I was obsessed with neuroscience and how the brain works before I became obsessed with fantasy sports, but I was immersed in both passions before realizing how they intersected. Decision-making is one of the hottest topics in one of the hottest areas of neuroeconomics right now, but some key principles date back at least a decade to the seminal work of Daniel Kahneman – “Thinking Fast and Slow” – and are equally involved in fantasy sports decisions to be connected.
The basic premise of Kahneman’s book is that our sophisticated, efficient brains are wired for shortcuts that allow for quick, reasonably good, almost unconscious decision-making. We are capable of navigating more complicated logical and rational neural decision-making pathways, but these are slower and more energy-consuming and require our full conscious effort. It’s not that one is bad and one is good, but it’s important to be clear about how and why we’re coming to the decision in turn 3 to pick player A over player B, or why we’re ready , trade or drop a player we invested in for next to nothing in week 4 (or conversely, why we endlessly hold on to an unproductive investment, refusing to drop them while charging unreasonable trading returns on them) .
Most of us consider ourselves experts in fantasy sports when we contribute to or read this magazine. We’ve put in college time and have a strong interest in strategy that will hopefully pay off in years of fantasy success. But being an “expert” can also be detrimental to the learning and studying that you’ve probably told yourself your goal is to pick up this great publication. Experts come to the table with in-depth knowledge. You know who you like and why, you have your predictions about the upcoming season… and you have your prejudices.
A lot of the cognitive biases that influence decision-making in fantasy football stem from the type of quick thinking in Kahneman’s book, which uses those well-worn, automatic thought highways in your brain. These include those you are probably familiar with such as: timeliness and primacy distortion, the biases that cause you to overweight the most recent and/or first occurrence of a parameter in your decision-making process. A spectacular debut game – I still remember Matt Forte’s debut in 2008 or Kareem Hunt’s week 1 game in 2017 – or a strong end of the season – e.g. B. Amon-Ra St. Brown or Eli Mitchell in 2021 – are likely to stand out when you rate a player. These prejudices persist because they have generally been beneficial to our survival. First impressions, for example, are remarkably accurate, and in many cases what just happened is very likely to happen again. So I emphasize that bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead to more “autopilot” decisions that might be suboptimal.
Another influence is the near-universal novelty bias, in which we overweight and favor new items. Novelty is answered in our brain with a surge in dopamine and norepinephrine, which is a big reason why species from nematodes to humans have this inherent taste for novelty. New players haven’t let us down (yet), offering all the promise of their best historical comps – what’s not to like? Drafting rookies is a lot of fun, and most of us have done a good job of not getting there too early over the past few years. If anything, seasons like 2021 of Ja’Marr Chase will test our patience with this season’s newcomers like Chris Olave, Drake London and Skyy Moore. Novelty bias is something to be aware of, but I don’t recommend avoiding it or trying to overcome it entirely.
There’s a fine line between being led through the fantasy season blindly by our ingrained prejudices and scrutinizing or questioning anything we’re inclined to do. One idea I’m trying to keep handy is this beginner spirit. As a beginner, you are open to knowledge and learning. They have no predisposed ideas about how things work or how they should be done. You listen to others with grace, try and err as you see fit, and generally think slowly. For example, you could make lists of pros and cons when deciding on a trade, rather than just going with your gut (which is linked to and relies on the same fast-signaling neurotransmitters as your brain). Think of leaderboards as a set of results, not set in stone. Tell yourself that past results are no guarantee of future performance, good or bad. The tricky part is not giving up all the information you’ve gathered over the years as a veteran player – it wouldn’t be very fun to force yourself to ignore everything you’ve learned about fantasy football, would it? So strive for balance in using your knowledge while suspecting that some of it might influence your decisions this year.
Rankings are probably a big reason you bought this fantasy magazine, as is our roundtable discussions that delve a little deeper into our analysis of specific players as archetypal sleepers or league winners. These sections of the magazine will likely give one of your prejudices a great workout – the confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is when you only consider or pay attention to information that supports an existing belief. This is also relevant to the previous discussion of beginner’s mind – instead of ignoring those ranks or blurbs you disagree with, can you take the time to understand the logic behind the author’s opinion? It’s hard to admit that you might be wrong or don’t have all the information you need to make an informed decision about a team or player this year, and it’s certainly okay to disagree! But if you just skim the issue, looking for the blurbs and headlines that reinforce what you already know to be true, you won’t learn anything. You may still be in top form, don’t get me wrong, but you may not be maximizing the potential the magazine is meant to offer. Coming back to the cognitive biases’ freeway analogy, the freeway is a good, fast, and safe way to get around, but you get a much better idea of the city/country/countryside by taking the back roads. Both could take you to the same place, but who hasn’t found a hidden gem of a restaurant or shop by taking the time to stroll down Main Street instead of visiting the mall?
You can read more about all sorts of other cognitive biases in my outdated 2013 nostalgic e-book on Fantasy Sports (available via the link in my Twitter bio @reneemiller01). The more you know about the lazy enemy in your brain that can influence your important fantasy decisions, the better able you are to make the most logical, rational decisions you can.
(Photo above: Raj Mehta / USA Today)