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Momentum: Not Just For Silly Pundits

2013 August 7
by Eric Horowitz

Watch TV for long enough and you’ll come across a talking head expounding on the awesome power of momentum. For example, sports commentators often praise terrible decisions (e.g. taking a sure field goal instead of going for a touchdown) based on the need to “keep momentum going,” as if scoring points has some significant intrinsic value beyond the benefit of increasing your point total. (Grantland’s Bill Barnwell has been doing the yeoman’s work of tamping down on silly momentum narratives.)

The power of momentum also emerges during political campaigns, when pundits routinely feel the need to conjure momentum out of thin air. If a particular candidate has a good polling day, it’s surely a sign he’s on his way to the top. If he gets a string of positive news cycles, there’s never any doubt that things might change. Not surprisingly, Nate Silver has been quick to debunk such narratives.

So sports and political commentators clearly buy into the myth of momentum, but the question remains: Do people who aren’t paid to fill airtime with dubious narratives believe that momentum is a real thing? That is, do people believe that improvement is bound to lead to more improvement?

A new study led by NYU’s Nathan Pettit suggests the answer is yes. Pettit and his team conducted a series of five experiments, each a variation on the same basic design. In the initial experiment participants were told about a person occupying a given position in the hierarchy of a work group (e.g. 6th out of 10). Some participants were told the person had risen to that position (from 8th to 6th), some were told the person had fallen to that position (from 4th to 6th), and some were merely told the person was 6th (the control condition.) When asked to judge the person’s prestige, participants who were told he had moved up to 6th rated him significantly higher than participants in the control condition (momentum!), while those who were told he had fallen to 6th rated him significantly lower than participants in the control condition (nomentum!)

Similar findings occurred in experiments involving college rankings (a school that moved up to 11th was rated as more prestigious and advised to increase tuition more than a school that dropped to 11th), product rankings (luxury watches that had risen in a magazine’s rankings were seen as more prestigious), and players in a trivia league (players with the same ranking were judged differently depending on whether they had recently risen or fallen to their spot.)

On some level, the findings are nothing more than a specific manifestation of recency bias. People tend to place too much weight on the most recent change (e.g. falling from 4th to 6th) and not enough on previous occurrences (the circumstances that led to being ranked 4th). There’s also a failure to account for regression to the mean. When somebody moves from 8th to 6th, the new position is seen as the “true” position rather than a deviation from the true position. Thus it’s presumed the person is more likely to stay at 6th or move higher rather than fall back to 7th or 8th.

But the findings do show that even if pundits don’t have a great grasp of probability, their mental failings are not unique. Everybody seems biased toward thinking that success will lead to more success.

Does any of this matter? When it comes to a football game, the answer is surely no. A team gains no advantage if a string of positive plays (momentum!) makes fans think they’ll win, and so it’s never a good idea to take a sure field goal over a 50% chance of scoring a touchdown.

On the other hand, in elections people like to vote for winners, and so perceived momentum could influence votes. Similarly, if you’re trying to decide whether to go after a likely but small improvement in status or a less-likely but larger improvement, it may be wise to consider the appearance of momentum. For example, imagine you’re deciding between running for Vice President or President of an organization. If you ever plan on running again, the effect of perceived momentum could tilt the decision toward running for VP and taking the sure but smaller status increase.

In general, the study adds to the pile of evidence that shows people are fairly lousy at judging things. The trick is to find ways to take advantage of it. That klezmer band that fell from 2nd to 6th in the latest coolness ratings? Now is the perfect time to book them for your kid’s bar-mitzvah.
Pettit, N.C., Sivanathan, N., Gladstone, E., & Mar, J.C. (2013). Rising Stars and Sinking Ships
Consequences of Status Momentum Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612473120

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