I’ve recommended Jonah Lehrer’s The Frontal Cortex blog before, and if you haven’t checked it out, here are two more reasons to do so. His most recent post discusses Bill Belichick’s decision to go for the first down from 4th and 2 in Sunday night’s Patriots game, and ties it to David Gordon’s research on whether or not NFL coaches follow the optimal 4th down strategy:
… it illustrates the difficulty of making rational decisions, even when the evidence supports the call.
I’ve blogged about the research of UC Berkeley economist David Romer before, but his basic thesis, based on an exhaustive statistical analysis of 4th down scenarios, is that NFL coaches are irrationally risk-averse. They punt the ball way too frequently and kick far too many field goals.
Belichick was an econ major, and has expressed a familiarity with Romer’s research.
Lehrer then goes on to discuss this risk-aversion research, with links to other analyses of Belichick’s decision. One of the fascinating aspects of the 4th down decision that Lehrer highlights is that Belichick was statistically correct to go for it, but it’s emotionally difficult for coaches to make that call (and for fans to endure it). The probability part is also interesting — even with a higher probability of making a field goal, this research shows that going for the 1st down on 4th down increases the probability of winning.
On Tuesday Lehrer also remarked on the research of my Kellogg colleague Jennifer Brown, who does some of the most interesting work I’ve seen in a long time. In her new working paper, “Quitters Never Win: The (Adverse) Incentive Effects of Competing with Superstars“, Jen finds that golfers in PGA tournaments perform more poorly when competing against Tiger Woods, especially when Woods is playing well. She and Lehrer have different hypotheses for this result, as Lehrer notes:
Brown argues that this phenomenon is caused when “competitors scale back their effort in events where they believe Woods will surely win.” After all, why waste energy and angst on an impossible contest?
That hypothesis is certainly possible, but I’d argue that the superstar effect has more to do with “paralysis by analysis” than with decreased motivation. I’d bet that playing with Tiger Woods makes golfers extra self-conscious, and that such self-consciousness leads to choking and decreased performance. The problem, then, isn’t that golfers aren’t trying hard enough when playing against Tiger – it’s that they’re trying too hard.
I wonder if there’s a way to test these two hypotheses? I think given her data that it might be difficult; testing such a hypothesis may require biometric data like heart rate, sweating, etc. I frankly am more inclined toward Lehrer’s hypothesis, based on my reading of neuropsychology and my non-Tiger-Woods-like experience of athletic competition; the “trying too hard” fits with my experience of athlete psychology. But I’d really like to see if there’s a way to discriminate between the two.