Ask Your Fantasy Football Neuroscientist (Part 1): Renee Miller of “Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Football”

"One of my (awesome) students gave me the 30 for 30 “Silly Little Game” as a thank you gift today. Can’t wait to finally see it!"

Perhaps it’s not that we’re lacking female voices in fantasy football analysis. Maybe it’s just that we’re not looking hard enough for them. I found Renee Miller lurking on my timeline and discovered a gold mine of content. That’s Dr. Miller to you, and if you want a good look at how our brains deal with cognitive bias, regarding fantasy football in general, you should check out her book. In fact, I’m not going to start the interview until you go buy her book and give it a read.

In fact, I’ll listen to Chris Johnson’s classic tune “Act on Deck” while I wait.

All righty then, let’s begin.

How does a neuroscientist decide to write a book about cognitive dissonance and fantasy football? I was in my first year as a faculty member at UR. [Zach note: University of Rochester, not much of a football squad.] I was teaching a Cognitive Neuroscience lab with a colleague and the topic on this day in December was Cognitive Bias. As I listened to my colleague, a real Cognitive Neuroscientist (I’m more of a molecular genetic neuroscientist) talk that day, I had at least half my mind on my fantasy football playoffs. I’d been an avid fantasy football player for about 5 years then. When I realized that what he was saying about Observer Bias-the one where we interpret results in light of our hypotheses-applied to how I viewed my fantasy season, I was pretty surprised. It stuck with me and soon I was reading about all kinds of cognitive biases. Of course, the more I learned, the more guilty I realized I was!

I first published my thoughts on how bias influences fantasy footballers in an article for Chet Gresham’s then brand new site The Fake Football in late 2011. [Zach note: Chet was so young back then.] Each of around six biases received about a paragraph’s discussion in that article. I knew it wasn’t enough, so I began to think about expanding my ideas into book form. The ability to do so came last spring. In “Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is your brain sabotaging your team?” (which is still pretty short and easy to read), there’s an introduction that I really like about why sophisticated human beings would have evolved cognitive biases to begin with and how they might be perpetuated in our brains. Then I give each bias a short chapter, emphasizing how it affects your fantasy team management and what, if anything, you can do about it.

When fantasy footballers look at “expert” predictions, are we merely looking to confirm what we already believe about a player? The Confirmation Bias is rampant. The idea is that we know whom we like or want to start, yet do “research” in order to make a good decision. The fact is that we often only pay attention to the “research” that supports our initial belief. It’s completely subconscious. It’s simply a matter of how our brains are wired. Thoughts that are prevalent or familiar are reinforced much more easily than new thoughts. I think this happens a lot when you want to make a somewhat contrarian play. You go through dozens of expert rankings until you find someone that has your guy ranked higher than an obvious alternative. The bias is in ignoring the 90% of experts that recommend against starting your guy and feeling validated by the 10% that agree with you. This bias may or may not hurt you, and I do believe in playing whomever you want-it’s your team after all.

How does the recency bias, regarding the former week’s results or just last year’s results, lead to fantasy football sorrow? Failing to appreciate WHY whatever happened last week happened is a formula for sorrow in some cases. Football rosters are the most stable amongst the three major sports (NFL, NBA, MLB), but situation still plays a role in player performance. Opponent, scheme, injuries, weather…there are plenty of factors that can contribute to variance in a player’s performance from week to week. If you don’t acknowledge the circumstances and focus only on results, it can lead to erroneous predictions for the player’s next game (sometimes it’s called chasing points, but works in the other direction too). If you fail to understand the situation you’re hoping to replicate (or avoid), you stand a poor chance of meeting your expectations. [Zach note: You heard her, keep your expectations low.]

