During today’s Simona Halep-Mirjana Lucic-Baroni match, an ESPN commentator said, “I can’t think of a male player with the yips on their serve,” implying, of course, that we were watching an all-too-typical spell of mental weakness on the part of a female tennis player.
There are a staggering number of variants along these lines, untested memes that commentators and pundits mindlessly repeat from one generation to the next. Tennis fans grow up hearing them, and once such a belief is implanted, it’s difficult to get rid of it.
There’s a technical term for this: confirmation bias. People tend to look at evidence in a way that supports their existing beliefs. Since most evidence isn’t clear cut (or it is spread out over hundreds of tennis matches), it isn’t that hard.
For example, take the belief that female players are more likely to get the yips on their serve than men are. If you’re watching any match, you’ll see one of the following four things happen:
- A female player appears to get the yips. More evidence that women get the yips more than men!
- A female player doesn’t get the yips. Huh, that’s strange… women usually get the yips!
- A male player appears to get the yips. Huh, that’s strange… men usually don’t get the yips!
- A male player doesn’t get the yips. More evidence that women get the yips more than men!
Take any bit of conventional wisdom, and as you listen to commentary during the US Open, you’ll probably hear confirmation bias in action.
There’s a simple solution here: If you don’t know something to be true, don’t repeat it as if it’s true. Our brains relentlessly look for patterns, and often they identify patterns where no pattern really exists. Or, as William Blake put it, “To generalize is to be an idiot.”
Better yet, test the generalization to see if the conventional wisdom really is true. For instance, in contrast to the conventional wisdom that women hit far more unforced errors than men do, the data says that the difference is only slight.
In a perfect world, we’d all stop spouting untested generalizations. In this world, it would be a good start to at least pull the plug on generalizations that perpetuate widely-held sexist beliefs.