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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Third Team at the Super Bowl

On Sunday night, my beloved Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers punched their tickets for Super Bowl 50. Both teams should be proud. The Broncos have spent months working together to gel as a team to reach this moment, and the Panthers no less. But the outcome of the game may ultimately rest on the teamwork of another group in the field, a group that will have barely worked together at all.  I’m talking, of course, about the officiating crew.

National Football League officiating crews generally remain together through the regular season: the same officials work together (at different venues) each week.  Once the playoffs start, however, the highest graded officials at each position are chosen to continue working games, and they are reshuffled into new “All-Star-style” crews.  The crew assigned to the Super Bowl (headed this year by referee Clete Blakeman) gets one divisional round game as a warm-up, but that’s it.  The officials who take the field on February 7 are among the very best individually at their positions, but their performance as a group is a much greater unknown.

Does it matter?  Cognitive psychology says yes, and the lessons carry broadly into many realms of law.

We often ask groups of people to make decisions based on distributed information. This means simply that each member of the group has some information that may be pertinent to the decision, but no single person has all the information. Each group member must share his or her information so that group as a whole can make informed decisions. Trained professionals often deal with the phenomenon of distributed information by coordinating their information acquisition and sharing in precise ways.  For example, a surgical team assigns certain team members to monitor specific aspects of the patient’s condition during the procedure, and adopts protocols for communicating that information to the entire team.  Similarly, a cockpit crew can safely land an airplane by assigning each crew member to monitor specific information (speed, altitude, weather conditions, control tower transmissions, etc.), and by sharing that information through coordinated discussion, even though no single member of the crew is aware of all the relevant information at any given time. 

In the legal world, decisions based on a distribution of information are also a regular occurrence.  Jurors pick up different details and nuances of evidence and witness testimony, and must reassemble it though memory and communication upon returning to the jury room.  Appellate panels, administrative boards, and rulemaking bodies work in similar ways, although they have better access after the fact to artifacts like briefs and transcripts.  The precise order and timing of how information is communicated may not be as important in a jury room as in an operating room, but the general idea is the same.  The quality and efficiency of group decisions depends in large part on the group’s ability to identify, share, and process the information they collectively possess.

The ability to share and process information is affected by the interpersonal dynamics of the group in question. For example, group members who work together regularly are more likely to develop shared mental models of the group’s purpose and customs. Shared mental models create a shared baseline of understanding, which allows the group to sift through information more efficiently, and which encourages group members to share the information that they know the group will deem important for the decision-making task.  Shared mental models can therefore promote decision-making consistency. If all officials on the Super Bowl crew adopt the “let ‘em play” mentality when it comes to pass defense (or conversely, universally adopt the “everything is pass interference” mentality), some of the calls may be incorrect, but at least they would be consistent within the game. If one official on the crew has a much more stringent view of what constitutes pass interference than another official, however, the structure of penalties within the game can seem erratic or biased, or it may take longer for the crew to agree on the correct call.

But if familiarity within the group is so helpful, why not just use the best overall officiating crew from the season?  The NFL actually tried this for a couple of Super Bowls in the mid-2000s, but reverted to the “All-Star” crew approach in 2006.  The problem here is that group familiarity breeds its own cognitive challenges. Shared mental models may cause group members to disregard (or fail to share) external information that is outside the scope of the shared mental model. So an officiating crew that tends not to call pass interference stringently in its first few games of the season may develop a collective (if unspoken) understanding not to call pass interference except in egregious instances. That may lead to some true instances of pass interference not being called in the playoffs, when it matters most. 

The NFL’s playoff officiating policy seems to be an effort to balance the costs and benefits of distributed cognition in familiar groups.  To assure consistency in calling penalties, playoff officials must have sufficiently similar mental models of the game (the pace, the type of calls that are appropriate, etc.).  But to assure accuracy in calling penalties, officials must be willing to share amongst themselves everything they see, even if it conflicts with what others may have seen (or not seen).

Clete Blakeman and his new team will be put to the test in two weeks. (Hopefully he can learn how to flip a coin by then.)  Here’s hoping they achieve both accuracy and precision in their calls. But if the cognitive task proves too much, here’s hoping they err in favor of the men with horses on their helmets.

Posted by Jordan Singer on January 26, 2016 at 09:44 AM in Sports | Permalink

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