The joy of misplaced optimism

It never ceases to amaze us as to why footballers choose to shoot so regularly from outside the penalty area, when less than 4 in 100 of these attempts are scored.

Or why top-division clubs continue to use a substantial amount of scarce resource into scouting lower and weaker leagues for peak-age players, when the relative meritocracy of football means that the possibility of finding a ‘diamond in the rough’ is becoming diminishingly small.

Or, outside of football, why millions of people play the lottery or gamble, even though the losses each year can be hugely material.

Traditional economic theory would have this behaviour as irrational, or at the very least sub-optimal. However, the advances made by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky mean we now understand why people pursue low probability outcomes.

Part of the reason is that there is a different type of joy from low-probability successes. A 30-yard screamer just feels better to the scorer than a clumsy tap-in, even though the outcome is the same. A club wins more plaudits for a signing of a player no one else appeared to identify, compared to a club that took wisdom from the crowd and secured a more sought-after, but equally productive player.

We also tend to overestimate the probability of success from these events, for the very reason that they are memorable. Highlights programmes show just a tiny fraction of the 3000+ long-range attempts that fly wide, are blocked or saved in any given season, but the ones that do go in stick in the mind. In recruitment, Jamie Vardy’s success disguises the fact that most peak-age signings who step up even one division, let alone two or three, struggle to excel – at a cost that can easily sum up to that of signings from major leagues.

But football needn’t be a series of long shots. There is data and research that can enable us to identify strategies that bring both more success and less variance.

Why try to beat the odds when you can move them in your favour?

About Omar Chaudhuri

Omar Chaudhuri has created 67 entries.

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