Psychology Corner: Gambler’s Fallacy

This is Psychology Corner, where Tom brings in his knowledge from his professional life to bear in analysing the psychology and behaviour of Fantasy Football (FPL) managers. This will often follow up on what we mentioned in the most recent pod.

Imagine flipping a coin.

It comes up tails three times.

What do you think happens on the next flip?

Now, as Nick answered correctly on the pod, you probably know that the prior three results don’t impact the fourth.

But I suspect that if I asked 100 people to put a bet on what would happen next, the majority would say “heads”.

This is called gambler’s fallacy in behavioural science.

What’s the background?

To define terms, a fallacy is simply a mistaken belief based on subjective evidence.

The ‘gambler’ part comes from the mind’s preference to see patterns. Cognitively, most people see certain streaks of events as being non-random when, in fact, they are. This is borne out of the latent assumption that gambling (which FPL is, ultimately) is often thought of as an inherently “fair” process that will eventually “even itself out” in the end.

(This should not to be confused with the “hot hands” phenomenon which is more related for the notion of “form”, which I will cover later on this year. This article is focused on a psychological effect that FPL as an activity in the gambling typology can have on managers.)

Specifically, this is about the misconception that if something isn’t happening more than a perceived norm, it will eventually “even out”, and vice versa if it is happening more.

As with the availability heuristic (article on this here), this is rooted in the fact what we perceive is based very much in our own experience, making our beliefs invariably subjective. We are more likely to base our views on what we have personally seen or heard rather than on objective data. Access to objective data – stats in FPL’s case – is a relatively new thing in the scope of human existence.

Is FPL random?

Of course, coin flipping and FPL are slightly different beasts.

Coin flipping is totally random. In FPL, while although there is undoubtedly a degree of randomness inherent to it, it is also possible to be consistently good at the game which is where the “skill” of the manager comes in.

However, you can’t discount the random factor completely; think an early red card or injury, or a someone like Monreal (not scored since 12/13) finding himself in the right place in the right time as we saw in Gameweek 7. This is often clothed as luck, which I wrote about in preseason too (link here).

The counterfactual here to help confirm this argument lies in my personal experience. I broadly do OK, but I think it’s fair to say devote perhaps more time than your average bear in looking at the stats behind players to inform my decisions. But my rank so far this season belies my love of using underlying stats to help me judge transfers. Equally I can’t account for Jamie Vardy missing a penalty, nor Nathaniel Chalobah picking up a long term injury the very Gameweek I bring him in as 4.5 bench fodder on my Wildcard.

I could write an essay on this, but you get the gist: of course it’s not perfectly random, as it is with coin flipping, as there are multiple moderating factors such as good old fixtures and form. However, it’s safe to say randomness does play a role in FPL, and, like gambling generally, it’s not an inherently “fair” game: FPL proves time and again to be a cruel mistress, with I’m sure many times when you’ve gotten unlucky (Smalling own goal; Cedric off 59; McAuley G WTF?) perhaps coming to mind.

FPL example

(n.b. I am not saying this is the only thing driving the examples I use: I am merely using them as an instance where I interpret that this is occurring)

Gambler’s fallacy can manifest in many ways. It can be seen enabling an action – for example, putting Harry Kane in once he starts scoring. But it can work the other way in negating action.

Last season, Diego Costa (who will be missed!) started in his usual foul mood, incurring 4 bookings by Gameweek 6.

Costa therefore was just one booking away from falling off the suspension tightrope, meaning sales of him slowed down dramatically – many reasoned that he had to get the yellow card soon, which was putting off many from picking him up: “surely I can’t bring in someone who will miss one match very soon?”

As it turned out, this was an example of gambler’s fallacy. This was because that people perceived Costa would revert to the norm – that he would get a yellow card sooner rather than later – costing managers falling prey to it many points. The negative impact on managers avoiding cost even if he was the best alternative was more pronounced as Gameweeks went by following the fourth yellow in Gameweek 6:

Between Gameweek 7, the weekend after he got his 4th yellow card, and Gameweek 17, when he finally received the decisive 5th, Costa returned a massive 81 points. In this instance, yes the yellow card threat was always present, but the impact on behaviour was an instance of when gambler’s fallacy can really come into play to the detriment of FPL manager performance.

Missing out on that kind of form from Chelsea’ man up top (before the fallout!) was surely not worth the empty satisfaction of when the yellow card finally came ten Gameweeks later.

There are other examples of this, for example not jumping on the likes of Aaron Ramsey in 13/14, Riyad Mahrez in 15/16 or Josh King in the second half of last season because of a perceived reversion to the norm (“he’ll start blanking soon” a usual refrain).

So anyway, next time you’re thinking of not doing something, or indeed thinking of doing it, framing your justification along that line of everything “evening itself out eventually”, I’d stop and think about it.

Think about what you’re potentially missing out on from your action, or lack thereof – in economics this referred to as opportunity cost – and try use objective data in conjunction with your own opinion to help evaluate whether your decision making is sound or whether it’s gambler’s fallacy blinkering your thinking… in life as well as in FPL!

(caveat: these articles condense often complex concepts into bitesize chunks – there is obviously far more depth and detail to each concept, with reams of academic and practical theory around both that can’t be fully represented here.)

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