Cognitive biases and fantasyby Marco Fujimoto
January 13, 2009
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 hail hail herring wall
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.
Marco thanks everyone for reading, apologizes in advance for his tardiness and requests that readers be patient in awaiting replies. He welcomes all questions, comments and thoughts on any topic, baseball or otherwise, here.
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