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Fantasy Football 2022: How cognitive bias can aid in you losing your weekly matchups

I’m beyond excited to bring my unique blend of neuroscience and fantasy football love to Yahoo Sports this season. I earned my Ph.D. in Neuroscience and am currently a professor in the Brain and Cognitive Science Department at the University of Rochester. Living in Rochester does make me a Buffalo Bills fan, though I’m not quite as rabid as most of my family since I’ve always put fantasy before fandom. I’ve been playing fantasy football since 2006 and I’ve been an avid NFL and NBA DFS player since 2011.

While teaching a cognitive neuroscience course in the fall of 2012, I had a colleague speak about cognitive bias, a relatively new topic for me. As we were in the midst of the fantasy football playoffs, I immediately recognized all the ways that bias was affecting my decisions around my team. Over the next year, I learned as much as I could about cognitive biases and how they applied to fantasy sports. At the time, there was no intersection between these fields, and no one ever spoke about even recency bias in relation to fantasy.

I wrote a short eBook called “Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is your brain sabotaging your team?” which described different biases, why they persist and how they might negatively impact your fantasy decisions during the draft, your weekly lineup setting, or navigating the waiver wire. The examples are hilariously out of date — there are Tim Tebow mentions — but it remains a good primer on the science of cognitive bias and how it applies to fantasy football.

How does cognitive bias affect your decision-making in fantasy?

Common pitfalls include biases like the endowment effect, where we overvalue things we have invested in; the primacy effect — more on this below; recency bias, where we overvalue things that have happened most recently; confirmation bias, where we believe information that confirms previously held beliefs while ignoring conflicting data; and many more.

One of the biggest challenges a fantasy football enthusiast faces is determining which fantasy performances are believable, sustainable and real vs. those that are fluky, random and not worth your time or FAAB. Every week some players exceed our expectations while others dramatically disappoint. Who can you trust?

I’m aiming to help you reach the most logical answers every week in an article we’re calling “Fantasy Football Fact or Fluke: Renee’s Reactions to Week X.”

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If this introductory article does anything for you, I hope it puts you in a logical and data-driven mindset as you navigate through Week 1 games instead of the emotional roller coaster it usually is. Simply being aware that your brain can twist and interpret fantasy results in ways that are suboptimal, lazy and illogical can reduce the impact that biased processing has on your ultimate decision-making.

The first week of the new season is always a doozy. First-round picks score a lousy 4 fantasy points, while guys we’ve never heard of or who’ve been in the league for 13 years come away with multiple scores. Overreactions DOMINATE Twitter and other social spaces. After so many months of offseason analysis and preparation, our brains are primed for this emotional response to Week 1 player stats. We are overloaded with the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which is motivating, attention-directing and memory-enhancing. Plus, we’re filled with dopamine, signaling reward and also aiding in memory formation. These two chemicals prime us for overreactions, both good and bad.

Joe Mixon #28 of the Cincinnati Bengals is a fantasy star
If your first-round fantasy pick flounders in Week 1, your brain could start playing tricks on you. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Negative outcomes and disappointment with a player we trusted hit us in areas of the brain like the insula, which provides the same kind of pain experience as a broken bone would. Positive outcomes strengthen activity in the prefrontal cortex, which enhances our self-image and protects our ego as it confirms our strategies and expected rewards.

These things are true every week of the NFL season, but the long-anticipated Week 1 makes us extra-susceptible. The idea behind primacy bias is that the first event in a series carries more weight in our memory and analysis than in subsequent events. If you’ve ever had to remember a list of items, names, numbers, groceries, etc. it’s likely that you remember the first one more often and more easily than the fourth or fifth one. The recency effect comes into play with this kind of task too; you’ll remember the last item in the list better than the middle items too. It’s not just memory, either; the first and last items carry more weight when you’re using them to make a decision.

When the items aren’t milk, bread and deodorant, but fantasy stats from Week 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. we tend to believe the next performance in Week 5 will be most like Week 1 and/or Week 4 while largely ignoring Weeks 2 & 3.

Sometimes, the more we know about football, the worse off we can be. We think we know what should happen, how teams should use a player, whether an offense should be more run- or pass-heavy in a given matchup. Given that one of the main reasons that cognitive biases persist in modern humans is to protect our ego and sense of self (evolution and natural selection would have gotten rid of them if they served no purpose), we can really struggle to accommodate facts that go against our suppositions.

The New England Patriots are the poster team for defying logical expectations, a credit to Bill Belichick and a big reason for their huge successes, but they aren’t the only team, either.

Planning ahead to admit that we’re going to be wrong some of the time can be a great defense against bias and keep us open to learning. Many biases focus on blame and attribution — we are generally more likely to blame others when we make bad decisions and take credit for when we make good decisions. Even though you’ve made your sit/start decisions based on the same list of rankings, your brain tells you that you were smart to start the players who did well and the fantasy analyst was stupid for ranking the players who did badly as high as they did.

So, as we head into this exciting first week of the 2022 season, get ready to review player performances through a new lens. I’ll be striving to use hard data and logic instead of emotion to evaluate the surprising stats that come out of weekly NFL games. Heading into the season with a skeptical brow raised at your brain’s initial emotional reactions should give you a leg up on perfecting a logical process as the season goes on.

You can find me on Twitter @reneemiller01 and there’s a link to my book in my Twitter bio if you want to learn more about cognitive bias.

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