Bad Thinking, Part 3: The SI Jinx

missouri chase daniels SI jinx
Not Pete Rose

Pete Rose, infamous Cincinnati Reds baseball player, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August of 1978, in the midst of a 44-game hitting streak. That same week, his streak ended. Numerous other examples over the years foster the belief that players or teams who achieve SI cover-status will experience the “SI Jinx” soon thereafter. A pair of local favorites: the University of Kansas football program appeared on the November 2007 cover after an 11-0 start, and lost the following week to rival Missouri; Missouri then graced the cover in December 2007 after reaching their first #1 ranking, and lost the following week to Oklahoma. The SI Jinx strikes again!

Coincidence or curse?

SI jinx sports thinkingTo this day, many athletes shun appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In January 2002, Kurt Warner declined to pose for the cover, so the magazine ran a photo of a black cat instead. The headline: “The Cover that No One Would Pose For.” Are their fears well-founded? If it isn’t a curse, then what explains the bizarre coincidence?

Thankfully, Daniel Kahneman provides enlightenment. In Thinking, Kahneman describes a statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean.” (Ch. 17) According to Wikipedia,

Regression to the mean is the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement—and if it is extreme on its second measurement, it will tend to have been closer to the average on its first.

In other words, if an athlete performs at a remarkably high level one week or one season, the following week or season is very likely to be worse, and vice versa. I imagine that if SI started featuring especially low-performing athletes on their magazine cover, we would soon discover a SI Cover Miracle!

Getting Lucky

regression to the mean kahneman jinxOne reason for our error in judgment here: we fail to account for luck. In many endeavors, luck plays a huge role, including sports, academic testing, and business success. Our performance in these areas tends to follow a curve, with frequent average performances (relative to personal skill), and few examples of either really awful or amazing performances. Luck (or the lack) is usually what accounts for the “outlier” performances on the edges of the curve. But we attribute this to skill or other non-causal factors instead.

dice luck jinx thinkingKahneman relates an interesting anecdote about a flight instructor who claimed that praise for good performances was detrimental, but intense criticism for bad performances was helpful. Why? Because when he yelled at a pilot for an especially poor flight, the pilot performed better the next time out. And when he praised him for “clean execution,” he got worse. The instructor failed to realize that this was statistically predictable and probably attributable to pilot luck. A classic example of regression to the mean.

The Upshot

happy luck jinx regression to the mean kahnemanIn my daily life, identifying regression to the mean can help me avoid emotional whiplash. I know that an amazing day is likely to be followed by an average day, so I’m not as disappointed when this occurs. Similarly, a really horrendous day will probably be succeeded by a better day, so there’s hope! Substitute whatever professional metrics you like for “day,” and you can apply the same truth in your life: sales figures, enrollment, attendance, stock performance, child behavior, or team wins.

I also remember to include luck, or perhaps unpredictable Divine intervention, in my evaluation of performance. This means that my absolute best and worst performances are probably not solely attributable to my skill. I should look at my average as a better gauge for evaluation, rather than taking the “outlier” as the norm.

bad luck jinx thinking kahnemanFinally, we can do away with belief in jinxes. Even if you could show a high correlation between some odd event and bad performance, this would not prove causation. Interestingly, while 37% of SI cover stars were “jinxed,” 58% maintained or improved their performance following their cover appearance, according to an 1984 study. The jinx myth endures because of yet another kind of “bad thinking:” the negativity bias! We tend to remember negative events and give them more weight in our reasoning.

I still plan to give away a copy of Kahneman’s book to a lucky subscriber! Sign up for Ground Belief updates with your email for a very high chance to win (I only have 2 subscribers as of yesterday).