The Psychology of Why Your Fantasy Team Stinks
July 14, 2012 5 Comments
Everybody knows that one of the three reasons Al Gore invented the internet was so sports fans would have a better way to vent about dumb general managers. But according to a new study by Zakary Tormala, Jayson Jia, and Michael Norton, most people are generally fools when it comes to evaluating talent. Specifically, people prefer somebody with the potential to achieve something rather than somebody who has already achieved it.
In one experiment the researchers asked participants about the 6th season of a five-year NBA veteran or the 6th NBA season of a certain college player. Participants asked about the NBA player were told the impressive statistics he had put up during his first five seasons. Participants asked about the college player were told he had the potential to put up the exact same numbers in his first five seasons. When compared to the NBA veteran, participants were willing to pay the college player a higher salary in his 6th-year, and they believed he would average more points and be more likely to make the all-star team. This preference for potential was confirmed across a variety of different domains and settings.
Compared with references to achievement (e.g., “this person has won an award for his work”), references to potential (e.g., “this person could win an award for his work”) appear to stimulate greater interest and processing, which can translate into more favorable reactions. This tendency creates a phenomenon whereby the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing. We document this preference for potential in laboratory and field experiments, using targets ranging from athletes to comedians to graduate school applicants and measures ranging from salary allocations to online ad clicks to admission decisions.
That wide receiver you drafted in the 2nd round who didn’t improve much after his rookie season? He’s not a lazy bum. You’re just being irrational in your expectations.
The researchers believe we prefer potential because the interest generated by uncertainty leads to more favorable reactions, but I think there’s another reason uncertainty makes potential so appealing. Successfully predicting the fulfillment of potential can make us think more highly of ourselves, while there’s no such gain in self-worth than can come from predicting achievement among those already achieving.
For example if you sign and NBA player who averaged 20 points per page last season and he continues to average 20 points, you haven’t demonstrated any special ability. But when you sign a younger player who averaged 12 points and he goes on to average 20 points, you’ve suddenly created evidence that you’re a genius. It’s likely that more often than not the young player averaging 12 points will go on to average 8 points, but thanks to cognitive tricks we use to prop up self-worth (e.g. fundamental attribution error), consistently preferring potential is likely to lead to greater long-run feelings of success than preferring achievement. In other words, we prefer potential because if the potential is realized it can turn into evidence of our predictive ability. When we choose something or someone that’s already achieved, the only thing the choice can prove is a lack of ability.
Now back to the big question. Does the preference for potential show up among actual pro sports general managers who are supposed to be the best in the world at what they do? Obviously it’s easy to pick out specific examples (Darko!), but one would think that GMs are better than the average person at overcoming biases and being more rational. Then again, Darko.
Tormala, Z. L., Jia, J. S., & Norton, M. I. (2012). The Preference for Potential Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0029227