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Brain’s cognitive bias dominates in fantasy sports

September 13, 2022
Brain with the color, texture, and stitching of a football against a blue background with a repeating pattern of a quarterback outlined in lighter blue.A cognitive bias is mental process that can lead to illogical and irrational decisions, which can be a problem for fantasy sports players, explains Rochester researcher Renee Miller. (University of Rochester illustration / Sarah Mossey)

A Rochester brain and cognitive sciences professor explains how biased thinking can affect your weekly fantasy football matchups.

Renee Miller has participated in fantasy football since 2006. But it wasn’t until the fall of 2012 that Miller, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, realized she could combine her expertise in neuroscience with her love of fantasy sports.

Since then, she has published a short eBook called Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is Your Brain Sabotaging Your Team? and written numerous articles on the topic. As the NFL gears up for another season, Miller recently contributed the first in a weekly series she is writing for Yahoo Sports on the ways cognitive bias affects a person’s weekly fantasy football matchups. In the piece, she discusses how cognitive biases are prominently at play during week one of the fantasy season.

So, what are cognitive biases in fantasy football?

A cognitive bias is a mental process that can lead to illogical and irrational decisions. In fantasy sports, Miller writes, “your brain can twist and interpret fantasy results in ways that are suboptimal, lazy, and illogical.” This biased mental processing can take many forms, she explains. In fantasy sports and beyond, common cognitive bias examples include the following:

  • Endowment effect: overvaluing things we have invested in
  • Primacy effect: more readily remembering the first event or item in a series versus subsequent events or items
  • Recency bias: overvaluing things that have happened most recently
  • Confirmation bias: believing information that confirms previously held beliefs while ignoring conflicting data

In week one of the fantasy season, especially, overreactions from fantasy sports participants tend to dominate, particularly on social media. The primacy effect means the results of this first week might carry more weight in a person’s memory than results in subsequent weeks.

“There are certain players we expect to be very involved and score tons of fantasy points, and if they don’t do that in week one, it can really skew our opinion of them going forward,” Miller says. “On the other hand, some players that no one expected to be great will score multiple touchdowns, and fantasy players can end up (unrealistically) expecting or hoping for similar performances in weeks two, three, and beyond.”

But, according to Miller, there are ways to defend against cognitive bias. For example, anticipating you are going to be wrong some of the time, being open to learning, thinking more logically, and remaining aware that biases can twist results in ways that affect decision-making

“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,” she writes.


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Category: Voices & Opinion