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
Reading about FPL is a self-selecting behaviour.
Being involved in the very active FPL community, through lurking and/or being actively involved across social channels, means you tend to internalise what the prevailing view in the community is.
This is impact is “herd mentality” – the psychological tendency to follow the crowd, rooted in twin impulses of fear and greed, as documented on our recent “Unwritten Rules” podcast with Neil Murray.
This effect can be generated by a menagerie of reasons such as reading advice and opinion on Twitter, or driven by behavioural cues such as looking at price rise trends to understand which players you should be looking to get in (and how quickly).
From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, this tendency makes complete sense.
Imagine the mindset of a figurative caveperson (whom we are not too far removed from).
Imagine, suddenly, some food becomes available – let’s say a mammoth or something is brought back to your cave – and you see others start chowing down.
Caveperson-you would want to get in on the action as well: your survival instinct kicks in, and you don’t want to go without and die (fear) and you want to be nourished and survive another day (greed).
Many deny that they are influenced by the herd – it’s basically become a bit of an insult to say to someone that they’re being influenced by this mentality: “you’re such a sheep!”
But just remember this; herd mentality isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Oftentimes, it’ll see you right to go with the numbers, as it did for our ancestors; it’s why you’re reading this now.
Relating it to FPL
Let’s apply this to FPL: when you’re looking for the best decision to make for your team, you are liable to being influenced swept along by popular opinion.
Lots of people, fishing in a fairly limited set of players, will make a similar decision about what’s the best choice: as Nick mentioned on our final podcast last season, the actual number of players whose price fluctuated was very small.
Checking many sources for information to help you make your decision exposes you to the prevailing ideas in the FPL community – you’re undeniably being (non consciously – nb not subconscious, you aren’t asleep, nor unconscious, you aren’t knocked out) being influenced by the herd.
An example of this is the Duffygate captaincy in Gameweek 34.
OK not everyone did it, but the fact is many people in my mini-league did, many wrote in to nominate it as “mistake of the year” on our final pod of last season, and FPL Discovery showed how almost a quarter of the top 10k followed suit that week:
In retrospect, perhaps favouring a team like Man City – who beat Palace 3-1 with a brace from Sterling – was the better idea.
But I’d be willing to bet many people (including myself) were unable to see past the herd logic: “cos it’s a double game week, I want to captain a double game week player”.
Note: I blame FPL Stag wholeheartedly for this.
Subnote for the delicate: I don’t really, it was my fault for doing it as I’m the manager of my own team.
Subsubnote for the bantz: I do blame him.
Herd mentality, the template and the market.
A key factor in FPL for judging how the “herd” has moved is the “Template” and Ownership.
Ownership as a metric is vitally important for some FPL managers.
Movements to “cover” popularly held, “Template” players are mainly driven by fear: if a player is highly owned and explodes, the difference in outcome can be brutal between those who own and those who do not.
Think Kun Aguero’s gameweek 2 hat trick against Huddersfield last year, or Mo Salah’s Christmas heroics; those on the wrong side of those ownership numbers tended to see fat red arrows, whereas those on the right side consolidated or bettered their OR.
Some claim to never look at ownership numbers, which is a great way of insulating yourself from herd mentality – apart from maybe forming a partial impression from browsing content, you may not feel compelled to buy player X because of the greed/fear dual impulse.
However, others (including us) get pretty obsessed with it. I’m still not sure whether it’s a good or bad thing, but I guess part of the art (that I’m failing at) in that is understanding when a player becomes nigh-on essential (think about, for example, the explosive growth in Pogba’s ownership when OGS took over), and consequently when they may become disposable (Pogba, late season apart from two lucky pens v West Ham).
To me, ownership basically functions as a proxy for herd behaviour, though approaches differ in terms of how important it is to some managers.
This also impacts the transfer market.
Highly noteworthy recent events (e.g. he’s scored a double digit haul) drive the market.
This means, inevitably, when a player has had a good match they are often due to rise very quickly in the transfer market come Sunday night.
This is herd mentality in action – greed, because people want to jump in on what could be a good ongoing buy (for every Ross Barkley there’s a Raul Jimenez) and also want to gain 0.1m profit from a double rise, and fear in terms of not being priced out of the next hot thing in FPL.
This drives others to the same conclusion, too – the more people buying, the more likely the player will rise, so the more people will be buying and so on [insert Lemmings GIF].
Sometimes the herd gets it completely wrong – through no fault of its own.
The problem is that we can calculate, weigh up the odds, play the percentages and do our utmost to make the best decisions, using all the information available to us (which includes the output of other doing the exact same thing), but we ultimately need things to go our way on the pitch once the deadline passes to help our plans come to fruition.
The irritating truth is that random chance plays a big part of our game: sometimes, you’ll invariably get decisions – in some cases, the “big decisions” – completely wrong, just by following an innate human instinct that serves you so well otherwise.
In those scenarios, if you’ve gone with the herd, another small effect is that you don’t feel so bad – you’ve made a similar mistake to many others – it’s safety in numbers.
The herd, should you follow it, can undeniably lead you to success.
Consider not owning Liverpool defenders for large swathes of the season.
Or being oblivious to Pogba/Rashford as they exploded.
Or not owning Fraser/Wilson when they were on fire.
The chances are that, most of the time, what the many are doing you should probably be doing too – as we said on the Unwritten Rules cast, The Obvious Moves Are Obvious For A Reason.
For the reasons I’ve detailed above, the wisdom of the crowd – the mentality of the herd – is usually completely correct.
As always, it’s about balance: keep an open mind, try to be conscious of the herd, and if you are being brave and going for the big differential captain or suchlike, make sure you’ve weighed the decision carefully.
(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)