What do you remember about Derrick Henry's 2018 season? Chances are that you recall his 99-yard touchdown run that highlighted a 238-yard, four-touchdown effort in Week 14. You probably don't remember his 21-yard Week 6, his 27-yard Week 9, or the other 10 weeks when he didn't reach 60 rushing yards.
In fact, for the first three-quarters of the season, Henry averaged only 39 rushing yards per game. Yet, despite these mediocre numbers, the Tennessee Titans back being drafted as an RB2 (No. 16 on ESPN). Why, you ask? The concept of availability bias might help explain.
This article is the final installment of a three-part series on how decision analysis can improve your fantasy football skills and help you navigate decisions in all aspects of your life. The first article explains how and why you should focus on your decision-making process as a whole, rather than concentrating on analyzing only the results. A crucial part of improving this process is recognizing and resisting certain cognitive biases. The second article spotlights confirmation bias, where players tend to prefer opinions that support theirs, rather than seeking impartial or contrary evidence. This final article explores availability bias, which is our tendency to think that an example that comes readily to mind is more representative of the whole situation than it actually is.
What is availability bias?
More specifically, when an event easily comes to mind because it provokes your emotions and/or gets media attention, you believe that it's likely to happen again. When we take this mental shortcut instead of doing a comprehensive analysis, it distorts our perceptions of reality and future outcomes.
Like the concepts explored in the first two articles (outcome bias and confirmation bias), availability bias is a cognitive bias, or hardwired misjudgment that leads to irrational thinking. It applies in several aspects of life, and most famously, explains why people think plane crashes, shark attacks and spectacular Derrick Henry touchdown runs occur much more often than they actually do.
How this applies in fantasy football
Availability bias can affect all types of fantasy decisions because it directly influences the core question in fantasy football: How will players perform in the future?
In fantasy football, availability bias results from the combination of two factors: the tendency of our brains to remember unusual or sensational events, and the media's focus on these events. The sports media know that fans love unusual, sensational events. They are replayed again and again on TV, spotlighted on news sites, and hyped up on social media by both journalists and fans. They therefore become front and center in our minds and distort our views of what is true and of what is going to happen in the future. We take a particularly great play (like a Hail Mary) or a particularly bad play (like Mark Sanchez's "butt fumble") to be representative of a player's overall performance instead of doing the research to be sure that our perceptions match reality.
In the Henry example above, it is easy to understand why the first memories that come to mind about his 2018 season are his 99-yard run and his 47-point Week 14. His record-tying run and eye-popping overall numbers are certainly unusual and sensational, and they received tremendous attention from media and fans. On the other hand, his mediocre Weeks 1-13 are easy to forget since they do not stand out and did not receive any special media attention.
Due to availability bias, Henry's Week 14 performance disproportionately affects our views of his 2019 fantasy prospects. Even though the first 13 weeks offer a much larger sample size and are more representative of his fantasy value, many fans will focus on Henry's monster week when assessing how he will perform this season. ESPN's Matthew Berry makes a similar argument in labeling Henry a "hate" in his 2019 Love/Hate Column and warns against putting too much stock into the few big performances that caught our attention.
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff represents the inverse situation, in which a notably bad performance late in the season is causing him to be undervalued despite a strong 2018 effort. Goff had an extremely poor showing in the Super Bowl: a 50% completion rate, no touchdowns, four sacks, and an interception for a lowly 13.5 QBR. It is impossible for fans to forget such a dud on the biggest of stages, especially given that it was the last time we saw him in a real game. However, as Berry points out in Love/Hate, Goff was the seventh-best fantasy QB last season, and he's adding a few key passing options in Cooper Kupp and Darrell Henderson. In large part because of his well-publicized Super Bowl performance, though, he's being drafted 15th among QBs on ESPN.
It is worth noting that both the Henry and Goff examples above illustrate not only availability bias but also some degree of recency bias. We tend to overvalue more recent events, and the fact that Henry's incredible week and Goff's awful Super Bowl were at the end of the season amplifies the inflated value we place on these events.
How to combat availability bias in fantasy football
Although availability bias has a strong effect in fantasy football, you can work to overcome it with a simple two-part strategy.
First, be on the lookout for when availability bias has the potential to interfere with your thinking. Whenever you recall a particularly memorable play, this should alert you to think about how availability bias is affecting your perception of the player in question and their future performance. Remember that the event can be positive (such as an incredible play or a record-breaking game) or negative (such as a costly error or a pitiful fantasy week). In either case, whenever you feel yourself having a "wow" moment when watching highlights or looking at stats, remind yourself to think about availability bias.
Second, once the availability bias alarm bell has sounded in your mind, take a closer look and do a comprehensive analysis to gauge what is most likely to occur in the future. As part of this analysis, you should look at both a player's overall performance over a larger sample size of games and any unique factors that might have contributed to the event.
For example, imagine that in Week 13, your defense has a 30-point game with five interceptions and two pick-sixes. Given that this is the best fantasy defense performance by any team all year, this should trigger you to think about availability bias and do a deep dive into the data. You first look at the defense's performance for Weeks 1-12, finding that it has never topped 10 points and has four weeks of fewer than four points. You then consider any unique circumstances of the 30-point game and see that it was against a poor offense missing several key pieces and a backup QB in his first start.
While the huge game might lead you to blindly slot this defense into your lineup going into the fantasy playoffs, the analysis of all the facts and circumstances should give you real pause and make you consider other options.
How this applies in life
Availability bias influences our thinking and decision-making in a variety of contexts. In addition to the more well-known plane crash and shark attack examples, there are numerous other illustrations of how media coverage of sensational events can lead us to think that they are much more common than they are in reality.
In "How the Availability Heuristic Affects Decision Making" (verywellmind.com), Kendra Cherry asks whether police officers or loggers have the more dangerous job. She explains that highly publicized police shootings will lead many to assume that the answer is police officers, but statistics show that loggers are more likely to die on the job than police officers.
A similar phenomenon exists with sensational positive events, such as winning the lottery. Consuming media coverage about lottery winners, especially when they win unusually large amounts, causes us to think we are more likely to win than we actually are. As in fantasy football, whether the event is negative or positive, availability bias distorts our thinking in the same way: An event readily comes to mind because it is sensational and/or receives significant media attention, and we therefore overestimate how common it is and how likely it is to occur in the future. We can try to overcome this by identifying how the availability bias distorted our thinking and then analyzing all the facts, not just those that are most memorable.
Availability bias is one of many factors that cause our perceptions to differ from reality. This season, you can help align your perception with reality and make better decisions by recognizing availability bias and using a two-part strategy to resist it. First, with any memorable event, think about whether the bias might be interfering with your thinking. Then, evaluate all of the facts regarding the player's overall performance over time and identify any special circumstances that contributed to the event. The more cognizant you are of availability bias and the closer your perception matches reality, the more likely you are to make smart decisions in both fantasy football and your everyday life.
This article is written by The Alliance for Decision Education (formerly How I Decide Foundation), an educational nonprofit dedicated to the belief that better decisions lead to better lives and a better society.