Using Sports to Paint a Bigger Picture: Continuing the Story

Posted on March 21, 2010 by


My latest at Huffington Post – Stumbling on Wins: Using Sports to Paint a Bigger Picture – explores the bigger picture told in our latest book.  Stumbling on Wins doesn’t just tell a host of different stories drawn from the world of sports.  We also hope to show that the study of how decisions are made in sports can contribute to our understanding of how human beings in general make choices.

For sports fans, though, the many stories we tell from baseball, football, basketball, and hockey might obscure this bigger picture.   After all, the impact Final Four appearances have on NBA draft position — or the idea that rebounding doesn’t impact NBA draft position (but does impact future performance) — are stories can generate a conversation  quite independent of the larger picture.

To illustrate – in the midst of a fairly positive (and very lengthy) review from Henry Abbott – the NBA draft-rebounding story was one tale Henry highlights (citing John Hollinger and David Thorpe in his discussion). 

More on Rebounding and the Draft

This story – as we note in the book – goes beyond sports.  Th NBA draft-rebounding story actually highlights a key problem with human decision-making.  This is specifically what we say in the book:

It may seem somewhat surprising to hear that decision-makers are better off considering less. This argument can be illustrated if we consider what was uncovered with respect to rebounds. Rebounds don’t impact where a player is chosen on draft day, but are found to be related to future productivity in the NBA.  Such results suggest that decision-makers are not aware of the importance of rebounds.  Such a suggestion, though, is hard to believe.  Rebounds have been tracked for NBA players since 1950 and we can be fairly certain that decision-makers in the NBA understand that better rebounders help teams win games.

We also suspect, though, that decision-makers believe a vast list of factors is connected with winning basketball games.  Unfortunately, the size of the list is the problem. People are taught to consider everything before making a decision.  Such advice would be good to follow if the human mind had unlimited computing power.  The human mind, though, has clear limits.  Too much information has actually been shown by researchers to result in declines in the quality of decisions.

We believe this is what’s happening on draft day.  Decision-makers try to consider everything, but the limits of the human mind undermine this effort.  In order for a decision to be made, the human mind has to simplify the vast list of factors considered.  The simplification process ends up emphasizing the factors that are most conspicuous.  In other words, the final decision is dominated by scoring, age, height, and Final Four appearances; a list of factors unrelated to future productivity in the NBA.

The limitation of the human mind is one story told by Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide.  Lehrer – as we note in the book – explicitely argues that the human mind is constrained.  Therefore when people say “we look at everything before making a decision” they appear to be arguing that their mind can do things that don’t appear to be physically possible.  A good decision-making process. therefore, doesn’t focus on everything; but rather focuses on the factors most relevant to the decision being made.  In other words, a better approach to decision-making is to systematically uncover which information is actually important and which information should be ignored.

Advantages and Difficulties with Sports Research 

The research cited by Lehrer – just like the research noted in the books by Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness), Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational), and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (Nudge) — is generally drawn from laboratory experiments.  As noted at Huffington Post, critics of experiments note that the “real world” is not in a lab.  Consequently, we hope that the fact similar stories are seen in the very real world of sports strengthens the arguments offered by behavioral economics.

Although the study of sports does offer some advantages, it does have at least two problems.  First, the very nature of laboratory experiments means the people making “mistakes” are anonymous.  In contrast, every decision-maker in sports can be identified by name.  Consequently, although we insist that we are not calling anyone in sports “stupid” (just as researchers do not call those who participate in the aforementioned experiments “stupid”), we do understand the tendency for feathers to be ruffled when people’s decisions are explicitly questioned.  As we note in the book, people in sports are likely to be just as smart as decision-makers in other industries. And they bring a great deal more passion to their work.  Despite these advantages – and despite the many other favorable characteristics of the sports industry – decision-makers in sports do not behave in a fashion consistent with the assumption of rationality traditionally found in economics.   Yes, once again we turn to the bigger picture.

Beyond this issue is the fact sports are a subject with many, many experts.  Players, coaches, members of the media, and many fans are all people who believe they already know the answer to many of the questions we address.  And consequently, when our answers contradict what is “known”, people become unhappy with our stories.

Such a reaction brings to mind the following quotes from John Kenneth Galbraith and Leo Tolstoy.

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” John Kenneth Galbraith

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, with a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.” Leo Tolstoy (via Michael Lewis – and The Big Short — as seen on Charlie Rose).

Each of these quotes highlight the problem human beings have with information that contradicts what is already believed.  And again, contrary to what traditional economics argues, a person does not change his or her mind easily. 

For good decisions to be made, though, new information has to be sought and understood.  What we see in sports – as we see in many other industries (and even sometimes in academia) – the challenge posed by new information is not always met.

– DJ

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