Outcome Bias

by | May 4, 2011, 2:39pm 0

How many times have you done the following?

  1. Watched a throw come out of a player’s hand…
  2. Either yelled or cringe because it was a throw that was rushed or forced…
  3. Stuck your foot in your mouth because a receiver brought it in for a score.

If you’re like me, it’s a lot. I can’t count how many times I’ve watched blades, hammers, IO flicks, and countless other crap hit the air and, before they were five feet out of the thrower’s hand, muttered something about how stupid it was to throw that. And how about seeing what looks like a great throw to an open receiver get D’d by a poach or sail out of bounds? I’m guilty on that one too.

Photograph by Elsa/Getty Images

Just before Game 3 in the Celtics-Knicks series (seems to long ago, right?), the New Yorker’s Willing Davidson wrote that while Carmelo Anthony did two very different things in Games 1 (took a contested shot at the buzzer) and 2 (passed to an open teammate), he was met with the same criticism after each.

Obviously, and Davidson quickly acknowledges this, Carmelo was mostly criticized because the Knicks lost. Had they won, people wouldn’t have said much. That’s to be expected in sports, especially in New York.

But Davidson also pries at the disconnect between decisions and their outcomes. I really like the following passage because it relates to how we view decision making in ultimate:

Anthony was supposed to pass in game one and shoot in game two for a variety of reasons, such as his “cold streak” in the first and “hot hand” in the second (despite recent research that says the hot hand does not exist). But mostly, as Anthony implies, it was because he did the opposite…In this, as in most things, we confuse results with decision-making.

It’s hard to call a stall two blade to a covered receiver a bad decision if it yields a score. It’s also hard to point to an overthrown huck and say “nice throw” when it results in a turnover. I think a lot of teams and players would get better if they stopped paying so much attention to individual outcomes and spent more time thinking about the odds over longer periods of time.

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