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. I initially wrote a lot of these back in 2017, but they’ve been retrofitted with new examples and finessed to better suit today’s context.

Please note these articles aren’t claiming to explain everything that is going on, but are suggesting a psychological factor (or two) that could be influencing behaviour

This 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

The feeling of instinctively rejecting a challenge to your status quo and reactively sticking with your preferences is called the Semmelweis reflex.

As an example, think of when someone makes a suggestion about something you’ve planned carefully – your first instinct is to 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, and also a link to sunk cost in that you don’t want to hear that all that time you’ve invested has been wasted.

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 and, as a byproduct, 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?

“Sticking to what we know” can often be something which impacts our thinking.

A good example might be how I started last season, which was with David De Gea in goal.

Davesaves you value? (Photo: The Independent)

I did this because I wanted to stick with what I knew, which was that DDG had had a stellar season in 2017/18 with 18 clean sheets, 115 saves and therefore 172 points.

I felt United would retain this defensively solidity into the new season, and as a result I didn’t consider any alternative but to pay top dollar (DDG was 6m in Gameweek 1, compared to Alisson and Ederson at 5.5m) for him.

I did not properly consider anyone else, rejecting out of hand Nick’s exhortations to look elsewhere.

As it was, DDG scored me 3 points in Gameweek 1 and 1 point in Gameweek 2, before I removed him for Ederson in Gameweek 3.

If I’d have gone with Ederson, in contrast, I’d have scored 13 points (9 more).

Fine margins of course, but I’d rejected the idea of buying Ederson in Gameweek One in favour of sticking with what I knew, and it cost me both points and flexibility in my budget through me spending an extra 0.5m on DDG, which impacted my GW1 side.

Of course, there are numerous examples of where “sticking with what we know” can be a positive – such as captaining Mo Salah or Sergio Aguero at home against the likes of Huddersfield.

Conclusion

It’s often a case of weighing it up and using your judgement.

However, the impulse to reject something that doesn’t fit your game plan is nonetheless a thing worth highlighting: the Semmelweis reflex is very much alive in all of our psyches.

As with confirmation bias and sunk cost it’s therefore a case of identifying it now that you’re aware of it, and really rationalising if it is a worthy or unworthy thing to back in your FPL decisions.

The next time you immediately reject something, it might be worth challenging that thought process and (trying 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.)