Is it possible to take advantage of the fact that people overreact to NFL Week 1 season results more than any other week? I don’t know. Some of the best advice I ever got as a graduate student was to admit when you don’t know the answer to a question. BUT, I’m going to find out! One of my off-season articles, to be published at this summer, is going to look at exactly that. Specifically, does Week 1 performance predict or correlate at all with season-long performance? Week 1 definitely sticks with us more strongly than almost any other week of the NFL season (as I’ve written about at So if you had drafted Eddie Royal last year and traded him away in week 2, you could have taken advantage of an overreaction (someone else’s Primacy Bias). [Zach note: In the book, Renee brought up the immortal Kevin Ogletree from the 2012 opener. I got “biased” on that one.] If you had let Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson, or Eric Decker go after a disappointing Week 1, you would have been taken advantage of. You can also see Primacy Bias play out in that guys start players who performed really well in week 1 over and over and over waiting for that repeat performance…of course if that’s you, it sucks but if it’s your opponent, it can be nice!

As a scientist-writer, it’s my job to not only appreciate that a bias exists, but to figure out if it hurts us or not. Not all Cognitive Biases are detrimental to our game. In many situations in our lives and the lives of our ancient ancestors, having a Primacy Bias was a positive thing. I’m not totally closed minded to the idea that it may be worth something in fantasy football…so stay tuned!

How do we become less attached to our fantasy “assets” so we can value them more accurately? I really struggle with this. I can appreciate that you can make better decisions if you’re completely uninvested in your team, but if you’re completely uninvested in your fantasy team, then what is the point of playing? Winning money? For some, I’m sure that’s true, especially where relatively anonymous big money leagues are concerned. I don’t play in those leagues though; I play mostly to win and I want to win with players I love on my team. That’s my starting point but you DO have to remain flexible with your valuations.

We deploy a bias called the Endowment Effect when valuing players. [Zach note: I’d never throw in a shallow comment like “that’s what she said” here. Oh, never mind.] The mere fact that we have invested at all in a player inflates his meaning and value to us. Successful players that we have not invested in receive lower valuation. Anticipating your next question, if I owned Trent Richardson last year (I didn’t) I would have been reluctant to trade him, as I was busy reinforcing my preseason belief that he would be a valuable fantasy asset…next week, surely. At the same time, in reality, I was looking at the leaguemate who owned him and not feeling the slightest bit of jealousy, but rather relief that it wasn’t me.

The items in our lives that we have invested time, energy, or emotion in are always going to be higher value than those that we haven’t spent the time or money on. The reason appears to be based on findings that people make decisions about value in order NOT TO LOSE. We don’t want to admit we were wrong. Studies that image brain activity show that being wrong triggers the same neural response as physical pain. So sometimes we hold onto players longer than we should because letting them go forces us to admit our painful mistakes. To the extent that we can realize this is going on, we can distance ourselves from our players (their poor performance doesn’t really reflect on our self worth) and make more sound decisions for our teams.

Is it possible for you to give the entire fantasy community a blanket immunity for loving Trent Richardson so much before the 2013 season? No. I had him ranked RB6 last summer. Gross. All I’ll say is Process over Results (Rich Hribar and Salvatore Stefanile love that phrase). Sometimes logical decisions lead to suboptimal results. Most of the time, logical decisions lead to good results, so stick with the process.

Is there a better example of omission bias than the refs swallowing their whistles on that fourth-down pass by the 49ers against the Ravens in the Super Bowl? Well, it’s the first week of the MLB season sooooo…
The work by Jon Wertheim and Tobias Moskowitz in their book, “Scorecasting: The hidden influences behind how sports are played and games are won” (Crown, 2011) shows many examples across sports of the increasing rate of “no-calls” at the end of games or in critical situations. As far as I can tell, acknowledging the situation has done nothing to change it. As far as better examples, I’m sure every fan has a better example of how omission bias impacted their team more than the SF call but I’m personally a terrible football historian.

Referees and umpires are not perfect. Mistakes are made, and the slowly expanding use of review is a good thing in my opinion. One thing about me, I give the benefit of the doubt to those with more experience and training in certain areas than I have. By and large, I believe the refs do the best they can.

I’m going to cut y’all off for now, and I know that wasn’t much of a cliffhanger. Find out what Renee has to say about her “favorite” cognitive bias, her answer to the most important interview question and some of her favorite football/fantasy writers on the Web as I post the rest on Tuesday.

Follow Renee Miller on Twitter, if you know what’s good for you.

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