Psychology Corner: The Semmelweis reflex

This is Psychology Corner, where Tom brings in his knowledge from his professional life to bear in analysing the psychology and behaviour of Fantasy Football (FPL) managers. This will often follow up on what we mentioned in the most recent pod.

This week’s subject of psychology corner is a cool one, as it’s one of those that gives a name to a feeling we’ve probably all felt yet been unable to describe.

It’s called the Semmelweis reflex.

The background

This is particularly relevant to me as I wildcarded last week (Gameweek 6 is the time of writing… Hi future readers!), meaning I was tinkering like last week.

What I realised was that every team I was making was in a 4-3-3, which goes against my style as an aggressive, big up on attack, 3-4-3 / 3-5-2 native manager. It got me reminiscing on how Nick had been predicting basically before everyone else that this would be the year of big at the back, and how instinctively resistant I was to the idea.

I remember that I essentially thought, “no, I know best, 3 at the back has always worked for me”, and started the season in 3-4-3.

How things have changed!

Anyhow, that feeling of instinctively rejecting a challenge to your status quo and reactively sticking with your preferences is called the Semmelweis reflex. Think when someone makes a suggestion about something you’ve planned carefully – you automatically think “go away!” In this way, there’s a link to confirmation bias in that you don’t want to hear opinions that may impact your own.

Semmelweis? Who or what is that?

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician who gives his name to this psychological process.

The story goes that, in the 19th century, Semmelweis realised that child mortality rates in the hospital he worked at dramatically fell if fellow doctors washed their hands with chlorine disinfectant often. It sounds incredible today, but in those times doctors thought nothing of not washing their hands between doing an autopsy and seeing an expectant mother.

Anyway, Semmelweis tried to tell them that they had to do this, but the reaction of the doctors was predictably resistant: they believed, for example, gentlemen could not pass on illnesses.

Obviously, our man Ignaz has been proven to on the right side of science, but also gives his name through this little anecdote to an instinct we’ve all felt at some point in our lives.

How does this apply to FPL?

As I’ve said, I was resistant to 4 at the back and seeing the value in wing backs. On earlier pods you can hear me scoffing at Nick’s insistence on people like Bavies and Alonso in his side. This meant that I dismissed perhaps too quickly the merits of what Nick was telling me, which precluded me from seriously considering sides in that format.

I’ve lost points to get Alonso in after missing his GW2 explosion, missed out on the likes of Bavies’ bonanzas, and I find myself 2.2m OR.

If I’d thought of changing my formation up sooner I might be doing better.

So think of this the next time you immediately reject something – in life, and in FPL – that might be challenging your thought process and (try to at least) seriously consider alternatives.

(caveat: these articles condense often complex concepts into bitesize chunks – there is obviously far more depth and detail to each concept, with reams of academic and practical theory around both that can’t be fully represented here. I first read this anecdote in Superfreakonomics many years ago.)

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