Players aren't pretending: Science explains why opponents insist they didn't touch a ball last

Yahoo Sports Contributor
Yahoo Sports

Basketball players learn how to make their case to referees at a young age. If opponents are battling for a loose ball that finds its way out of bounds, they each pull their hands back, act like it never skimmed their fingers, and argue like crazy that it was off of the other player.

The moment has the opportunity to change the momentum of games — Texas Tech knows that all too well — even when replay is used. Fans get worked up into a tizzy at the calls and become irritated at players for arguing they didn’t touch it last, even if they clearly did.

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Turns out, they may not be arguing for argument’s sake. A new paper by scientists at Arizona State University and published in the April issue of Science Advances concludes that people believe their actions happen milliseconds before the other person.

“We have identified what may be a principal cause of arguments in ballgames,” the study concludes, “and it is about time.”

Notre Dame's Jackie Young and Baylor's Chloe Jackson chase a loose ball during the national title game. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Notre Dame's Jackie Young and Baylor's Chloe Jackson chase a loose ball during the national title game. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Different experiences of reality possible

The researchers, Ty Tang and Michael K. McBeath of ASU, found that people are more apt to think their own actions happened before that of another, even if those actions are near-simultaneous.

Tang, a cognitive science doctorate student, told NPR:

"It's very possible that people experience two different orders of events, two different experiences of reality, even though they experienced the same event.”

The first thing to keep in mind, Tang writes, is that time is subjective: one’s own experiences impact the perception of time.

With that in mind researchers ran three different experiments of timing games with either visual or auditory stimuli to test the hypothesis. How those were implemented is best described by Tang himself in a piece for The Conversation.

The researchers found a “significant bias” in participants, concluding that they judge their own voluntary actions to happen approximately 50 milliseconds before that of a near-simultaneous event. The ordering of perceived events is called a temporal order judgement and in the experiments, participants told researchers two-thirds of the time that they were the first to touch.

They call it the “egocentric temporal order bias.”

It’s not a rule — people don’t always think they touched first — and it’s unclear why it happens or if it has to do with sensory differences in the brain.

Tang told NPR it could be a part of a theory that says humans are “constantly predicting the world and trying to create this mental model of what's going to happen."

Essentially, if one wants to be the first to touch, one believes he or she is. A basketball player wants to keep possession of the ball, so if opponents are battling for it near the base line each will conclude they touched it first.

Impact on sports and competitors

The study noted that some people are more susceptible to the bias than others, and factors such as competitive situations in a sporting event play into it.

Being the first to grab a box of cereal in the grocery aisle when there’s plenty more to be had wouldn’t bring out the bias because it doesn’t matter as much. Being the first to a parking spot in a crowded lot would.

Tang couldn’t say if athletes are more or less likely to have the bias and if that can be trained away. The researchers, he said, want to see people be more understanding of other people’s perspectives since it could be they’re both correct from their perspective vantage points when it comes to temporal order judgments.

“Sometimes people actually do have different experiences of what happened and they're not lying — they might have actually just experienced it that way,” he said.

The research explains not only why players in basketball and soccer are adamant they didn’t touch the ball last, but also why position players and base runners argue bang-bang plays. A first baseman catching the throw and a runner crossing the bag both believe their action was first.

Per the study, they both may be correct from their own vantage points. Somehow, though, we don’t think that will fly with the umps and a home crowd.

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