I've been reading a lot of books on behavioural economics and decision making lately. Can't say I'm any smarter as a result, fact is I'm often rather confused when any math symbols pop up, but there certainly have been numerous studies, anecdotes and learnings that will come in useful as idle chatter at my next cocktail party*.
As I'm sure many of you do, when I'm reading a book on game theory, artificial intelligence, foreign policy or behavioural economics I like to ask myself: what could this mean for the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Ok, maybe that's just me...I'm not sure if my Leaf filter is a genuine problem or if it's a heuristic that helps my aging brain better understand the subject matter at hand. I'd like to think it's the latter...
Out of the reading I've been doing lately, a few items have stayed with me and do seem to have some sort of application to the world of sport:
- Herbert Simon's early work on problem solving and production systems;
- Anchoring, especially as it applies to pricing;
- Discounting (Hyperbolic v. Exponential); and
- Favourite longshot bias.
I've been a big proponent of the Leafs keeping their youngsters in developmental leagues for as long as possible. Not only does it give the players the opportunity to play big minutes in every situation (PP, PK, ES, etc.), it can also extend waiver eligibility, often doesn't exhaust a year of the player's entry-level contract, and if the player is in the CHL, their contract doesn't count against the 50 player limit.
In the late 1950s, Herbert A. Simon was exploring "solution by recognition" and the following passage made me question the best way to condition a young athlete, like say a Nazem Kadri...
One can train a man so that he has at his disposal a list or repertoire of the possible actions that could be taken under the circumstances...A person who is new at the game does not have immediately at his disposal a set of possible actions to consider, but has to construct them on the spot - a time- consuming and difﬁcult mental task.I think your typical sports talking-head would refer to the experienced decision-maker as a "wily vet"and the challenges of the novice as "rookie errors." But what it comes down to, is ensuring players have a thoroughly developed and refined repetoire of possible actions.
The decision maker of experience has at his disposal a checklist of things to watch out for before ﬁnally accepting a decision. A large part of the difference between the experienced decision maker and the novice in these situations is not any particular intangible like “judgment” or “intuition.” If one could open the lid, so to speak, and see what was in the head of the experienced decision-maker, one would ﬁnd that he had at his disposal repertoires of possible actions; that he had checklists of things to think about before he acted; and that he had mechanisms in his mind to evoke these, and bring these to his conscious attention when the situations for decisions arose.
Most of what we do is to get people ready to act in situations of encounter consists of drilling in these lists into them sufﬁciently deeply so that they will be evoked quickly at the time of the decision.”
Of course, the big question remains: is this accrual of experience and list-building best done at the AHL or NHL level?
Anchoring refers to the core information an individual refers to when making an initial decision. Individuals often have a habit of over-relying on a single trait or a single piece of information in their decision making process. This is especially true when it comes to our understanding of value pricing, for example:
People tend to have an "anchor" price for most products, and judge them in relation to that anchor. For example, if you expect a laptop computer to be about $1,000, the $750 model might look like a bargain, but if you were anchored on $500, it'll seem expensive. Some products have very stable anchor prices (milk, bread), others change often (most electronics).Dan Ariely has some great writing on how established prices set an initial value that consumers are usually unwilling to move from.
For years, sports teams in weaker markets, especially those with attendance problems, have given away tickets. While that tactic may generate revenues through increased concession sales, parking, souvenirs, etc. it may create a larger challenge: it effectively establishes the value of a game ticket as $0.
If you're a Panthers fan and can get free tickets by showing your Florida State drivers license, the Panthers have effectively established the value of their tickets as $0. How many people would be willing to pay the face value to attend the next game?
I think the anchoring is one of several challenges facing the Toronto Blue Jays.
For years, Toronto was awash in free Jays tickets through sponsors, potential sponsors, vendors, give-aways, etc. As a result:
- All of these comped tickets were included in the attendance counts, inflating the Jays' attendance numbers; and
- For many baseball-going Torontonians, it established the value of a Blue Jays ticket as $0.
I've clearly established my anchor price for major league baseball and it's going to be tough, if not impossible, to get me to pay $22 for an awful bleacher seat at the Dome, never mind shelling out $44 for field level seats.
Looking at the dismal attendance numbers, I get the feeling I'm not alone.
The two types of discounting that are particularly interesting to me are hyperbolic versus exponential discounts.
Not to beat the Phil Kessel trade to death, but I think it's a good fit here. In discounting, there is a tendency to prefer immediate payoffs to those that may take time to realize - immediate needs outweigh anything distant or abstract. Or as Greg Muller so nicely puts it:
The core question is how people penalize various options for having a ‘delayed payoff’. Would you rather have $30 now and $50 in five years? Implicit in the decision-making process is that later payoffs aren’t worth as much. You might need the money now more than later, or there’s a risk you won’t get the money later, due to death/bankrupcty of the source/etc. The drop in value of a payoff due to the delay involved is called the ‘delay discount’....[people] tend to over-prefer options with more immediate payouts, which should be no surprise to anyone who has interacted with humans before.
The Favourite Longshot Bias
I'm not much of a gambler. For my NCAA bracket this year when I came across matches that were simply too close for me to call I turned to Vegas sports books and chose the team with the better odds. I finished in the top third of the pool (well back of the money) but, more importantly, I once again lost to my NCAA basketball loving wife.
I had presumed that by turning to an informed audience, that is people who bet on sports, I might have a better chance at winning or at least getting an informed opinion.
But then I started reading about the favourite longshot bias, the tendency for gamblers to over-bet on longshots and under-bet on favourites (this approach would have been rather fruitful in the first few rounds of the NHL playoffs, especially in the East).
One of the reasons suggested for over-betting on longshots is that gamblers are enamored with risk.
Once again, putting on the Leaf filter, I think the favourite longshot bias partially explains why GMs acquire players in decline. Case in point: was there a longer-shot at recovery than Andrew Raycroft? The phrase "longshot" doesn't go far enough to define the odds of him ever returning to Calder Trophy winning form, yet three GMs have employed him in his post-Boston decline (two of whom are no longer GMs).
Which leads me to the other rationale often cited to explain the longshot bias: bettors misunderstand, or simply cannot understand, probabilities.
I think JFJ is firmly in the latter camp, possibly because he was a rookie GM unfamiliar with "solution by recognition" and he miscalculated the discount by preferring the immediate solution of an NHL starting goalie in 2006 to the longer-term payoff of developing Rask into a better starting goalie in 2009...
*more likely to get me really weird looks at the grade school doors as I wait to drop-off/pick-up my kids.