Cognitive biases might be making you believe Brazil will win the World Cup

As of today, there are 10 teams left in the World Cup, and Brazil is favourite. Never mind that they have won just two of four games so far (in regulation time, not including the match they won on penalties), and conceded goals in three matches (including an embarassing own goal.)

In fact, Brazil’s two wins, one draw, and one win on penalties is equivalent to Costa Rica’s performance. But nobody thinks the Ticos will win.

Here are the odds as presented by Sportsbet.

Sportsbet odds

Germany, who have won all four of their matches, surely look to have better form than Brazil. France too.

Colombia, who have won four matches, scored 11 goals, conceding only two, would appear to be in even better form. The team ranked eight in global soccer at the start of the tournament doesn’t seem to be high on anyone’s list.

So why is everyone backing Brazil?

I propose that a cognitive bias is affecting prediction markets: The availability heuristic. The heuristic is that if people can imagine something clearly they believe it is more likely. The most famous proof for the availability heuristic goes like this:

“In one experiment that occurred before the 1976 U.S. Presidential election, some participants were asked to imagine Gerald Ford winning, while others did the same for a Jimmy Carter victory. Each group subsequently viewed their allocated candidate as significantly more likely to win.”

What’s available to our minds when we think about Brazilian football is scenes like this, from 2002:

brazil 2002

And what comes to mind when we think of Brazil hosting an event is scenes like this:

carnivale crowds

Rio is synonymous with celebration. Can you really call to mind a picture of Rio de Janeiro full of glum Brazilians moping? Neither can I.

The availability heuristic probably means teams like Brazil are over-rated (the same to a lesser extent is likely true of recent World Cup finalists France, Germany and the Netherlands.) So should we let that affect our betting? Probably not.

But there is one exception.

We must acknowledge that referees play an important role in deciding the outcome of Soccer matches. Dodgy penalties come at crucial moments, like the one awarded to the Netherlands to effect their defeat of Mexico.

And referees are just as subject to biases as the rest of us. Research shows they are susceptible to crowd noise, home ground advantages and racial biases.

So if, with scores tied, a Brazilian player sprawls on the turf inside the penalty area in the 90th minute of the World Cup final, the incredible surge of noise inside the Maracana could well blend with the availability bias inside the referees head, and encourage him to point to the penalty spot.

If that happens, the team in green and gold will get to hold the trophy aloft, and all this lofty pontification about controlling predictions for cognitive biases will have been a waste.

Who would bother sponsoring the World Cup?

The World Cup has dozens of sponsors. Companies like McDonalds, Sony and Budwesier, with a combined value of trillions of dollars. Are they wasting their money?

The biggest PR win of the World Cup so far has been by headphone company Beats by Dre.

Beats headphones

They got stacks of press when players were banned from wearing their products in the arenas, with FIFA citing Sony’s sponsorship as the reason. (Press examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 ...)

Here’s the lead from the original Reuters story:

“Neymar likes them Brazil-green. England’s Wayne Rooney, white. Luis Suarez, blue.

Banned from the pitch by FIFA for licensing reasons, the bulky Beats headphones are a favorite for many of the world’s top players, making the World Cup a huge unofficial ad for the company acquired by Apple Inc last month.”

The message is clear: players that are idols to kids around the world really want to wear Beats Headphones – if only the powers that be would get off their back! Somewhere, a PR agent is looking at a payslip with the biggest bonus they have ever seen.

Just one of the many articles I linked to notes that the ban might be just what Beats was after. That kind of disruption shows business smarts and is probably why Apple recently paid $3 billion to acquire Beats.

A sponsorship costs a lot. How much is a closely guarded secret, but possibly over a hundred million dollars for the top rung. FIFA is set to make $1.4 billion from sponsorship from this World Cup.


Companies who don’t get their name on teh FIFA website don’t hang their heads and trudge home. They instead prepare for ambush marketing. At the last World Cup, a beer company called Bavaria Brewery reaped the spoils.

“The company gave hundreds of young women skimpy orange Bavaria-branded dresses before a match between the Netherlands and Denmark. When the women were ejected and a number were arrested under South Africa’s Contravention of Merchandise Marks Act — an anti-ambush marketing law passed in advance of the country’s World Cup — the reaction sparked an international backlash that brought the company loads of free media attention.”

McDonalds is a major sponsor of the World Cup, but appears to be trying to run an ambush marketing campaign anyway, by making tie-in products with names they could have used even without buying a sponsorship.


Coke and Pepsi are also battling it out for pre-eminence. Pepsi’s Rio-based ad shows that no matter how much you fence off a sponsorship, you can’t own the concept of football, the town where a tournament is based, or the personalities that bring it to life.

Formal association with the tournament means dealing with FIFA – nothing to be proud of. Meanwhile, being associated with Lionel Messi is unambiguously good marketing.

Consumers, meanwhile, have little idea who is a sponsor and who is not. 38 per cent think Mastercard sponsors the World Cup (wrongly), 42 per cent realise Visa does.

If I were a shareholder in McDonalds or Coca-Cola, I’d understand. These are massive legacy brands that don’t want to yield an inch to competitors. But for the likes of Sony, Hyundai and Adidas, the decision to sponsor reeks of timidity and a lack of creativity. If they can’t think of a better way to spend their marketing dollar they should probably save it instead.

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