Groupthink & New Jersey Devils Fans

Over at the Copper and Blue, Derek Zona put together a very detailed post highlighting the ever-present reality of "groupthink" among hockey fans and why the growth of stats is important in fighting it.  Here's the most important bit:

In the world of sports fans, confirmation biases abound.  It's impossible for individual fans to record, catalog, process, analyze and interpret the results of hundreds of independent events occurring constantly throughout a game, but it's much easier to pick out those events and sequences of events that support their conclusions.  Any hockey fan that has sat silently shaking their head while the crowd piles on an undeserving player recognizes this immediately.  It's a powerful psychological force, especially in a setting like sports.  Fans can confirm their biases for themselves and immediately fall back on thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of fellow fans to confirm what they already know.  This is the very foundation of groupthink:

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that can occur in groups of people. Rather than critically evaluating information, the group members begin to form quick opinions that match the group consensus.

Because it's impossible to critically evaluate those hundreds of independent events, fans end up rallying together in support of or against the lowest common denominator in observational terms.  And this is why statistics and the analysis of those statistics is crucial.  Statistics, at the lowest level, are simply a vast collection of events. Even though the fans' understanding and analysis of the game continues to grow (thanks to people like Vic, Gabe, JLikens and Tyler), there remains a vast majority of fans, people who know better and simple-minded folks that wallow in ignorance, sometimes willfully.

To be fair, Zona was referring to specific events and past arguments within the Oilers community; and it's not that groupthink is always wrong.  It's just that it's not always justifiable all by itself.  Often times, the emotions that hockey games bring out of most fans lead to emotional responses - regardless of how true they are or not.  We forget past events to focus on what just happened, both good and bad. 

For example, after the Rangers game, you'll notice a number of comments late in the GameThread and the recap lamenting how the Devils tend to give up leads late in the game or that it was familiar.  Some immediately pointed to the late loss to Los Angeles earlier this season and the infamous Game 7 of last year's playoffs.   But is it true?  No, not by a long shot. Tom Gulitti actually looked up the stats in the comments to this post at Fire & Ice and found that the LA game and the recent shootout loss to the Rangers were the only two times the Devils lost  all season by giving up a late goal.  Twice out of 75 games is hardly "always."  It's actually been quite rare in 2009-10.  But at the time, no one wanted to look up the numbers - they wanted to vent and in doing so committed themselves to a hive mind.

Don't mistake me, I'm not saying that fans should give up part of what it is to be a fan.  Emotional, spur-of-the-moment thoughts and feelings are totally understandable and expected.  But we (and I do include myself, I'm not on any horse, much less a high one), as a fanbase, would be a lot better off in judging what the Devils are and what they aren't if we take a step back sometimes and ask, "Is this really true?"  Some of the posts I have written were done specifically to address a recent or larger issue that some fans have about the Devils, determining if the common sentiment is true or not.    That's why I wrote a post not too long ago describing Mike Mottau's resurgence.  Did he have a bad game last night? I thought he did; but the rest of the month is proof that it was just that - one bad game.

No, we don't have the same access to game tape that the Devils and other teams collect.  We don't have the resources (time, personnel, money, etc.) to pile through every type of event.  I'm not even sure what stat can show more abstract concepts, like how great Dainius Zubrus is along the boards compared to, say, Ilya Kovalchuk.  But we do have more information available.  We can view any goal from this season (and in a few past seasons) on NHL.com and determine what went right or wrong for each goal.  Sites like Behind the Net compile data that we can use in determining a player's results. Places like Puck Prospectus look to develop and discuss new metrics and put together more general articles with a statistical basis.

Basically, we can do more than just rely on pure groupthink.  Stats won't necessarily answer everything completely - context is an absolute must for a lot of these advances statistics; but they do provide a lot more evidence for analysis and judgment. 

What should we do about groupthink? What can we do about confirmation bias?  Well, we can't eliminate it entirely; but we can look at a few statements of Devils fans groupthink.  Let's look within ourselves as a fanbase and bring up whatever common sentiments about players and the team that we hear, say, or think.   Then let's see if they are true or not. 

It doesn't always need to be complex.  For example, with the Devils' 5-1 loss to Philadelphia last night, questions were raised about how the Devils perform on the second half of back-to-back sets.  User elesias actually looked up the team's record in those games and found that the losing has been a recent phenomenon.  Right then and there, groupthink/potential groupthink was confronted and addressed with available facts.

So let's raise the issues.  Please list some common thoughts Devils fans have about the team or a certain player.  I'm sure some of you will bring up Martin Brodeur or Colin White; but let's not stop there.  I can't guarantee that we can address all of them - though it'd be perfect for a FanPost if you want to take a stab at answering them.  Let's make this a more self-aware and intelligent community by taking this head on.

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