How to Predict the FIFA World Cup

Currently, England are 200-1 to win the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia this summer. To explain what that means to those of you unfamiliar with bookmaking lingo, if you put a £10 bet on England to win, at the end of the tournament you will have lost £10.

I am not a gambler, but I know enough to guess that a bet, when all is said and done, is a punt: you are supposed to enjoy it. So the psychology of this is such that even if cold, hard logic suggests that Brazil has a far higher chance of winning, a self-respecting England fan might find it hard to go and put £100 on Brazil to win it. An England fan is more likely to put their money on England, then spend the summer holding Pandora’s box upside down and furiously shaking it, wondering why nothing is coming out. Bookmakers know this in group optimism bias, a version of the availability heuristic, and adjust their odds around the world accordingly!

We’re mere mortals and cannot trust ourselves: we need a computer to sort this Russian World Cup out. Computers are objective, impartial, data-driven and prone to fail only under the malign intervention of cyber-attacks from foreign powers like, errr… Anyway. Not only is the computer not subject to ingroup bias, to assure objectivity one notable incarnation comes from a nation that doesn’t even call the game football. “Soccerbot” uses “Soccermatics” to read current odds and team performance data, calculate key metrics and predict upcoming matches. It is claimed that if you had followed the bot’s predictions, the Soccerbot – I’d like to imagine that the bot’s American developers had enough soccer “street” to give it Peter Crouch’s body – would have left you 1,800% up over the bookies over the past 3 years. (This return does involve a huge number of games, so the relative return per game is much more modest. But, nonetheless, it does suggest the predictive power of the bot is impressive).

Still, what does a robot really know? And don’t get me started on metrics and league tables. How could a computer predict the sorcery of a Gareth Bale overhead kick, or the Antigonian fatalism of a David Beckham underhand kick? Magic or genius, or something, somewhere in between, turns games. Sometimes the gods, or even the hand of God, intervenes. And we have hope and luck, and luck and hope: we know from football history that Terry Butcher can secure a goalless draw with Italy with a bloodied headband, goalkeepers can play FA Cup finals with broken necks. And we know Russian linesmen (or at least that Russians will be controlling the cameras for goal-line technology). Would a supercomputer predict any of that? I don’t think so. Who predicted Trump (aside from that strange, Bulgarian granny)? Who predicted Brexit? Who predicted they’d change Marathon to Snickers and Boris Johnson would be Home Secretary? The host nation is, after all, famously a mystery wrapped up in an enigma. The universe is one, big, capricious ball of hypothesis. This could be England’s year…

Hope means that we know all of this when we place our bets. If maths, bots, and experts can’t predict the World Cup, we need some other method of divination. And in recent years the predictive power of a range of different animals has loomed front and centre of media sports coverage. How does this work? In brief, animals either wear flags of competing countries and engage in some sort of race, or they nibble a bit of food or attach themselves to something with one or other competing nation’s flag on it (first nibble equals winner). Or, in a rather unsavoury version, choose to defecate on the prospective loser’s flag to signal the outcome. All hail the experimental method!

A few words about these animal predictions. First, they only really come to the fore when a tournament is in the knockout stages. A cynic might suggest this is because there are more gaps between games and there needs to be some sort of guff to fill the media vacuum. Or it may be that previous rounds have literally sorted the sheep from the goats and weeded out species with sub-standard psychic abilities. Animals with high psychic power: octopi (or is it octopusses?), otters, bears (polar, but not grizzly), meerkats.

Frankly, I’d be suspicious of meerkats given that they are clearly in bed with insurance companies which, as we know, have their own supercomputers plugging away at stats. Animals with low psychic abilities: chickens, jellyfish and wildebeest. Wildebeest are particularly bad. This list of animals with poor psychic abilities is compiled from personal observations but that feels entirely legitimate given that it is based on my own psychic instincts which I challenge anyone to contest. The industry around animals predicting sporting outcomes is just crying out for a decent randomised control trial (RCT). Why has no one done this yet? UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), you are frittering our money away.

A European supercomputer has England going out to Germany 3-2 in the quarter finals. That, frankly, feels like a respectable result. But perhaps it’s neuroscience, not these flaky computers, that will help us to predict the outcome when all is said and done. So here, for nostalgia and perhaps vindication through posterity, is Gareth Southgate’s sad face once again. But hope springs eternal so I found a scan of Gareth’s happy face too. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll see it this summer. But don’t bet on it. Gamble responsibly.

2016, “A Kick in the Neuros”: England vs Germany and penalties…

Psychology Will Eat Itself

You probably never heard of the obscure jangle band “Jamie Wednesday”. But you might know a quote, from an interview with the band in 1986, predicting that cannibalization will be the downfall of pop music due to the endless recycling of old songs.

Pop did, indeed, start to eat itself. The first course was a rebranding, briefly, as Britpop (Oasis rewrote the words for, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”). But after Britpop came Simon Cowell, chef for the main course, and pop was subjected to the indignity of a public vote. Pop music became Cheryl Cole removing last night’s bhuna from the microwave to check for hotspots before serving it to Louis Walsh: “Ooh, it’s even cheekier the second time around isn’t it, pet?”

