You both think you got the ball first? Here's why

  • Mind
  • Tuesday, 14 May 2019

A tussle for the ball during the 2019 US NCAA Women’s Final Four basketball tournament between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Baylor Lady Bears. Research has found that we wrongly think the ball is ours a lot of the time. — AFP

Nearly simultaneously, two players grab for a ball. Who got it first?

Whether on the playground or sports arena, we think it’s ours, and scientists now know why: We mentally register our own sensations before whatever else is around us.

“We have identified what may be a principal cause of arguments in ballgames, and it is about time,” conclude psychologists Ty Tang and Michael McBeath of Arizona State University in the United States.

Their research was published on April 24, 2019, in the journal Science Advances.

When our brain expects to feel something, it senses it about 50 milliseconds before it perceives an unexpected external physical sensation, they found.

So if two players hit a ball nearly simultaneously, they’ll have different understandings of the experience.

As a result, things can turn quickly divisive in sports like basketball, where possession of the ball knocked out of bounds is awarded to the player who wasn’t the last to touch it.


It’s complicated, but has something to do with anticipation, and the time it takes surprising sights and sounds to travel to our brain.

When we’re anticipating a sensation created by our own actions, we perceive it in near “real time”, said Tang.

In contrast, there’s a delay when our brains register an action that is unexpected, such as someone else grabbing our ball.

The finding was revealed through three “timing games” with dozens of students.

Each pair of volunteers sat across from each other at a table, then touched a sensor on the other person’s hand in response to a flash of light.

Students asserted “I touched first!” between 67% and 75% of the time.

That’s mathematically impossible.

The new study builds on a growing body of work about the role of perception in misinterpreting the world around us.

Previous research revealed why baseball umpires appear to routinely favour calling “outs” in close base-runner situations.

Because light travels faster than sound, a fan sitting 100 or 200 feet (30.5 or 61 metres) away perceives the runner as reaching the base about one- or two-tenths of a second before they hear the ball strike the mitt.

“The further back you are, the more likely you are to think runner will be safe,” said Tang. “You’re seeing it before you hear it.”

It’s important to be aware of our bias, he said.

Technology – such as an automatic brake system in vehicles that identifies hazards and stops faster than we can – can help overcome our limits.

And perhaps it can reduce disputes on the field, he added.

“We’re hoping it will help people become more understanding of other people’s experiences and beliefs,” he said. – The Mercury News/Tribune News Service

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