Why people believe in scripting and handicapping


Why do people believe in scripting, momentum and handicapping despite the absence of supporting evidence? In this article, we take a deep dive into human psychology as we draw parallels to the driving forces between other conspiracy theories as we try to uncover the true fire behind the smoke.

Is there a connection to bad results?

Is there a relationship between a player’s success rate and his inclination to believe in scripting? According to Reddit’s users, who responded to this poll, there is:

Less successful players are more likely to believe in scripting 228 (57 %)
There is no connection between success rate and inclination to believe in scripting 127 (32 %)
More successful players are more likely to believe in scripting 46 (11 %)

There is no question that Reddit’s users are on to something. Other studies dealing with the question in a broader context than FIFA confirm the notion that losers are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories:6 in 10 respondents thought that less successful players are more likely to believe in scripting, meaning that scripting is perceived as a way to explain lack of success.

“People who are on the outside, people who lost, people who lack control, tend to believe in conspiracy theories.”
Joseph P. Uscinski, University of Miami

But the question this leaves is still: Why do losers prefer to believe in conspiracy theories like scripting rather than simply accepting the fact that they lost because their opponents were better or perhaps just more lucky?

Loss of control triggers conspiratorial thinking

The aforementioned Uscinski together with his colleague Joseph Parent studied why people believe in conspiracy theories. They point to laboratory experiments which show that “inducing anxiety or loss of control triggers respondents to see nonexistent patterns and evoke conspiratorial explanations.” 

The scripting narrative does without a question involve loss of control: When you lose a football match, you have lost control – either because the opponent is better or because you just haven’t got luck on your side.

But why does loss of control trigger conspiratorial thoughts and seeing non-existent patterns?

First, there is something comforting about an explanation which justifies that you don’t need to do anything, because it won’t matter anyway. It is not equally convenient to accept that it is your own fault that you lose, because this comes with an acceptance of the fact that you can change things through hard work.

Second, humans are genetically predisposed to see patterns everywhere. This occasionally leads us to see patterns, which really are nothing but random, dissociated dots. The phenomenon is called pareidolia, and it essentially happens because our brains are trying to make sense of all input, no matter whether there is any sense to be made out of it or not. You can say that our brains by instinct will assume that [someone] meant it to happen, when we lost 2-1 due to a 90th minute goal or experience something unwanted which can be replicated over and over again. The thing about instincts is that it requires way more energy to fight them than to follow them. After all, the evolutionary purpose of instincts is to save energy.

Third, conspiracy theories offer something that humans are programmed to prefer, but isn’t particularly prevalent in football: Order. A recurring element in all conspiracy theories is that bad things happen for a reason.

As one blogger put it“We fear chaos. We are afraid of the uncontrollable, the untamable, and the unpredictable.”  Humans are genetically predisposed to prefer a narrative the attaches a meaning to bad things over a narrative that doesn’t.

So, in the same way that people of various religions explain disasters as the will of God, FIFA players prefer the thought that they lost because EA wanted them to lose.

Football is chaos

One of the reasons why conspiracy theories are particularly prevalent among FIFA players could be that FIFA is a football simulation.

And football is by nature a chaotic game by nature: 44.4 % of all goal are random, and bookmakers fail to predict the outcome in around 50 % of all matches. FIFA, the most realistic football simulation ever built, is pretty much as chaotic as real life football.

Interestingly, scripting believers don’t acknowledge the importance of luck in football or in FIFA. Our 2017 scripting survey showed that 6 in 10 scripting believers didn’t acknowledge that importance of luck in real football, and nearly 3 in 4 scripting believers didn’t acknowledge that FIFA, like real football, is a highly random game.

Thus, as one would expect, a recurrent trait among scripting believers is that they don’t accept that bad things can be the product of coincidence!

We like theories that confirm our over-optimistic beliefs

Another way to explain why people like to believe in scripting is by looking at the endless number of cognitive biases that affect our ability to understand the world around us.

There is confirmation bias, i.e. our inherent preference for information and explanations, which confirms our existing beliefs. And there is optimism bias: Our inclination to believe that we are better off, luckier, healthier or less prone to get struck by accident than we really are. Both biases are confirmed by numerous studies, so the only remaining question is, how they influence our inclination to believe in scripting.

A hypothesis could be that optimism bias leads people to believe that they are better at FIFA than they really are, and that confirmation bias leads them to like scripting, because it can co-exist with that overly optimistic perception, even when the harsh reality – the results – tell the opposite story.

In support of this hypothesis is the strawpoll below posted on Reddit’s /r/FIFA . We asked people to asses their own skill level compared to others players responding to the same poll. The purpose of this was of course not to measure the actual ability level of the participants, but to demonstrate, how people are overoptimistic about their own abilities. The individual player has no chance of knowing the correct response, meaning that he has to make a guess. Does he make an optimistic or a pessimistic guess? 70 % made the optimistic guess, which of course confirms that people are more likely to overassess than underassess their FIFA abilities.

Q: How good are you compared to other people responding to this poll?

Percentage Votes
Above average 70 % 2457
Below average 30 % 1037

The results are by no means surprising. My survey from 2014, which targeted scripting / handicapping believers, yielded similar results. I asked the participants to assess their own skill level relative to other players. In addition to that, I also asked them to provide factual information about their actual Win / Loss ratio and XP level, meaning that I had the opportunity to compare their perceived skill level against their actual performance.

A few highlights from the survey:

  • Less than 2 % thought they were below average, while 75 % thought they were above average.
  • 18 % thought they were above average even though they were unable to win more often than they lost.
  • 9 %  thought they were significantly above average, despite winning as few as 2 in 3 games or less.

These facts seem to support the hypothesis that optimism bias leads people to believe that they are better at FIFA than they really are, and that confirmation bias leads them to like scripting as an idea, because it can co-exist with that perception.

Concluding remarks

I repeatedly ask scripting believers the ‘why’ question: Why would EA do something as apparently irrational as scripting the game? While this obviously is a fair question to ask, it’s fair to ask me the opposite question: Why would lots of people believe in something, if it didn’t make sense? In a nutshell, I think it can be boiled down to that people believe in scripting because it is easier than accepting the truth. Challenging your own beliefs is an energy-consuming process, which most people find repellent by instinct.

As neurologist Steven Novella puts it, “the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations”.

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