Psychology, like pop, will eat itself… psychology, at least the scientific study of psychology, will eat itself because it has become so utterly fixated on justifying its status as a scientific discipline it has forgotten why it existed in the first place. I say this with sadness, as a psychologist. I believe psychology is a science. I believe the world needs scientific rigour in understanding behaviour and its causes. The world needs psychology, but psychology will eat itself.

The discipline has had a problem with identity, with self-worth, for a long time. Maybe it’s the origins in introspectionsim and Freudian approaches. Maybe it’s that public consciousness has never really understood what modern, scientific, experimental psychology is all about. If there is widespread misunderstanding of psychological science, that isn’t the public’s fault. If a date doesn’t get that I am really a full on alpha male rather than a beta, tailor-made for the friend zone, that’s down to the vibe I’m sending out!

And so, today, we talk of participants rather than subjects but never really get the significance of the change in language: I suspect many think it’s pseudo-legal terminology introduced for insurance purposes. Few researcher psychologists have truly been comfortable in their simultaneously scientific and human skin. Many shed the latter at the lab door, and the researcher skin is typically harder and less sensitive than the human one, and senses participants as objects in the world, data on a sheet, or red blobs on a scan. Psychology got so fixated on avowing itself as science it forgot what it was about: people.

In the fields of the sciences, psychology occupies a certain turf. Unlike other sciences, in psychology you don’t have the luxury of pointing to something – a planet, an atom, a cucumber with ears – and saying, “you don’t understand that thing there, that’s science, that’s what I do”. In psychology, the “things” talk back. That’s especially true for studies of cognitive processes like memory, attention, language because, whether low or high level, human beings are reflexive. People are complex, fascinating, and importantly they are self-aware. That should be a boon to the field, but it has become its curse because psychology has never really shaken off the baggage of behaviourism and its objectification of subjective experience.

That fixation on proving scientific credentials is the root cause of the malaise. The English version of the patient has been symptomatic for many years: wrangling over HEFCE banding, an appropriate REF panel… I don’t know a colleague who hasn’t got a story of hostility amongst colleagues based on sub-disciplinary allegiances, or of PhD students bullying one another, reproducing their supervisor’s anxieties and prejudices. But the symptom that indicates that the case is now terminal is the vitriolic and downright nasty open science debate.

Look, no one in their right mind wants inaccurate data. No one wants fraudsters in science. Academia has sat passively while a system has been created where publication and citation are valued over ideas, diligence and ingenuity. That isn’t science – that is politicians and policy makers screwing up science. That is the marketisation and metrication of ideas, innovation and intelligence. How Trump would laugh to see academics turning on one another for p-hacking a study on power posing, while he can get on with denying climate change, inciting racism and grabbing pussies!

Replication. Yes, a lot of classic studies in psychology don’t replicate. What’s the big deal? The science moved on and, in case you haven’t noticed, the world isn’t standing still. Lots of old studies in physics, chemistry… in any science don’t replicate. Chemistry grew out of alchemy; medicine out of quackery. False findings happened not because the scientists were dishonest (although some were), they happened because the norms and standards for evidence changed, because subsequent generations of scientists respectfully challenged their predecessors, and maybe because the initial research wasn’t great after all. The history of science, all science, demonstrates that it is an organic and continually developing process with discoveries and revelations, breakthroughs and setbacks. Science, like life, is messy.

Yet we find ourselves in a cycle where replication is required for almost any formative study, any idea, any hypothesis (yes, I mean hypothesis) in psychology. Researchers have to register their work and earn badges to prove their credentials. This is not happening in other fields. It is happening in psychology (and particular virtiol is directed against social psychology, unfairly caricatured as the “soft end”) because of the discipline’s angst about its objectivist credentials. There is a veritable industry of Simon Cowells, Mr Nastys (steroidy, white men), mob-policing the discipline without any interrogation of the grounds for their authority.

The future will happen elsewhere: disciplinary boundaries are breaking down because real problems need thought (and thinkers) to solve them, and thought is not owned by any discipline, scientist, social scientist, artist or person. Thinking develops and is evaluated through respectful debate, discussion and argument. That is absolutely not to say we should be casual with the truth or the facts. No, it is to say the good science is about good ideas and honest research. Those who stick to a rigid and constrictive science are missing the trick.  Academic disciplines and the boundaries between them mutate and always have done. And change, innovation is good. But psychology never really had the self-confidence to contribute in its own right – it will eat itself.

Not all of psychology will be consumed. Some will be transformed, some will be reconstituted into its constituent ingredients. Clinicians will retreat into medicine and health sciences, social psychologists into sociology, and cognitive psychology is already reinventing as cognitive neuroscience (which enticingly includes the word science in its name but doesn’t hand over the keys to the wet lab). Either way, the integrated study of psychology, of behaviour and of cognition, emotion and self, that will go. Psychology will survive as an undergraduate entry or a vocational degree, but it will not retain its disciplinary autonomy as an area of research…

Pop ate itself, and no one under thirty tunes in to the X-factor any more. Psychology will eat itself on a diet of futile replication and reproducability… like Cheryl Cole’s reheated bhuna.