Cognitive biases and fantasy

As with my previous articles, I’d like to start off by running a very quick and simple experiment. This experiment may work better if you administer it on another individual, but if no one else is available, that’s perfectly fine as the purpose will become very clear. And I’m sure you have come across these concepts at one point or another.

Very simply, I am going to present you with two lists, and ask that you try to remember the items on each list as best as you can. After each list is presented, try recalling as many of the items as you can remember, in any order.

                        List 1                          List 2
                        shark                           shark
                        wall                            rain
                        herring                         catfish
                        rain                            salmon
                        floor                           hail
                        hail                            floor
                        catfish                         ceiling
                        roof                            snow
                        salmon                          hail
                        storm                           hail
                        ceiling                         storm
                        snow                            roof

For List 1, you were probably able to recall words such as “shark”, “wall”, “herring”, “storm”, “ceiling” and “snow” but may have encountered some difficulty in recalling “rain”, “floor”, “hail”, “catfish”, “roof” and “salmon”. This demonstrates two very basic concepts that hold true for any list. When asked to recall a list of items, people tend to recall those items listed at the beginning (primacy effect) and end (recency effect) of the list.

For List 2, I’m sure the word “hail” appeared very early on in your recall list, and it may have even been the first word you recited or wrote down. Another common concept is at play here, and is called repetition bias. Very simply put, repetition bias is an effect in which people tend to favor those pieces of information that have been repeated the most.

The primacy and recency effects are not limited to lists of words or numbers presented formally in a laboratory setting. These cognitive biases can help explain other aspects in life, things that are more day-to-day. For example, lawyers tend to keep their key witnesses on the end of their lists so that the jury is more likely to remember them during deliberation. Another example can be found in a classroom setting, where teacher evaluations, often done at the end of the year or semester, can be skewed by recency effects. More weight may be placed on activities or projects that are closer to the time of appraisal, and so the professor may not receive a fair evaluation, one that represents their true teaching ability or their performance in its entirety.

What’s the point of all this? And how on earth does this apply to fantasy baseball? I’ll begin by saying, that as sort of a disclaimer, it is very difficult to explain certain phenomena without empirical evidence. And I’m sure there are many other biases and mechanisms involved in explaining many patterns. But I do believe these concepts can help explain some of the things we see from season to season.

For starters, what is one of the arguments that people always seem to raise in their support for Ryan Howard as MVP? That he had a hot September, right? I suppose that holds some water, as an end of the season surge can help a team immensely. But an easy and valid counter-argument is, “where was he the rest of the season?” People seem to place an unnecessary amount of weight on the end of a season, and those players who seem to step-up towards the end appear to be remembered, or at least covered by the media, more. But the topic here isn’t whether or not these arguments are justified. The question is why these arguments arise, and studies have shown that people are more likely to recall events that happened more recently than remotely.

I’m sure David Price will be one of the top sleepers of 2009. I’m sure most people don’t doubt his talents, and probably think he will eventually become a very good major league pitcher. But I know that some of us here at THT may not be drafting him in 2009 as his value may be a little too high. In the comments section of this article, Derek explains exactly why he wouldn’t draft Price at all this year. All valid points, yet people seem to expect great things from him. So why then would he be overvalued?

Maybe this is confirmation bias and I just included David Price because he fits the topic of my article, but I have to think that some of the reasons why he would be overvalued in 2009 drafts is because of repetition bias, in that the media really blew his name up, and a recency effect due to Price’s performance in last year’s playoffs. Price made a huge splash year, as he was called up in the middle of September as the Rays were holding off the Red Sox and bidding to become the first team to go from worst to first. And to his credit, he pitched very well and soon enough, it appeared as if his name and face could be seen and heard everywhere. I believe ESPN Magazine featured him in their series Next, and in fact, the day after the Rays’ great run ended, Price even introduced Barack Obama at a political rally in Tampa.

We obviously won’t know how Price will do in 2009 unless we actually tune in, and again, it’s awfully difficult to properly explain various types of phenomena without actual experimentation. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having him on your sleeper list since, after all, the high-risk, high-reward nature is inherent to these lists and essentially the definition of a sleeper. I suppose, then, that the real point here is that you should be aware of why David Price’s name is on your list. Be aware of the various kinds of biases that exist and that could be at play, and be conscious of the fact that they can often affect your opinions and beliefs in a negative manner.

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  1. Jason Collette said...

    I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed when Price starts the year in AAA. The first 4 spots of the rotation are locked in with Shields, Kazmir, Garza, and Sonnanstine. Jeff Niemann is out of options so unless he tears something, he is guaranteed a roster spot and has rarely pitched in relief throughout his career.

    Price has not had much experience above AA in the minors and his work in relief last year was perfect because he only had to use his two best pitches. He still does not change speeds terribly well as his change-up is not a pitch he can throw at any point in the count. 

    I think rather than put Price in relief and then send him down to the farm to get stretched out later, the Rays will put him in AAA to see what Niemann is going to do as a 5th starter to either inflate his trade value or to decide to move him to the pen. Niemann would be an intriguing closer candidate with his arm and size.

  2. Donald Trump said...

    you say “the Rays were holding off the Red Sox and bidding to become the first team to go from worst to first.”
    The Twins and the Braves both went worst to first in 1991.

  3. Marco Fujimoto said...

    First off, guys, thanks for reading and leaving comments.

    I think you bring up some very good points. Price did move through the minors at a very quick pace. Even without really looking at data (e.g. peripherals, pitch f/x, etc), in a vacuum, I just have a tough time drafting a pitcher (as a starter, no less) with such a limited amount of innings pitched. If I do, my expectations are very low by default.

    It is difficult to tell what the Rays will do with Price next year though. I know some guys at FanGraphs think he’ll be in the rotation, and I’ve read that credible writers (imo, anyway) like Rob Neyer and Keith Law think that he’ll add a boost to the team (though “boost” isn’t really defined and doesn’t necessarily translate to fantasy play). And I suppose part of the reason Edwin Jackson was traded was to make room for Price, right?

    Meanwhile, a couple projection systems like Chone and Marcel don’t have very high hopes. I believe Chone projects 80IP and Marcel predicts about half of that.

  4. Marco Fujimoto said...

    Donald Trump-
    You’re right. Good catch. Can my excuse be repetition bias? We have a tendency to not only remember what we have been told most often, but also to favor things we have been told by the largest numbers of resources, and I want to say that I heard and read the entire “worst to first”/“first time in history” thing an awful lot towards the tail end of last season…

    Pizza Cutter-

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