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How to Avoid Cognitive Bias on Draft Day

Cognitive bias: whether or not we fully understand what it means or how it operates, we have all seen it at one time or another on draft day, regardless of the sport in question. It can take the form of a co-worker who insists on drafting a full roster of players from their favorite hometown team, my cousin Alex who can't help himself from spending 40% of his draft budget on LeBron James, or an overly optimistic reach for a charismatic athlete who had no business making his way on to a roster through the league draft.

It bothers us when we see it in action, because as managers of fantasy sports, we learn that it is typically wisest to not let your heart rule your head. At the same time, as vital seconds tick off the clock while you furiously attempt to distinguish between two players that could make or break your season, we constantly find ourselves relying on gut-feelings, irrelevant peripheral details, and untested preconceived expectations that we pick up from years of following sports.

The toughest part about beating an unconscious, cognitive bias is just that - the bias is unconscious, so we often times are not even aware that a bias is exercising its influence throughout each round of the draft. Like handling any other type of unconscious compulsion, recognizing that there is a problem is half of the battle towards conquering the issue. Note that if you are one of the individuals that believes that they are immune from cognitive bias on draft day, you should pay especially close attention, as this hubris may leave you all the more vulnerable to fall prey to your own devices. Now that we know that cognitive bias is present on draft day, what are some concrete methods to keep a cool head and beat the bias en route to a championship season?

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Pick Your Poison

The first method to eliminating your draft-day cognitive bias is to identify what your triggers are. That is, what factors of an athlete's performance, personal life, personality, team, or background cause either positive or negative subconscious reaction that constitutes a "gut feeling." These triggers could come from a plethora of factors, such as hating or being a dedicated fan of a particular professional organization, a specific player having come up big (or was a massive disappointment) for your team in seasons from the past, believing that players from a particular college or conference "just don't tend to pan out," or simply liking or disliking a player's personality.

On a personal note, I would be a liar if I didn't admit to drafting players like Yasiel Puig above his appropriate draft slot while avoiding players like Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer for these very same reasons. This step is important to avoiding draft-day cognitive bias because it forces you to come to terms with the factors that typically influence your underlying biases so that they can be actively circumvented when it comes time to select your squad.


Eyes on the Prize

Remember, managing a fantasy sports team and being a fan of sports are two very different activities with two very different objectives. Much like a school or work project, you don't have to be in love with every member of your team, you just have to get along in order to accomplish the task at hand. It can be a painful and reluctant process to draft and proceed through a full season of professional sports by following and relying on players that you have a genuine distaste for (as I found out through my time with DeAndre Jordan, Ezekiel Elliott, and Sidney Crosby).

Despite this, it is vital to keep your eyes on the prize and always keep in mind that you are trying to win weekly match-ups and produce the best possible results by season's end. If this is not your goal for your team on draft day, then go ahead and rock your bias to the fullest extent and have fun with your roster (while ignoring the rolling eyes of fellow league managers). However, if your goal is to win, compartmentalize your priorities as a fantasy sports manager and as a sports fan. No one is going to question your loyalty or fandom because you drafted the best available player who just happens to play for a rival team. If they would, politely ignore them as you laugh your way to the bank at year's end.

Being a sports fan is the time to kick back with our cozy biases and irrationality that make us who we are, but playing fantasy sports to win is all business, and playing favorites will get you burned.


Anonymity is Key

There isn't much time between each pick on draft day, so avoiding cognitive bias is easiest when you have done your homework. Be familiar enough with the true statistical figures and performance of players to be able to compare two athletes in your head from a numbers perspective while keeping their names and backgrounds out of the equation and maintaining anonymity.

Academic research in the field of workplace discrimination suggests that blind interviews are the most proven method of limiting cognitive bias, as the applicants are anonymous and therefore project no stereotypes to be received by the employers. This method should be applied to the formulation of your roster, as the only way to ensure that you were unbiased in your selection of a player is to not know anything about them besides their statistical performance. To aid in this anonymous comparison process, always try to stick to figures that isolate key factors of a player's performance and eliminate additional environmental variables such as FIP, ISO, or hard contact on batted-balls.

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