Monday, May 31, 2010

Behaving Economically?

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:

  1. Herbert Simon's early work on problem solving and production systems;
  2. Anchoring, especially as it applies to pricing;
  3. Discounting (Hyperbolic v. Exponential); and
  4. Favourite longshot bias.
Decision Making and Player Development

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.

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.”
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.

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:
  1. All of these comped tickets were included in the attendance counts, inflating the Jays' attendance numbers; and
  2. For many baseball-going Torontonians, it established the value of a Blue Jays ticket as $0.
I'm a walking case study in anchor pricing: I've rarely paid to go to a Jays game, getting my fill of free tickets each year, and the last time I took my family to a ball game, it cost me $28 for four tickets at Safeco.

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.
I have no idea if any of this entered into the decision making process behind the Kessel trade, but considering the Leafs have traded away 50% of their first round picks in the last decade, I have to think there's some sort of discounting going on as the team prefers to address immediate needs at the cost of a supposedly uncertain future.

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).

In terms of risk, his decline in price (and term) certainly helps explain why Mike Gillis would ink Raycroft to a deal.

So called "risk-love" (the opposite of risk-aversion) is often associated as the cause of over-betting on longshots and certainly explains Raycroft's UFA contract in Colorado.

Unfortunately, neither value nor risk-love explain JFJ's terrible deal to acquire Raycroft.

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...

As for my reading habits, I'm reading George Orwell's Essays and am in the midst of a brilliant piece on Charles Dickens, but for the life of me I'm struggling to figure out what it has to do with the Leafs....

*more likely to get me really weird looks at the grade school doors as I wait to drop-off/pick-up my kids.


  1. Who are you and why are you reading about these topics? They are interesting, but I imagine fairly dry expecially if you're getting into book length material.

    I'm sure GMs dislike delayed payoffs because they are very likely to be fired before the payoff.

  2. Matt I'm reading about these topics because they have a real bearing on public policy and marketing, two fields I often find myself working in.

    The Dan Ariely book is a fascinating read and I would highly recommend it; while Thaler's Nudge was a bit of a disappointment.

    I agree that GMs prefer the short-term as, for many, their tenure isn't long enough to see the payoff of long-term planning.

  3. "The Dan Ariely book is a fascinating read and I would highly recommend it."

    Seconded. It was probably the most interesting book I've read in years.

    Also agreed on Nudge, which was fine but not much more than that.

  4. Including this one, 75% of comments on this post agree that Ariely's work is fascinating, while Thaler and Sunstein are disappointing. If we therefore assume an anchor for the cost of an intriguing Leafs blog post at one Ariely reference, we may discount a post that also includes a Thaler/Sunstein reference based on the added value relative to the additional time required to read the extra material.

    I think you may be too harsh on longshots. I would certainly not have expected there to be three people with the Leafs and behavioural econ as overlapping interests.

  5. Funny, I'm finally reading N.N. Taleb's The Black Swan and he makes a lot of the same points about how bad people are at assessing and acting on risk. I will definitely check out Ariely.

  6. Black Swan has a ton of interesting stuff in it, especially when you consider that it was written before the global economy went into meltdown, which was a "Black Swan" of its own. My understanding is that Taleb made a lot of money off of that.

    That said, Taleb's writing isn't anywhere near as accessible as Ariely. He's dealing with some complicated stuff, sure, but he also likes to droneon about himself instead of just getting to the point.

    By the way, a book recently came out that deals with behavioural economics specificly in the sports world. It's called "Stumbling to Wins" and it's... well, it's OK. I'm about halfway through and there's definitely some interesting stuff in there, but nothing really groundbreaking. A lot of the material has already been covered in blogs and other sources, and they rely pretty heavily on Ariely's work.

    It's a good book, but I was really hoping it would be a great one. Instead it feels like a bit of a cynical attempt to be the next Moneyball.

  7. I liked the Black Swan, but it's nowhere near as approachable as Predictably Irrational. I also agree that Taleb does tend to talk about himself a bit much...Michael Lewis' "The Big Short" is a pretty good ready on the financial melt-down and those who spotted it and made millions.

    It was DGB who suggested I read the Ariely book in the comments to my year-end book post. Steve Burtch also kindly suggested an additional 15 titles or so.

    If anyone is interested in picking up a good book or two, my year end list, along with suggestions from Steve and DGB can be found here:

  8. Anonymous6:47 pm

    "I have to think there's some sort of discounting going on as the team prefers to address immediate needs at the cost of a supposedly uncertain future."

    Sorry to nitpick and no doubt true, but why is the future "supposedly" uncertain? Can anyone with certainty predict the future? We can make guesses and maximize our chances of success but that doesn't make the future any less uncertain.

  9. Anonymous - Good point, clumsy language on my part. Although I doubt that you're all that sorry about the nitpicking...