I am beyond excited to bring my unique blend of neuroscience and love of fantasy football to Yahoo Sports this season. I got my Ph.D. in Neuroscience and I am currently a Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester. Living in Rochester makes me a fan of the Buffalo Bills, although I’m not as rabid as most of my family, as I always put fantasy before fandom. I have been playing fantasy football since 2006 and have been an avid NFL and NBA DFS player since 2011.
While teaching a cognitive neuroscience course in the fall of 2012, a colleague talked to me about cognitive bias, a relatively new topic for me. Since we were in the middle of the fantasy football playoffs, I immediately recognized all the ways that bias was affecting my decisions about my team. Over the next year, I learned as much as I could about cognitive biases and how they applied to fantasy sports. At the time, there was no intersection between these fields, and no one even talked about the recency bias relative to fantasy.
I wrote a short ebook called “Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is Your Brain Sabotaging Your Team?” which outlined different biases, why they persist, and how they could negatively affect your fantasy decisions during the draft, your weekly lineup setup, or navigating the waiver wire. The examples are hilariously out of date (there are mentions of Tim Tebow), but it’s still a good introduction to the science of cognitive bias and how it applies to fantasy football.
How does cognitive bias affect your decision making in fantasy?
Common pitfalls include biases such as endowment effectwhere we overvalue the things we have invested in; the primacy effect – more on this below; recency biaswhere we overvalue things that have happened more recently; confirmation bias, where we believe in information that confirms previous beliefs while ignoring contradictory data; and many more.
One of the biggest challenges facing a fantasy football enthusiast is determining which fantasy performances are credible, sustainable and real vs. those that are haphazard, random, and not worth your time or FAAB. Every week some players exceed our expectations while others dramatically disappoint. Who can you trust?
My goal is to help you come up with the most logical answers each week in an article we call “Fantasy Football Fact or Fluke: Renee’s Reactions to Week X.”
[It’s fantasy football season: Create or join a league now!]
If this introductory article does anything for you, I hope it puts you in a logical, data-driven mindset as you navigate through the Week 1 games instead of the emotional roller coaster it usually is. Simply being aware that your brain can twist and interpret fantasy outcomes suboptimally, lazily, and illogically can reduce the impact biased processing has on your final decision making.
The first week of the new season is always amazing. First-round picks get a lousy 4 fantasy points, while guys we’ve never heard of or who’ve been in the league for 13 years get multiple points. Overreactions DOMINATE Twitter and other social spaces. After so many months of offseason analysis and preparation, our brains are primed for this emotional response to Week 1 player stats. We’re overloaded with the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which motivates, directs attention and improves memory. Also, we are full of dopamine, which signals reward and also helps in memory formation. These two chemicals set us up for overreactions, both good and bad.
Negative results and disappointment with a player we trust hit us in areas of the brain like the insula, which provides the same kind of pain experience as a broken bone. Positive results strengthen activity in the prefrontal cortex, which improves our self-image and protects our ego by confirming our strategies and expected rewards.
These things are true every week of the NFL season, but the long-awaited Week 1 makes us more susceptible. The idea behind the primacy bias is that the first event in a series carries more weight in our memory and analysis than later events. If you’ve ever had to remember a list of items, names, numbers, groceries, etc., you probably remember the first one more often and more easily than the fourth or fifth. The recency effect also comes into play with this type of task; it will also remember the last item in the list better than the items in between. It’s not just memory either; the first and last items carry more weight when you use them to make a decision.
When the items aren’t milk, bread, and deodorant, but fantasy stats from Week 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., we tend to believe that the next performance in Week 5 will be more like Week 1 and/or Week 5. Week 4, while largely ignoring weeks 2 and 3.
Sometimes the more we know about football, the worse we can be. We think we know what should pass, as teams should use a player, be it an offense should have the most runs or passes in a given matchup. Given that one of the main reasons cognitive biases persist in modern humans is to protect our ego and sense of self (evolution and natural selection would have gotten rid of them if they were of no use), we really may have difficulties in accommodating facts that go against our assumptions.
The New England Patriots are the poster child for defying logical expectations, a credit to Bill Belichick and a big reason for his great successes, but they’re not the only team, either.
Planning ahead to admit that we will be wrong sometimes can be a great defense against bias and keep us open to learning. Many biases center around blame and attribution: In general, we are more likely to blame others when we make bad decisions and take credit for ourselves when we make good decisions. Even though you made your sit/start decisions based on the same ranking list, your brain tells you that you were smart to start the players who did well and the fantasy analyst was stupid to rank the players who did poorly. as high as they did.
So as we head into this exciting first week of the 2022 season, get ready to review player performance through a new lens. I will strive to use hard data and logic instead of emotion to assess the amazing statistics that come out of weekly NFL games. Going into the season with a skeptical eyebrow raised at your brain’s initial emotional reactions should give you a head start on perfecting a logical process as the season progresses.
you can find me on twitter @reneemiller01 and there is a link to my book in my Twitter bio if you want to learn more about cognitive bias.