Fantasy footballers’ search for psychological comfort has a distinct ring to it. It sounds a little something like this: “I’ll never draft Player X.”
It doesn’t seem like such an impactful phrase, but it’s packed with meaning. It’s our way of whittling down the inevitable tough choices we’ll have to make in August, when finally, at long last, we have our real drafts, the ones that count for something more than a rehearsal.
Proclaiming that you, under no circumstances, will have Player X on your roster come September, is a very natural reaction in your confrontation with choice, and one that social psychologists have studied to great effect.
We don’t like choices. We like certainty. We yearn for it, in fact, and we’ll do any manner of mental gymnastics to achieve some level of certainty in our decisions, even if our justifications are illogical.
This reach for certainty – for psychological comfort – is killing your fake football squad.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz in 2004 wrote a book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” in which he argues that the glut of choices we have – from food to jeans to TV shows – has made us unhappy, causing confusion and uncertainty at every turn, in everything we do.
This goes against everything we’ve ever learned about choice. The more choice, the better, right? We equate more choice with more freedom, when, as Schwartz details in his book, the very opposite is true.
Schwartz finds that when people are faced with choosing one option out of many desirable options, they will become fixated on hypothetical trade-offs. People evaluate their options through the lens of missed opportunities instead of an opportunity’s potential, how it could help us or make us happy.
Schwartz charges that a downside of making tradeoffs is that it changes how we feel about the everyday decisions we face. And even after we manage to make a decision – picking one from many – the focus on tradeoffs affects the level of satisfaction we get from our decision, no matter what it was.
The concepts of “expected utility” and “remembered utility” are thoroughly explored in “The Paradox of Choice.” Both concepts, I think, are applicable to the way we think about fantasy football, a game of gut-wrenching decisions that we strive to avoid, often to the detriment of our team.
We make choices based in part on how we expect those choices will make us feel. In choosing between three restaurants on a Friday night, for example, we’re going to consider how each choice would make us feel, taking into account the menu, the service, the atmosphere, and a laundry list of other factors. This “expected utility” plays an undeniable role in how we make decisions.
It’s when expected utility matches remembered utility that we think we know precisely what we want, Schwartz writes.
Let’s translate this for fantasy football purposes: Expected utility played a role in drafting Ryan Mathews last summer. You expected him to be a premiere workhorse running back, finally having the San Diego backfield all to himself. Thinking of this, and knowing how efficient he was in 2011, made you feel good. The mere thought of Mathews on your fantasy team was enough expected utility to draft him in the first round – even the second round, after his first collarbone break – without a whole lot of concern.
Mathews’ remembered utility is quite different. His 2012 was an epic fantasy disaster by any standard. Even cherry picking his best games from 2012 shows that Mathews was barely a top-25 fantasy running back, proving wildly inefficient even when he received his fair share of touches.
Schwartz posits that we recall our decisions and subsequent experiences based on two factors: how the experience felt when it was at its peak – best or worst — and how we felt at the end of the experience, whether good or bad. The remembered utility of anything will impact future decisions involving that place, person, or thing. Instead of applying objective evaluation, we recall the emotions attached to previous decisions.
That’s precisely why Twitter and fantasy football message boards are flooded with owners vowing to never again draft Mathews, even if his current average draft position of 3.11 drops over the next few months. Eliminating choices fraught with risk feels good – no one would argue otherwise. We want a fantasy draft strategy set in stone, safe from the uncertainty that causes anxiety and second guessing.
I understand that. I’ve done that. But simply becoming aware of how this behavior could undermine your fantasy football life is a key step in avoiding the potential pitfalls of remembered utility.
Remaining open to drafting any player, at the right value, is perhaps the most overlooked trait of successful fantasy owners.
This concept applies to a slew of fantasy assets whose value will rise and fall throughout the spring and summer. Simply dismissing a player – any player – because he left you emotionally scarred last year is directly out of the “Paradox of Choice” playbook. Eliminating choices and simplifying decisions makes us happy, as Schwartz writes. Feelings of certainty – any certainty – are our ultimate goal, in grocery shopping and fantasy football drafting alike. In this way, Schwartz is right: Less is, in fact, more.
In fantasy football though, where inflexible thought and decisions based on remembered utility ruin a million teams every season, more is more. More choice is better, no matter what your brain tells you.
Buy CD Carter’s book How To Think Like A Fantasy Football Winner.