Bad Referees and the Blue Lens Effect

I guess you could call me a sports fan. I don’t consider myself a fanatic, but I watch my fair share of football and basketball games. Whenever I attend a game in person I always notice how many fans in my section are obsessed with officiating. It seems that all the bad calls go against their team. They spend more of their energy yelling at the refs than they spend supporting their players.

I decided to do an experiment. I watched several games on ESPN between teams I don’t care about. I kept track of calls I thought were probably missed. I discovered that, 1) there aren’t as many bad calls as people think, 2) the poor calls were pretty evenly distributed, and 3) the refs didn’t really affect the outcome of most games. The team that played better generally won. Why, then, are almost all fans convinced that their team gets the worst officiating outcomes every game?

It must be human nature to filter our observations according to our passions. It reminds me of my 35mm photography days. Whenever I would use a red or blue filter, I would get a totally different image on film than my naked eye saw through the viewfinder. If red represents bad calls and anger, then imagine a stadium full of fans wearing red-lensed sunglasses.

What does this mean for a business owner?

We care about our businesses, therefore we tend to filter out things that are going well and only see what we think might be mistakes. In other words, management sees the business through the same red lenses sports fans wear. We end up spending the bulk of our time storming around trying to correct the mistakes through punishment (“you’re fired”) or negative reinforcement (“if I do what the boss says, maybe he’ll shut up”).

Punishment or negative reinforcement is sometimes effective at weakening undesired behaviors. But positive reinforcement almost always strengthens desired behaviors. So, why do we focus on the negative? The same reason we never see the bad calls that go in our team’s favor – it’s human nature. But can we take off the red glasses and don blue ones in order to see the things that are going right more clearly? Absolutely! But it takes practice and discipline. The red-lensed glasses fit so well and are so comfortable. We just grab them out of habit even though a practically unused blue-lensed pair is sitting right there.

The moral of this story is, stop yelling at the refs and start praising the players when they do something right! They’re the ones that are going to win the game for us. And they’re more likely to do that if the right behaviors are praised and celebrated. That also means re-training yourself to notice!

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