Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Science and Superstition

I won the football pool this week. I won $100.

Now, before both Readers zip to the bottom of this post to add congratulatory comments, consider that this is the 12th week of the NFL season, and that I have bet $10 for 10 of those twelve weeks. Even I can do this math. Hurray! I broke even!

Actually it's not so good as that. Consider, if you will, that I bet on every single week of the NFL season last year--that's sixteen games--and won, well, not even once. Again, this math is not beyond my reach. I am, for the two seasons that I can recall for the purpose of this essay, down about $160.

Now I know it's really not fair to look at betting from a historical viewpoint, as this is most likely to prove the foolishness of the endeavor, but it is fair to say that I am under no illusions about the profitability. I know I am going to lose more than I win. Still I enjoy playing, for reasons that I have explored in another post, and this essay is headed in another direction.

Specifically, I have begun to wonder about what makes for a reasonable strategy when it comes to making my pool picks on any given week. I mean, is it knowledge that drives the decision-making process?

Or, is it luck? Common sense tells me that it is some combination of the two, especially because we all--football fans and non-fans alike--know that any given team can beat any other given team on any given Sunday (or Monday or sometimes Thursdays or Saturdays). Even the best teams lose one game per season.

And this underscores my point. Which, if I were to have made it by now would be this: it isn't so much what we know about something that informs us about future possibilities--like the outcome of any given NFL game--but it's what we don't know. Or rather, it is what we don't bring to the decision-making process that makes the difference between whether we pick right or wrong; whether we win or lose.

In this case, I think it's a case of what you know that hurts you.

Consider a particular case. N___. She's won the football pool twice this year. In terms of just this year--recall that we don't do the historical thing--she's actually ahead for the year! She's making money!

What does she know that we don't? What's her method?

Is she a football fanatic? A fan, perhaps, but no fanatic. In fact she doesn't even watch football except when she's at work and it happens to be what we have on. This is not to say that she doesn't know anything about football. She's actually knowledgeable about the game, the rules and even knows many of the players names. She knows how to watch the game on television and can tell good play from poor, good players from bad.

She ain't dumb, that's for sure.

But she doesn't know anything that we--read male football fans--don't know. She doesn't read the stats--except to look at the standings from week to week when making picks, which almost everybody does--and she doesn't look at or listen to any kind of post-game analysis or anything as detailed and particular as, say, injury reports. Not even a few minutes of SportsCenter before bed. Glee, perhaps.

So, it's fair to say that N___ isn't relying on knowledge for her picks. But of course, she would tell you that if you asked. In fact, I have asked, and she told me. She is quite candid about her method, which, it is safe to say, she will share with anyone. Here is the N___ method of choosing picks:

First, she looks at each match-up. Sometimes, she'll know from personal experience (she plays every week) which teams are doing better than others. Sometimes she'll check the standings sheet that Bobby (the HOB Football Pool Commissioner) prints off the net when he makes each week's sheet. But if N___ doesn't know--and this, by her own account, is often--which team is more likely to win, she has a method for breaking the tie, the N___ method, so to speak, and it has nothing to do with football.

She picks the team that is from the city she would rather live in.

Now, you might argue that this makes it easy for her to eschew choosing the hapless Buffalo Bills or the hopeless Dallas Cowboys, but then you'd have to explain why she occasionally chooses New England or Green Bay and why she doesn't always pick Tampa Bay (ok maybe not) or Miami.

Hey, I'm not saying that I endorse the N___ method for choosing which team is more likely to win on any given Sunday, but I am saying that at least N___ cannot be accused of over-thinking her choices.

This leads me to my final point. Over-thinking, I think, is the sure-fire way to lose. I have no better evidence to offer in this argument than the circular logic of this very statement or my own dismal 0-16 showing last year. By the way, I think N___ won at least once,if not twice last year.

I think that in order to really understand the complexities of decision-making, even those seemingly simple or mundane choices, we have to ignore the trees and look at the forest.

As Malcolm Gladwell observed in his book Blink, the powers of human observation and the synthesis of information is a much faster and less conscious process than we realize or even like to admit. Yet we trust that 'gut feeling' to get us through many a difficult decision, not just the ones that involve wagers of a monetary nature. We make far more choices based on our 'instincts' and 'luck' than our 'skill' or 'knowledge'. I put both in quotes to accentuate the irony; clearly neither instinct nor knowledge is 'it'.

My father Bill used to say--after he'd beaten one of us children at a game in a particularly easy or befuddling way--"It was just Science and Skill versus Ignorance and Superstition".

I certainly didn't use the N___ method when choosing teams this week, but I'll admit, it was Ignorance and Superstition rather than Science and Skill that yielded the winning combination for me this week.

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