A Comment on Coaching and Learning

Posted on February 17, 2011 by


Henry Abbott – at TrueHoop – had a nice column Tuesday on the “Punitive Coach”.  The story focused on a specific high school coach and the tactics she used to elicit better performances from her players.   For anyone who has watched sports, the tactics are not surprising.  Yelling and punishments are often used in response to poor performances.  But is this approach effective?

Kahneman on Coaching

An answer to this question can be found in a classic story from behavioral economics.  Daniel Kahneman – who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 (for his work with respect to behavioral economics) – tells the following story in his autobiography:

I had the most satisfying Eureka experience of my career while attempting to teach flight instructors that praise is more effective than punishment for promoting skill-learning. When I had finished my enthusiastic speech, one of the most seasoned instructors in the audience raised his hand and made his own short speech, which began by conceding that positive reinforcement might be good for the birds, but went on to deny that it was optimal for flight cadets. He said, “On many occasions I have praised flight cadets for clean execution of some aerobatic maneuver, and in general when they try it again, they do worse. On the other hand, I have often screamed at cadets for bad execution, and in general they do better the next time. So please don’t tell us that reinforcement works and punishment does not, because the opposite is the case.” This was a joyous moment, in which I understood an important truth about the world: because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean, it is part of the human condition that we are statistically punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them. I immediately arranged a demonstration in which each participant tossed two coins at a target behind his back, without any feedback. We measured the distances from the target and could see that those who had done best the first time had mostly deteriorated on their second try, and vice versa. But I knew that this demonstration would not undo the effects of lifelong exposure to a perverse contingency.

There are two lessons to learn from Kahneman’s story.

Yelling at people who make mistakes is not likely to be an effective reaction.  Improvement observed after yelling is probably just regression to the mean.  Furthermore, yelling – as Henry notes – likely imposes additional costs on the player.  One also suspects that at some point, players just learn how to tune out the yelling (something I have asked student-athletes about in the past).

Slow Learning

Kahneman doesn’t just explain why yelling doesn’t work, he also expresses doubt that teaching the coaches not to do this is a futile task.  Coaches have learned how to coach from other coaches.  And this behavior is part of the coaches’ training.  Undoing what people “know” is extraordinarily difficult.

The difficulty people have with new information is another key finding from behavioral economics.  Contrary to the story told in standard neoclassical economics, behavioral economics teaches that people tend to be slow to adopt new information. 

Simple cost-benefit analysis can explain the problem.  When people are presented with information that contradicts what they “know” they are faced with a choice:

  • Accept that what they “knew” in the past was incorrect. This choice then imposes a cost as the person must now learn the new information (and learning requires thinking, and thinking isn’t free).
  • Reject the new information.  This choice reduces the cost of learning to zero. 

Given these choices, people tend to choose to reject the new information.  Consequently, learning is difficult. 

It is not that people can’t learn.  It is simply that choosing not to learn keeps costs very low.  Of course, as the cost of not learning gets to be higher, people tend to be more likely to look at new information.  But often the cost of not learning is low.  Therefore people are comfortable believing the same thing today that they believed yesterday. 

Why We Disagree

As I wrote this post it occurred to me that this story about learning can be easy to misinterpret.  We often confront people who have different beliefs.  And since we “know” what we believe is correct, and we often can’t get people to change their beliefs, we can easily see that the story told about slow learning is true.  At least, it is easy to think that people are not listening to you because they are “slow”,

Well, maybe not.  Yes, people are slow to learn.  But that is not the only reason people disagree.  Here are some other explanations for why people disagree. 

  • Sometimes people have thought about what you are saying (i.e. they suffered the cost of listening to you) and have decided you are incorrect.  This can happen because people can interpret information differently.  This can reflect differences in values or differences in what they think is “important”.  For example, two people can look at the same estimated effect and disagree on whether the effect is “big” or “small”.  And of course, people can also think you are incorrect because you really are incorrect. 
  • Sometimes people lack information necessary to understand what you are saying.  In other words, understanding your argument requires some education and the person arguing with you is not as educated as you would like.  This problem is especially common when one is trying to explain the results of statistical analysis.  Most people have little or no training in statistical analysis.  And even those who think they “know” statistics don’t always “know” as much as they could (there are a number of “bad” studies that can be used to illustrate this point).

So which is it?  If we could answer that question, we probably could all agree on everything (or at least reduced the number of disagreements).  Certainly people tend to prefer to think that when others disagree that the problem is “slow learning” or lack of education.   On the other hand, sometimes maybe what you are saying isn’t correct. 

Since we don’t “know” why disagreements persist, the best course of action is to simply lay forth your argument.  If people agree, that’s great.  If not, listen to what they say.  If after listening you don’t agree…. well, then move on.  We don’t have to agree on everything.  At least, I think that’s what I “know”. 

– DJ