The week of August 24, 2014

You’re unwittingly sabotaging your own fantasy team

By Renee Miller

If I were a betting woman (and I am), I would wager that more football information is produced and consumed in August than any other month of the year. Player rankings, training camp reports, evaluations of rookie prospects, new situation analysis, sleepers, busts: There’s an endless stream of data flowing at you faster than ever this month, as you prepare your draft strategy.

While you account for veterans, rookies, new coaches and coordinators, and your leaguemates and their tendencies to draft players from the home team or grab a stud QB early, there is one thing that will affect your fantasy season that never crosses your mind.

That thing is your mind itself.

The betrayal your brain is capable of is unreal. The very organ that takes in all the data, organizes it, remembers it for you, and spits it back out when asked, can subtly manipulate that raw data in ways that move you to make decisions that are sometimes downright illogical and detrimental to your team.

I want to show you how that happens, and what you can do to avoid being beaten by your brain.

The betrayal your brain is capable of is unreal.

Collectively, the manipulations your brain performs are referred to as cognitive biases. They have two interesting features. First, you rarely are aware of them; bias is a subconscious process. Second, they exist to protect you, and they came about in an age when you needed protection from more than a bad trade offer in fantasy football.

Cognitive biases have been shown to increase confidence, self-esteem, and in some respects, they enable you to make fast, accurate decisions. They wouldn’t still be with us if they weren’t important to our survival as a species. That said, there are a number of cognitive biases that have been studied by neuroscientists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists that can trick you into making suboptimal decisions. Those are the ones you want to avoid in fantasy sports.

To start at the beginning, it’s important to realize that much—if not all—of the information you’re gathering now is generated by people with their own biases. There are biases that arise when an expert watches film and in which statistics an expert uses to present a case for or against a certain running back. The bias in the way information is presented is called framing, and we see it all the time in advertising and politics. The classic case is “four out of five dentists recommending a toothpaste.” That makes you feel good about buying it, but an article stating that 20 percent of dentists don’t recommend that toothpaste would likely have the opposite effect. The statistic is the same—it’s just how it’s framed that influences our decision.

It’s good practice, not just in sports but in all aspects of life where you face value decisions, to figure out where the data is coming from and why. What’s the objective of the person giving you the advice?

You can’t control framing much, if at all, other than to be aware that it exists and seek out the whole story. Most fantasy football experts don’t have an agenda beyond wanting to be right about their rankings, thereby earning credibility in the industry.

How are you using the data you’re inundated with? Do you pay attention all off-season, following the combine, the draft, and free agency? Or do you tune out after the Super Bowl until training camps are well under way and your drafts are on the calendar? Either way, how you use rankings data and analysis this month will be influenced.

Fantasy points come out of talent and opportunity, not narratives.

If you are an off-season football junkie, you likely have strong opinions on most players, especially rookies. As you take in the offerings, you will most likely be drawn to articles that confirm what you already believe. If you love Johnny Manziel and think he should be the week 1 starter for the Browns, you can find content to support that belief. You can also find content that challenges it, but your brain will skip over those articles, dismissing them for one reason or another. You won’t even be aware that you’re selectively reading and watching football analysis that reinforces a belief you already have—you’re probably thrilled that so many experts agree with you.

The value of confirmation bias lies in the fact that being confident in our beliefs makes us more likely to act decisively and increases our self-esteem. Feeling good about oneself is actually a key component of attractiveness, so scientists have speculated that some biases persist because those that have them are more likely to reproduce and pass those genes on. Confirmation bias may or may not hurt your fantasy team, right? You’re getting a false sense of confidence in your decision, but that decision may in fact be the right one.

What if you’ve been out of the football loop for the past six months? How can biases affect your fantasy draft/team? The biggest issue this time of year is what’s known as recency bias.

Hype over training camp and preseason performances is off the charts. Players who get a lot of positive attention in the preseason shoot up the draft boards while quieter players plummet. Those players that get a lot of preseason attention are often those that have nifty narratives attached to them. Pick any one: rookie, new team, new coach, comeback from injury, new weapons, etc. Combine a good performance with a good story, and writers will go nuts. Then readers go nuts. All of a sudden, hype has propelled a guy from the 13th round to the fifth round! Meanwhile, who falls out of the fifth round? A solid player who’s boring, that’s who. I’m not saying to ignore preseason results—we do learn a lot about depth, chemistry, and overall offensive efficacy from these critical weeks leading up to week 1—just don’t get too carried away.

These are only a couple of the many ways your brain can fool you into making decisions that might not be optimal for your fantasy team. Fantasy points come out of talent and opportunity, not narratives. By being aware of the various biases you fall prey to, you can take steps to avoid draft busts, bad sit/start decisions, and ill-advised trades that tank your fantasy football team.


Renee Miller, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist and sports writer. You can download her book, Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is Your Brain Sabotaging Your Team?, and read more at Rotovitz.

Illustration by Max Fleishman | Photos via Blogspot and Wikimedia Commons