Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why Sachin will never be greater than Bradman

Considering the provocative nature of the title, you’d be forgiven for thinking this post was a critical analysis of statistics and contributions of the two greats in question. It isn’t. Instead, I’ve used a little of what I learnt in consumer behaviour to understand why no amount of record-breaking contributions is likely to convince some that Sachin is the best ever. Indeed, parallels can be drawn to many other sports. For example, I was a Sampras fan as a kid, and thus cannot accept anyone telling me that Federer is a better player. I was sincerely hoping he’d never beat Pistol Pete’s record of 14 grand slams (even though it looked extremely certain right from the start). And given his exploits with Barca, it is arguable that Messi is probably the best footballer Argentina has ever produced, but try telling that to the Maradona faithful.

While there will be many more such examples, what we need to observe is the pattern. A legend retires, and afterwards, any upstart is referenced in inferior terms, irrespective of his ongoing achievements. Since I found this pattern curious, I searched for an explanation. In doing so, I remembered a theory I learnt in one of the few classes in which I wasn’t sleeping/late/distracted in BIM. The theory is known as the Weber-Fechner law.

The Weber-Fechner law postulates that the link between magnitude of a stimulus and the perceived intensity of the stimulus is logarithmic, i.e., if the stimulus is multiplied by a factor, the perception of its intensity increases only as if that factor were added to it. My prof used the simple example of sugar and sweetness to explain this concept. He said that if we add 1 teaspoon of sugar to milk, the sweetness it generates(let’s call it x) is greater than the sweetness added when a second teaspoon of sugar is added(y), which is greater than when a third is added(z), etc. (x>y>z).

Now this law poses a significant difficulty for marketers. Why? That’s because it says that the first brand in the category that communicates to a customer (provides stimulus) will be the most effective at generating a recall. Subsequent brands have to provide much more stimulus (translate to spend more money on advertising) to even generate the same recall (which is why late entrants' share of voice vs share of market is disproportionate).

Why am I bringing up this topic here, you ask. Well, that’s because I think it’s the same law that affects our perception of the greatness of a sportsperson (and maybe our perception of greatness in general). This law explains why it is easy for us to believe Bradman is greater. It's because he provided the first big stimulus (try to recall any other great player before Bradman), making subsequent contributions seem a lot lesser than they actually are (as is the case with Viv Richards, who many still believe is the most fearsome batsman ever, irrespective of what Sehwag/KP & co. might have to say). Just the fact that people now consider Sachin to be as great is testament to the fact that he has provided a much greater stimulus than Bradman (according to the theory). If you have trouble accepting my contention and already believe Sachin is the greatest ever (as I do), just imagine this: A batsman who is greater than Sachin in every way possible in the near future. That might become a reality someday, but perception was never about reality.