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Why the Bucks Will Lose: The Power of Self-Serving Bias

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The headline is a bit misleading: I’m not predicting that the Bucks will lose. But before we dive into the playoffs, I think it is healthy to engage in an exercise of why the Bucks will lose. That way, if it happens, cooler heads can prevail.

Obviously, there are numerous factors that would explain why the Bucks will lose. Some of these could be categorized as dispositional factors, or aspects of the Bucks themselves. These are the bread and butter that we have been serving and you have been eating all season: things like big man depth (are Bobby and Serge enough?), guard depth (why can’t George Hill and Jevon Carter merge into a player with both of their strengths?), and so on.

There are also situational factors, which are outside of the Bucks’ control. These include things like opponents, referees, injuries, and the like. They also include playing inside an empty arena in Florida rather than on the home court that we earned. Still salty.

If you’ve read any of my previous columns, you’ll know that I’m not about to provide a basketball-savvy analysis of the Bucks’ dispositional flaws or the situational traps that they are most likely to fall into. Rather, I’m going to discuss whether we rely on dispositional or situational factors - based on the titular self-serving bias - when evaluating outcomes. This has important implications for the Bucks’ playoff performance: win or lose.

This article is motivated by my frustration with evaluations of the Bucks’ playoff performances the last three seasons, both inside and outside the fandom. When the Bucks lost against the Raptors and the Heat, fans of other teams concluded that the Bucks were a great regular season team, but not a great team. Bucks fans countered by bringing up Fred Van Vleet’s newborn and the Bubble.

Last season, there was a noticeable reversal. Bucks fans interpreted the championship as evidence that the Bucks are a great team. Many have spent the season clapping back at any criticism of the team by busting out the Squidward meme. In contrast, fans of other teams were more likely to point out the injuries faced by other teams in their path and Kevin Durant’s shoe size. (Side note: We talk a lot about Durant’s shoe being on the line, but we never talk about if he didn’t make the shot in the first place. Just saying.)

The reason that these reactions are frustrating is that they are one-sided. We often attribute results to dispositional OR situational factors, when in fact they are due to dispositional AND situational factors. But, as we continue with a bit of the history of studying dispositional and situational factors, there are important patterns to whether we foreground one or the other.

Historically, social scientists have foregrounded dispositional factors. This makes sense because we usually think of people as being stable, with personalities that remain relatively constant over time. Moreover, the tools that social scientists use - things like surveys, asking questions like “Are you introverted or extraverted?” - are more attuned to measuring dispositional factors. It is a lot less work to have someone take one survey than multiple surveys; it is thus convenient to study things that do not change all that much.

Over time, however, research has pushed back at this focus on dispositional factors. Kurt Lewin’s behavioral model states that a person’s behavior is a product of the person and their environment. Not exactly rocket science, but we had still been neglecting it. Studying people’s environments is a lot trickier because they change. Social scientists had to observe how acted differently in different places, which is much harder to do with a survey or in a research lab. Thus, they implemented tools that could examine how people behave across different situations, like pinging participants (via pagers back in the day, via smartphones nowadays) as their environments changed over the course of their days. Today, there is widespread acceptance that both dispositional and situational factors are crucial when predicting behavior.

However, although we can agree in principle that behavior is determined by both dispositional and situational factors, we do not always perceive that to be the case. The self-serving bias argues we tend to focus on the factors that, as its name implies, serves ourselves. There are two important dimensions: whether the behavior is positive or negative (valence), and whether the behavior is conducted by myself or someone else (actor). These dimensions criss-cross, such that the self-serving bias would predict the following:

  • We are more likely to attribute our positive behaviors to dispositional factors than situational factors.
  • We are more likely to attribute our negative behaviors to situational factors than dispositional factors.
  • We are more likely to attribute others’ positive behaviors to situational factors than situational factors.
  • We are more likely to attribute others’ negative behaviors to dispositional factors than dispositional factors.

When we evaluate our own behaviors, we usually want to feel good about ourselves. Positive behaviors support that perception, so we attribute them to our dispositions. Negative behaviors challenge that perception, so we attribute them to our situations. When we evaluate others - at least those who are a threat to ourselves - we usually want to feel bad about them. Positive behaviors challenge that perception, so we attribute them to their situations. Negative behaviors support that perception, so we attribute them to their dispositions.

If we substitute teams for individuals - a move that is justified by, among other reasons, how often we say “we” when talking about the Bucks - then we have an explanation for evaluations of the Bucks’ recent playoff performances. As Bucks fans, we are wont to say: “The Bucks won the championship? What a great disposition.” Conversely, fans from around the league - who are directly threatened by the Bucks - will come to the opposite conclusion. “The Bucks won the championship? What a lucky situation.” The opposite volteface occurs for the previous two playoffs. Bucks fans will decry these failures as terrible situations, whereas other fans will interpret them as evidence for our terrible disposition.

The Bucks may very well defy the title of this piece and win the championship again this year. In that case, it will be important to avoid excessive hubris by not failing to acknowledge the situational factors that helped the Bucks triumph. However, it will also be important to call out other fans (and pundits) for failing to acknowledge dispositional factors (as they have throughout this season).

On the flip side, if the Bucks indeed lose, we need to avoid excessive excuse-making and acknowledge dispositional factors that contributed to the loss. Yet, we also must push back on other fans and pundits who ignore situational factors (as they have done last season and the season before that).

Regardless of the result, the self-serving bias is a helpful reminder that, in basketball and beyond, behavior is a result of dispositions and situations. The key is to balance our explanations of behavior in light of the valence and actor of the behavior. We can’t control how the Bucks will perform in the playoffs, but we can control how we evaluate their performance.