Psychology Corner: Availability Heuristic

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. I initially wrote a lot of these back in 2017, but they’ve been retrofitted with new examples and finessed to better suit today’s context.

Please note these articles aren’t claiming to explain everything that is going on, but are suggesting a psychological factor (or two) that could be influencing behaviour

Think about former FPL star man Eden Hazard.

Go on, think about him.

Hazard warning

OK, what kinds of things sprung to mind?

For some managers, I bet it was the grim memory of  epic trolling, as huge tranches of fixtures of non-performance commingled with him exploding when you’d finally had enough and gotten rid.

Our friend FPL Awesomo would certainly have such memories:

Now, ask yourself this: when he was “in form” again, what did you do? 

Did you bring him in like those unaffected by his blanks might, or would your past disappointments mean you shunned him altogether?

Some managers this season continually called Hazard a troll – Nick memorably nicknamed him “Mr Poopy-Butthole” after the Rick and Morty character, for example.

This is a perfect illustration of tendency to use salient (i.e. emotionally charged or, crucially, recent moments) more when making decisions. This can complement other psychological drivers such as impulse and the recency effect to affect our behaviour.

It’s called the availability heuristic.

What’s a heuristic?

A heuristic, and its counterpart a bias, is, in short, a mental shortcut our brains have developed to navigate the world around us.

This is because our brains have evolved to cope with the multiple inputs that surround us.

They do this through ‘automating’ mental processes, such as filtering information or making rough calculations, to make as much sense as it can of the increasingly noisy world around us.

OK, what’s availability heuristic?

It’s basically your brain using more easily thought of examples to make judgement calls.

Published under CCL

A good example of mentioned in a paper by famous behavioural economists Tversky and Kahneman, completed in the 1970s, which showed that investors were more likely to judge their stock performance by salient (more noteworthy or important) events such as news articles at the expense of other evidence like technical analyses.

This means that we’re more likely to put weight on more recent events even if historical evidence and/or objective analysis may challenge that theory.

Availability heuristic developed from evolutionary instincts to trust our self-witnessed experiences when making judgements. Our ancestors would have used it for things like knowing which berries or edible, or understanding what constitutes a threat.

Now, we see this go all ways, safe from the threats that hung over our forebears. This means availability heuristic is now used in a way far removed from its evolutionary purpose of using our memory capabilities to help ensure survival, for example in individuals making snap judgements on social media based on an inherently Subjective point of view.

Luckily, we can be helped by things such as stats databases allow us glimpses into a near-as Objective view (though elements such as confirmation and researcher bias (article here) mean this is not entirely true). Nonetheless, they provide us a new perspective to consider which doesn’t just rely on availability of memory.

Many still act on immediately available information to drive decisions, however, often driven by impulse (article forthcoming).

How does this relate to FPL?

To me, availability heuristic has two “macro” impacts on FPL:

1) When making decisions on who to bring in and take out of our sides

The availability heuristic is strong influence on your transfer decision-making.

In terms of some players, like the aforementioned Hazard or Felipe Anderson (who I mentioned on the Unwritten Rules pod with Neil Murray), past failures may have meant some managers are reluctant rethink their value as an FPL pick, meaning that they may develop blind spots when it comes to certain players.

Wee Example

For example, last season I ignored Ryan Fraser in my first draft at a now no-brainer 5.5m due to my poor experience of starting with him the year previously. He blanked in two games then, but last season produced big returns in the first two games.

The big learning there was to swallow my pride, and identify how availability heuristic may be generating an emotive rather than rational response to a player. 

This can work in other ways, too – for example positive memories of  “FPL royalty” like Sigurdsson because of his Swansea heroics, or, in contrast, being reluctant to sell players like Salah despite their returns flatlining.

2) It drives transfer market activity and trends

The second way this impacts FPL is that availability heuristic jolts the transfer market into action.

Managers looking at their teams on Saturday or Sunday night are often lured into considering changes, with a good few actually confirming them as a reaction to the players’ performance – the salient fact they use to guide their decision.

These managers may see that the player has scored and gotten bonus which is all the justification they need: availability heuristic in action! This is also influenced by herd mentality (read the article on it here)

The nice potential early rise also a byproduct of that move, which may cause others to start buying to catch it, or be priced out.

This can also work negatively too (i.e. player blanked and dropping).

In turn, other managers will see this player is rising/falling after their performance and be lured in.

[Insert Lemmings GIF]

Conclusion

There are 2 main ways the availability heuristic is seen in FPL:

  1. Transfer decisions
  2. Market forces

Both of these manifestations are visible in the conversation around FPL where people are relying on availability heuristic.

This helps us make a decision as we take the shortcut of using that key bit of salient information to drive our judgements… even if there are better options available.

Recent times have seen the introduction of the “eye test” into FPL vernacular as well. This is the apex of availability heuristic, as people draw on what they saw whilst watching the football (something that I previously assumed was implicit that we all try to do) often at the expense of pairing it with stats based evidence.

A hybrid is always beneficial.

All of this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it’s helped us survive in the past.

But, with stats providing a quasi-objective view, could we mitigate the risk of availability heuristic overwhelming our decision making by using data to drive our arguments? Hmm…

(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)