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The causal power of the last tag

September 13, 2007

For years I have wondered about the disproportionate influence of the final events in sporting contests. If a basketball player makes a shot in the final seconds to turn a loss into a win, the newspaper accounts will typically describe how that shot won the game. Similarly, if the shot misses, then the newspapers will likely explain the loss in terms of that missed shot. Despite all the other plays during the entire game, these final heroics/failures carry a major share of the explanatory power. That seems distorted.

One way to account for these last gasps is in terms of counterfactuals. Decision researchers have shown that we ascribe greater causal impact to events where it is easy to imagine the opposite, such as these last second shots. If we can’t easily imagine an alternative scenario then the event seems inevitable and therefore less consequential. We wouldn’t explain how Shaquille O’Neal affected the score because of his height. That’s just who he is. But if he blocks the desperation shot, we give him full credit for saving the game because he might not have done that.

Building on the notion of counterfactuals, perhaps it is much, much easier to imagine the opposite of a last-second shot precisely because it happened at the last second so it doesn’t influence anything afterwards. A missed shot in the first quarter might change the rhythm of the game, change the nature of the defense played by the other team, change the confidence of the player who made it. So if we try to imagine how the game might have proceeded had the player made the shot it gets very complicated. In contrast, the last-second shot stands alone as a conclusive event.

There may be other reasons for the undue influence of the last tag in sports, but these are at least some ideas to consider.

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