football, Psychology

Fantasy Football – A Cognitive Bias Playground

This is my first year playing Fantasy Premier League with friends and while it’s only been a month, I’ve learnt a lot about my own decision making abilities. FPL decision making is full of cognitive biases. There are some that we’re acutely aware of yet fail to rectify and there are others we inadvertently fall prey to. Analyzing FPL makes for a nice case study on decision making.

  1. Availability Heuristic – Overestimating the importance of information that you possess while ignoring information that is unavailable.

Most FPL managers have limited amount of time, expertise and information available to them regarding players. This means that we go by our gut, often overestimating a certain good or bad performance that we seem to recall while selecting players. 

  1. Bandwagon Effect – The probability of a person accepting a certain idea is often proportional to the number people who believe in it. 

By far the most frequently encountered bias is that of groupthink. A single good or bad performance is sufficient to convince thousands of managers to bring in players who’ve had a good gameweek and kick out players they’ve put their faith in. This is evident directly after a match week when the players transferred in/out are inevitably those who had a good week. Jumping on the bandwagon is the surest path to regret. 

The bandwagon effect leads to inflated player prices immediately after a good performance and can be exploited to earn a quick buck on the transfer market which might come handy later when using a wildcard. 

  1. Clustering Illusion – Seeing patterns when none exist. 

Mangers tend to overthink, such is the nature of the game and the power it wields over us. A fun way this manifests itself is in the form of a clustering illusion where players seemingly do well in alternate weeks or follow other arbitrary criteria. While it’s true that patterns exist, home and away games make a difference, presence of a certain player in the team affects the performance of another, midweek games tend to cause fatigue and so on but these are difficult to predict and few in number. 

  1. Outcome Bias – Judging a decision solely based on the outcome rather than on how it was made at the moment. 

The outcome bias along with the bandwagon effect is the reason why most FPL managers don’t do well. I’ve been guilty of this more than I’d like to admit but knee-jerking is common, especially among first time managers like me. No matter how much thought has gone into making the team, results cause a terrible itch to switch players. In fact, the wildcard, a bonus chip that allows you to change your revamp your team, was used by half a million managers (>10%) by the end of the first month itself. 

  1. Recency Bias – The tendency to give more weight to recent information over old data. 

Similar to the outcome bias, people often forget about regression to the mean. A good gameweek practically guarantees that the next week won’t be as productive. It’s not statistically intuitive but makes a lot of sense. A good run of form may be sufficient to indicate the emergence of a good player but an isolated good game week is just noise and only results in knee-jerk.

  1. Forgetting about regression to the mean – 

Variables such as goals, assists and points tend to regress to the mean over the course of the season. Switching between players, having different captains for each gameweek are recipes for losing the game. If you have faith in the ability of your captain, stick to it for a few weeks since it is likely to payoff sooner or later. Constantly changing captains would mean losing out on the spikes unless you’re incredibly lucky in picking your captains each week – a rarity. 

Playing FPL definitely ruins a lot of the joy I derive in watching the matches since these imaginary points have a strong hold on me and I’m constantly rooting for a lucky break or an impossible hattrick but is nonetheless a good tool for me to debug my own decision making. 

It’s also a good way to learn how to stop giving a fuck and actually experience the moment. FPL points are a metaphor, it could easily be money or CPI or any other metric that you chase. Pressure looming, switching from one tactic to another, working with limited resources in a race to the top while desperate for a lucky break sounds eerily similar to life. 🙂


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