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Bales: How to Overcome Betting & Fantasy Confirmation Bias

Bales: How to Overcome Betting & Fantasy Confirmation Bias article feature image

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Doug Baldwin

  • Jonathan Bales has written the best-selling fantasy sports and DFS book series of all time, probably.
  • Heading into the NFL season, Bales will publish excerpts from his books on cognitive biases.
  • Confirmation bias (the tendency to search for information that confirms one's preconceptions) plagues many sports speculators.

Way back when I was in my prime — before all the sex and drugs blogging and data collection — I wrote some books. The Fantasy Sports for Smart People collection is the best-selling fantasy sports and DFS book series of all time. Is that actually true? I don’t know. And if I don’t know, you don’t know, which means I can just say it.

I have maybe a million words of content that I wrote in such a way that it mostly holds the same value now as it did when I first put fingertips to keyboard. No guarantees on the actual quality — just that it’s about the same.

I’ve always been interested in public psychology and how it affects our perception and the ways in which we process information — and, more specifically, how to exploit inefficiencies in the ways people think to make real American doll-hairs. So I’m going to post some excerpts from my books — mostly centered around cognitive biases — that I think should be useful for both fantasy sports players and bettors heading into NFL season.

Without further ado, The Jonathan Bales List of Psychological Biases to Avoid for Grownups That Can’t Gamble Good and Want to Do Other Things Good  Too . . .

Confirmation Bias

The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions

I make the worst first impressions. I’m so awkward the first time I meet someone that it’s actually kind of funny now. I never had a real job, but a few years ago I interviewed for a bunch, and this is an actual exchange I had with the Director of Marketing at AOL:

  • Me: “Hi, I’m Jonathan. How are you?”
  • Him: “Doing well, how about you?”
  • Me: “Not bad, how are you?”
  • Him (confused): “Still doing well.”

Later, after the most outrageously poor interview you’ve ever seen:

  • Him: “Good luck in your job search, Jonathan.”
  • Me: “You too!”

I didn’t get the job, but I did learn a very valuable life lesson, which was to never go to another job interview ever again. And I didn’t.

It really sucks making a bad impression because it’s so difficult to overcome. There’s a mountain of research suggesting people tend to fit evidence around their beliefs as opposed to the opposite; we form an opinion and then, even if subconsciously, search for evidence to confirm it. This is why it’s so rare to see people have a change of heart about nearly anything — even really smart people.

How to Overcome/Exploit It

It’s easy to say, “Don’t have any preconceived notions about players or teams,” but that’s likely impossible. A more actionable piece of advice is to become a more data-driven DFS player or sports bettor. The reason models hold a lot of value — in addition to speeding up research and allowing you to do more things — is that they don’t weigh certain factors more or less unless told to do so; a model doesn’t give extra weight to spectacular catches or guys who “pop” on film.

I believe I suffered from confirmation bias in not rostering Doug Baldwin near the beginning of his career. The Seattle receiver is not an elite athlete and, at 189 pounds, he’s simply not the type of receiver I tend to play. But just because Baldwin doesn’t fit the archetype of wide receiver I want doesn’t mean I can’t ever play him.

Even until somewhat recently, I believed Baldwin was a bad receiver. And while I still don’t necessarily think he’s truly elite, take a look at Baldwin’s numbers through his first five seasons:

  • 274 catches on 410 targets (66.8%), 9.33 yards per target, 33.0% red zone TD rate

Those aren’t the numbers of an awful receiver. In comparison, here’s a look at a few guys we’d all consider studs:

  • A.J. Green: 415 catches on 708 targets (58.6%), 8.72 yards per target, 28.1% red-zone TD rate
  • Dez Bryant: 412 catches on 685 targets (60.1%), 8.50 yards per target, 41.5% red-zone TD rate
  • Julio Jones: 414 catches on 653 targets (63.4%), 9.50 yards per target, 24.6% red-zone TD rate
  • DeAndre Hopkins: 239 catches on 412 targets (58.0%), 8.56 yards per target, 19.6% red-zone TD rate
  • Antonio Brown: 526 catches on 789 targets (66.7%), 8.99 yards per target, 22.0% red-zone TD rate

Is Baldwin better than any of those receivers? Doubtful. Baldwin would likely see some reduction in efficiency with either more targets per season or an offense not so efficient on the ground. However, it’s also doubtful that a player who had a higher catch rate than Green, Bryant, Jones, Hopkins and Brown, higher yards per target than all but Jones and a higher red-zone touchdown rate than all but Bryant is also someone who, as I’ve said in the past, “sucks a—.”

Statistically speaking, it’s very unlikely Baldwin is a poor player who put up these numbers just by chance. You ever see those blind player comps that people sometimes do and they reveal one good player with another you think isn’t very good but has similar numbers? I think those are quite useful because, if done properly, they remove personal biases.

Thus, another way to overcome the confirmation bias is through player comps, and RotoViz is the king of those. I love to use comps to help project players on both the weekly and seasonal levels, and players such as Baldwin can often come out much higher than you’d expect.

Also, don’t make people feel awkward af in interviews.

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