Do Sports Teams Really Get Caught “Looking Ahead”?

When a sports team gets upset right before a big game commentators often explain the loss by saying they were “looking ahead.” Because most psychological explanations for sports outcomes have no factual basis — they’re the result of the threat of dead air combined with the hindsight and availability biases (e.g. “Winning that fight really motivated the Blackhawks.”) — I’ve always been skeptical. However, according to a new study there is evidence that the “looking ahead” effect exits.

We consider how an elimination tournament’s ability to select the most skilled competitor as the winner is shaped by past, current, and future competition. We present a two-stage model that yields the following main results: (1) a shadow effect — the weaker the expected future competitor, the greater the probability that the stronger player wins in the current stage…

The study doesn’t exactly show that competitors play worse when a strong opponent is on the horizon, but it does show that they play better when a weak opponent is on the horizon (and given the relativity of effort, that seems like the same thing.) The researchers intended the study to shed light on “tournaments” like innovation competitions and runoff elections, but for me it now makes 4% of the things I hear on ESPN credible rather than 2%.
Brown, J. & Minor, D.B. (2011). Selecting the Best? Spillover and Shadows in Elimination Tournaments NBER


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