A Cognitive Twist on the Tiger Woods Scandal

From Jonah Lehrer's recent blog post...

James Surowiecki has the smartest take I've read on the Woods sex scandal:

Woods's appeal was based, ultimately, not on his physical abilities but on his mental toughness, his extraordinary capacity for focus and discipline. He was the man who always made the key putt, who never cracked under pressure. That's why Gatorade, introducing a new drink with his face on the label, called the drink Tiger Focus. And it's why the most powerful Nike ad about him is the one in which his father, in a voice-over, says, "I'd say, 'Tiger, I promise you that you'll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life. And he hasn't . . . and he never will.'

In other words, Woods has been presented as the embodiment of bourgeois virtues: dedication, hard work, single-mindedness. Indeed, when, in 2008, Woods won the U.S. Open while essentially playing on one leg, the Times' David Brooks devoted a column to his extraordinary ability to block out distraction and focus on the matter at hand, dubbing him "the exemplar of mental discipline" for our time. For millions of people--many of them, to be sure, affluent middle-aged white guys--Woods embodied an approach not just to golf but to life.


I think the shock of the Woods scandal is largely a testament to the power of the fundamental attribution error (FAE). Simply put, the FAE occurs when people overestimate the importance of supposedly "fundamental" personality traits and underestimate the importance of variables like context. For instance, when subjects were given a series of pro-Fidel Castro and anti-Castro essays to read, they naturally assumed that the pro-Fidel authors were more sympathetic to the Communist cause. So far, so obvious: people write what they believe. However, this assumption persisted even when subjects were told that the position of the writers was determined by a random coin toss. Why? Because we naturally overlook the "situational constraints" placed on people.

The same thing happens when you meet someone in a bar and assume they are always talkative and outgoing. What you've failed to consider is the four beers and two shots that preceded your conversation. The drunk extrovert might be shy in a different and more sober situation.

What does the FAE have to do with Tiger Woods? We watched him golf on television and couldn't help but stare in wonder. He seemed supernatural, an exemplar of steely focus and self-control. We assumed, because of the FAE, that these traits were fundamental attributes of Tiger Woods, and not just a by-product of the golf course. In other words, he must always be controlled and focused, because he's so controlled and focused while swinging a golf club.

Needless to say, we were wrong. It was a mistake to generalize from a game. Besides, the assumption that Woods was immaculately disciplined was itself a scientific impossibility. Self-control, after all, is a limited mental resource, a feeble cortical muscle, and I think there's some tangential evidence that being perfectly focused on the golf course (or in the Oval Office) might actually make us more likely to indulge elsewhere. (It's the sex equivalent of dieting all day and then gorging on ice cream at night.) The point is that we can only resist for so long; the defining feature of human willpower is its weakness.*

So I feel no pity for Accenture, or Gatorade, or Nike or all those other corporate behemoths that hitched themselves to the Woods brand. They benefited for years from the FAE, from our willingness to extrapolate core character traits from a few hours of televised golf. And now our error has been revealed, and they're paying the price.

*Or do we just think our willpower is fatally flawed? See my previous post. Very well, then, I contradict myself.

I really enjoyed the cognitive twist Jonah Lehrer put on the Tiger scandal. He refers to two ideas, one from social psychology and another from cognitive psychology.

Social psychology gives us the concept of fundamental attribution error (FAE). You can read more about that here.

The second idea comes from more recent research that suggests that self-control is a limited resource. That is, Tiger had spent so much of his self-control in his golf game that he didn't have any left over for his personal life.

This might be a stretch, as I'm not sure that the limited-resource model really would predict that willpower is limited asynchronously... unless Tiger was getting after these girls while he was on the golf course, I don't think the theory holds up.

Anyways, I added Lehrer's blog to my reader, and I suggest you do the same. His writing is in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell with more up-to-date research. You should also read the Surowiecki article.