Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Rational Fan: Managing Hopes and Constantly Adjusting Expectations

(I love the mirror image below the bars hinting at the symmetrical negative to any observable outcome.)
Consider the analogy of graphic equalizer meters on a old 70s-80s-era stereo--the ones that would show the recent high-point marks. I think this is a good symbol of the high-water-mark thinking that commonly clouds the judgment of sports fans. Specifically, an irrational (typical?) fan mistakes the best performance for the expected performance. The rational fan thinks in realistic terms where future expectations are influenced by past achievements but not set by them and mean reversion is always expected (eventually).

This would include updating for new information (e.g., a recent trend of wins or losses) when projecting the long-term expectation of winning. (i.e., Is recent performance simply an aberration and regression to the historic mean should be expected? Alternatively, has a new plateau been reached and future expectations must be appropriately adjusted?)

Consider also the emotional impact of a team's performance on a fan. The rational fan must contend with and accept the great irony that the more one's team wins, the more the wins tend to run together and the losses stand out, and vice versa. This is simply the law of diminishing marginal utility (not to be confused with the law of diminishing returns).

Irrational fan foresight is almost always myopic as they only see one side of what could be and probably do so in a vacuum. When an irrational fan imagines a play executed, he imagines an outcome determined by his conviction of the play’s potential success or failure. His judgment is probably additionally clouded by the play's potential excitement. If he would like to see a particular play call, he envisions a successful, if not the perfectly successful, outcome. If he disagrees with a play, he conceives of only its failure. A coach doesn’t get that luxury. Coaches should rationally weight the probability of success and the degree of success with the probability of failure and the degree of failure—what could be and how likely it is. Fans are allowed to dream, coaches are required to calculate. For coaches, magnitude matters.

So on any given play fans are liable to be deeply unsatisfied while coaches see the outcome as satisfactory toward a larger goal. But as should be expected, this is subject to error and unintended consequences. The error can be that coaches have bad incentives leading them to take less risk than they should (another example). The error can also be that fans expect too much. Back to the equalizer analogy, setting expectations on the abnormal high point causes fans to demand an unreasonable level of success. Fans can also be subject to what I would term conventional-wisdom bias--the primary source driving coaches to be overly conservative.

Also, when is a fan a true fan? Consider a convert. As opposed to religion, there is no long process filled with sacrifice and commitment culminating in a grand ceremony to becoming a team's fan. But perhaps there is such a process for becoming a "true" fan. Hence, the concept of bandwagon fans as illegitimate. It is only those who have been there through the tough times who can claim righteousness. For my teams I certainly feel this way.

Perhaps another way to look at it is that to be a true fan you have to feel physical pain when your team loses. Alternatively, you're not a team's true fan until the opponent's pain is your pleasure.

One more nostalgic image:

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