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In Praise of the Missing, or Peyton Manning for 2011 NFL MVP!

January 22, 2012
Peyton Manning

Let me get in on a joke before it gets stale.  In a few days, American sports writers will weigh the statistics, talk among other writers and players, review the events of the latest American football season, and vote to decide the National Football Leagues most prestigious individual honor:  Who is the 2011 NFL Most Valuable Player.  The winner will be recognized as the single player who matters the most for his team; the most essential cog in the machine that is a NFL football team.  To a social psychologist, the selection of this individual has to be a fascinating process.  It represents the most significant judgment of another individual that an expert and involved community of authorities can make.

Now, if I had one, my vote for the NFL MVP for the latest season would be Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts.

I have to divulge why this might be considered an odd pick.  In May 2011, Peyton Manning underwent surgery for a chronic neck injury, and the recovery has not gone very well.  He had to undergo a second procedure in early September, breaking his streak of 208 consecutive regular season starts.  In fact, he never took a snap in any competitive game in the season just ended.

So why should Manning be considered the NFL MVP?  Since 2002, when they joined the AFC South Division, the Colts have been one of the most successful teams in the NFL   And Peyton Manning, the Colts quarterback, has been at the center of it, throwing for 3243 completions and 289 touchdowns, far more than any other quarterback in the NFL.  In that period, he never missed a Pro Bowl and was named the NFL MVP 4 times.  In 2009, Fox Sports named him the Player of the Decade; the Sporting News that same year labeled him the #1 player in the NFL.

This year’s team statistics shows just how valuable Manning is.  From 2002 to 2010, the Colts averaged almost 430 points per season, with nearly 5900 yards of offense and a touch over 12 wins, never missing the playoffs and winning Super Bowl XLII.

In this past season, the Colts achieved just 2 wins, with their scoring deflating to 243 points and their offense to a paltry 3051 yards.  Instead of competing for the Super Bowl, Indianapolis instead “won” the race for worst record in the NFL.

Thus by being among the missing, Peyton Manning has conclusively and resoundingly shown, via subtraction, just how valuable he is to his team.   With all due respect to Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady, he should be awarded the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award forthwith.

To me, the data and logic are compelling, and the joke behind it sufficiently dry, but the case of Peyton Manning makes a more serious point about how people think.  When people consider what produces events—say, for example, a winning sports team—they are inclined to think about the presence of causal agents that produce that effect, but not about what’s missing, causal factors whose absence might be just as important.  A winning football team is populated, for example, by the presence of good players.  But it is also supported by the absence of key injuries to those players.

In our causal reasoning and explanations about events, I believe we are not very good at thinking about absences and how they might affect things.  In fact, we are not good at thinking about absences at all and how valuable an indicator they are about events in the world.  As Sherlock Holmes once pointed out, a critical clue may not be the dogs that barked, but the fact that no dog did.

Real world examples show just how much we should realign our thinking to consider the missing when it comes to causal reasoning.  For years, doctors were puzzled over one common side effect they confronted in their patients after surgery.  Patients would report troubling headaches that appeared to have no obvious cause.   In a profession that strives, first, to do no harm, such a side effect was grounds for alarm.

Medical researchers took years examining any possibility of what might prompt such mysterious headaches, finally realizing that there was no medication or surgical trauma that caused them.  Instead, these headaches arose because patients were simply missing their usual cup of coffee the morning before surgery.  As such, patients were going through caffeine withdrawal.  And adding caffeine to a surgical patient’s regimen was enough to forestall the headaches.

The same goes for health interventions.  In a classic study of the impact of fear on health behavior, college students were urged to get a tetanus shot, sometimes after being shown graphic images of the effects of the bacterial infections they were vulnerable to if they did not.  In a 6-weeks follow-up, almost none of the students had gotten the shot.

What caused this resistance to the shot?  Was it anxiety, denial, or just a disinterest in taking simple steps to ensure one’s health?  It turned out that it was not the presence of any of these factors.  Instead, the important factor was what was missing.  Students did not know the way to the campus health center.  Given a map (and a plan) to go to the center, the proportion of students getting a shot rose nine-fold.

Thus, consider this:  The next time you speculate about what caused what, think about what might be missing to produce the state of affairs you observe.  As well, the next time you want to test a theory, try not adding the key ingredient you think matters.  Rather, take it out and see what happens.  Often, a negative test is more telling; an attempt at disconfirmation (e.g., Manning doesn’t matter, just let me remove him from the team) more diagnostic.

And for the Colts, I presume that next year will be better.  All it will require is either the return of Peyton Manning or the addition of a little Luck.

References

Leventhal, H., Singer, R., & Jones, S.  (1965).  Effects of fear and specificity of recommendation upon attitudes and behavior.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, 20-29.

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