By Will Hayward 11/08/2015

We expect people to be consistent. 

We either like John Key and think everything he does is great, or we are skeptical of him and think everything he does is part of a clever plan that ensures his own success. We want our heroes to be purer than snow and our villains to be irredeemably evil.

Stanley Milgram

In Psychology, we know that this is a fiction, and that people are often not very consistent. Instead, they are powerfully affected by the environment. 50 years ago, Stanley Milgram conducted a ground-breaking series of experiments investigating the power of the situation on the behavior of the individual.

He convinced people to apply electric shocks to others that appeared to be so powerful that the people who were shocked were rendered unconscious. Actually, the whole situation was a sham and the people being shocked were playing along. The question was whether people would set aside their moral compass and do harm to another individual when an authority figure (the “experimenter”) instructed them to. Shockingly, 65% of people, people who were good and decent in their everyday lives, did just that.

This experiment is often used to show how easy it is for totalitarian dictatorships to exert control – just provide powerful cues of authority and a populous will likely become obedient. But Milgram’s experiments also show something else. He performed many different variations of the task, and the real lesson of his work is how much he was able to push around rates of obedience.

For example, if a participant saw someone else (actually another accomplice) appear to keep applying electric shocks up to the maximum value, rates of obedience by the participants themselves increased to 90%. However, if the participant viewed another person who appeared to rebel against the experimenter and refuse to continue, the participant also rebelled, so that only 10% continued to the end.

From the outside this looks very inconsistent, since they behave in completely opposite ways in highly similar situations. But in fact they are being consistently influenced by powerful yet often unobserved aspects of the environment. Furthermore, this result is genuinely surprising, because our natural tendency to explain behavior as being due to an individual’s internal qualities like personality and character means that we drastically underestimate these effects of the situation.

No-one wins ’em all

Right now in New Zealand, we’re looking to another bunch of guys to behave consistently. The All Blacks are the world’s top ranked rugby team, and the country expects their team to win the Rugby World Cup, which starts in England in just over a month. So, even though they lost to Australia last weekend, we shrug it off, knowing that no-one wins them all, and that in 2011 they lost a very similar game before going to the World Cup and prevailing in the final. Anything other than an All Black triumph at the World Cup will be considered a disaster. After all, last weekend’s loss was only the third one in four years.

Our logic is that we’re the best team, so we should win. We think that because we usually win rugby games, we should win them all at the World Cup. That’s the consistency we expect. But, of course, we know that this isn’t true. New Zealand has often fielded the best team, yet has only won the World Cup twice, both times at home. As rugby fans (and all Kiwis) know, we have a long history of tragic losses to plucky underdogs, culminating in the 2007 quarterfinal loss to a previously ragged French team.

So why it is easy for the All Blacks to win test matches, but hard to win the World Cup? To answer this question, we need to cast our minds back to Milgram. Remember he showed how much we underestimate the power of the situation. We think people behave because of their internal qualities, when in fact they are heavily influenced by the situation they find themselves in. We overemphasize personality, strength, and “mongrel”, and we underemphasize what is going on around them.

The point is, winning a World Cup is a very different environment from winning a rugby test. For example, when teams play regular tests against each other, they usually have similar quality of preparation. If they don’t, the underprepared team is at a significant disadvantage. In the World Cup, preparation for the knockout games differs widely. In England, the All Blacks will play pool games against four teams that have never beaten them, and who will probably play second strength teams against NZ in order to save themselves for the games that “matter.” So the All Blacks are likely to go into the quarterfinals with next week’s game against Australia as their last serious contest. And that quarterfinal has a good chance of being against France. Let’s party like it’s 2007.

Memories of 2007

How do we know that World Cups are different from other games of rugby? Well, the best way to predict the future is to examine the past. As we all know, in the seven World Cups, the only ones that we’ve won have been held on our patch. Every time we go away we come back in despair. It seems as though we find new ways to let it slip between our fingers.

Then again, even though everyone else laughs at us, it is not as if any of them have the answer. For all that the All Blacks have blown it on any number of occasions, no single team has figured out how to win. The Aussies have only won twice, and not since 1999. The South Africans also have two, but one was by virtue of inspiration from Nelson Mandela (and let’s not get started on Suzie), and in the other they were in the right place at the right time. England have only done it once. And that’s it. So in fact: it is just very hard for anyone to win the World Cup.

Now, we all know this. But somehow we think that 2007 was an aberration. In fact, 2007 just shows the power of the environment. The All Blacks don’t become terrible teams at World Cups. But World Cups are unusually hard tournaments to win, and we shouldn’t be surprised by this because we have all the data that we need. Any group of players will struggle to win three knockout games in a row. Our guys, while good, are no different.

So the All Blacks are likely not to win the World Cup, not because they’re weak, or naïve, or because Dan gets injured, or because McCaw is too old. It’s just really hard to do. But that doesn’t mean they won’t. And of course it shouldn’t stop us willing them on, particularly on 17 October against the bloody French.

You can learn more about Milgram’s obedience experiments here:
Stanley Milgram: Obedience to Authority