge amount of thinking.

What does this have to do with Mourinho? Well when a pundit first suggests that the game was a ‘classic example of the Mourinho effect’ it’s an idea that is simple enough and easy to accept at face value. You don’t need to analyse the match tape, looking for the intricacies of the tactical match up or the performances of individual players, it requires no more prior knowledge than ‘Mourinho is a good manager’. And that’s what makes it an idea that is likely to stick. It’s clear, simple and fits what we think we already know, meaning it's a good example of a mental heuristic, a type of mental shortcut relied upon to save limited thinking power (a rule of thumb). It’s also means it's the perfect sports narrative, no wonder it’s all anyone was talking about this morning.

With big sports events, it’s very common for one storyline to emerge beyond all others. It’s easy to blame the press, surely they should be given us a more diverse and well-rounded point of view? But in fact all they are doing is giving us exactly what we want. The rules of human behaviour means sports fans crave simple narratives that fit their believes and are easy to share. It’s what makes ideas like the ‘The Mourinho effect’ so sticky, and it’s crucial to understand for anyone trying to spread ideas through sports fans, whether that be media, governing bodies, or brands.

NB: If you’d like to know more about Human Behaviour in sport, we’ve set up H+K Smarter, a specialist division focused on understanding some of these often overlooked aspects of human behaviour, check them out at http://www.hkstrategies.co.uk/our-expertise/our-tools/hk-smarter/

James Fenn

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search