Reputation and the Recency Effect

Last November I wrote a post called “Say it ain’t so, Joe” as the Jerry Sandusky case of sexually abusing young boys at Penn State University came to the attention of the American public. That horrible tragedy has made front page news again in the wake of the Freeh Report which stated there was a failure of leadership at Penn State University. The report also alleges legendary coach Joe Paterno (Joe Pa) knew about Jerry Sandusky’s behavior as far back as 1998.

This has led questions about what Joe Paterno’s legacy will be. Aside from having more wins than any other major college football coach in history, until the scandal broke, Joe Pa, as he was affectionately called by the faithful, was held up as example of a football coach who ran a clean program, helped boys become men, had real “student athletes,” and gave back to the community in countless ways during his 61 years at Penn State.
This post isn’t about convincing you one way or another how you should feel about Joe Paterno. Rather, it’s about understanding what impacts your thoughts about him as well as other people and situations you might find yourself reflecting on.
In psychology there’s something known as the “recency effect” which is also called “recency bias.” In a nutshell, we give more weight to information we recall most easily and quite often what we remember most is what we experienced last.
We see this all the time. In boxing it’s known as “stealing the round” when a boxer is getting beaten for the better part of the three-minute round but puts on a flurry of activity toward the end to win the round.
In the news we see it with different stories, like suddenly believing air travel is unsafe because of a few recent stories on airline disasters. Mad cow disease and the bird flu are another example. Both are extremely isolated events yet we tend to believe they happen far more than they actually do because of the coverage they get and how easily we recall the stories. In actuality, you have much more likelihood of death or injury from driving to work or other daily activities than you do from airplane accidents or the latest flu outbreak.
How about this – have you ever gone somewhere, had a really good time but the whole experience was marred by a bad ending? Maybe it was a great vacation that ended with flight delays or a round of golf that ended with a bad hole or two. If the flight delays were at the beginning of the trip most people would rate the trip higher than if they come at the end. And most golfers would prefer a round that starts poor and ends well rather than starts well and ends poor … even if the score for both rounds is identical.
The recency effect works both ways, good and bad. Take Tiger Woods, for example. While he lost millions in advertising revenue he appears to be accepted by the public every bit as much as he was before. At least that seems to be the case when you see golf fans responding to him when he’s in contention and winning tournaments.
On the flip side, whole careers are washed away when a great player makes a mistake. Just ask Bill Buckner or Jackie Smith. Buckner mishandled an easy ground ball in game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets which allowed the Mets to win the game and eventually the series.  Smith dropped a pass in the end zone in Super Bowl XIII that could have possibly been the difference between winning and losing the game for the Dallas Cowboys.
Should potential Hall of Fame careers be weighed most heavily on how they end? Should someone’s misdeeds be relegated to the background just because they’re doing well in the moment? Should the good works of individuals be discarded because of scandal at the end?
The answers to those questions are for each of us to decide personally.  Collectively, our answers will determine how society remembers someone’s career or legacy. My goal is to help you see more clearly, and to recognize how your thinking is impacted by what you’ve recently experienced.  If you understand that you can review situations differently than you might currently. You might come up with the same conclusion but just like having more data to make decisions is usually good, so it is when it comes to understanding how your brain works with the recency effect.

Brian, CMCT
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.

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