Anchoring on the Combine

Categories: NFL, NFL Draft, Psychology
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Published on: February 24, 2013

Since it’s Combine time, I was going to write up a piece about how Combine data is reasonably meaningless.  I was going to say that it’s a very strange and expensive way to collect largely meaningless data.  I was going to say that scores and measurements taken at the Combine don’t reliably predict performance.  We spend time, money, and effort all to collect data that make our decisions worse.  I even had a cute little story about shooting baskets from the bleachers during my first ever basketball practice in 5th grade.

But while researching the piece I found analysts that had already written extensive write-ups detailing exactly which metrics are important at which position.  The conclusion is that most positions have at least one metric that predicts something about career success, but they don’t predict much and they don’t predict well.

After reading the fine work from the folks at Harvard, I dug deeper.  Turns out, lots of people have already hit on the notion that the Combine is overblown spectacle.  I even found scouts willing to say you shouldn’t let Combine scores influence your film grades.  One went so far as to say that the teams that know they should forget about Combine results are the teams that make better decisions.  I even turned on an afternoon sports-talk television show and saw that 65% of responding viewers also believe too much emphasis is placed on Combine numbers.

So then is the Combine just entertainment spectacle designed to make money?  If it was all it was, I wouldn’t have a problem.  I would be perfectly happy if Lucas Oil Field hosts the event so they can sell hot dogs to reporters and the NFL sells the broadcast rights, and we all walk away with fatter wallets.  But that isn’t what happens.  Combine results influence when players are drafted.  The Berri and Simmons paper I referenced last time also includes an analysis of where players are actually drafted.  We see the following Combine numbers influence draft position for quarterbacks; height, Wonderlic score (don’t get me started), and 40 yard dash time.  And this is where I have a problem.  We have an event designed to collect relatively meaningless data.   Data that statisticians, scouts, and the general public all believe is relatively meaningless.  Data that almost never helps us make better decisions.  Yet the data changes how we make decisions.  Isn’t that infuriating?

This effect is far more common than you might imagine.  All of us are influenced by a judgment bias often called the “anchoring effect.”  In the anchoring effect, meaningless, often random numbers change people’s judgments.  When I teach this to college students, I use the following demo.  Play along at home if you like.

  1. Write down the last two numbers of your social security number on a piece of paper
  2. Pretend the two numbers you just wrote down represent a dollar amount that we will reference in the next part.  So, if your last two numbers are 25, your reference amount is $25.
  3. For the following list of items, indicate if you would pay more or less than your reference amount for that item.  a) Laptop, b) Shampoo, c) Rack of ribs, d) New office chair
  4. Go back through the items and indicate the highest dollar amount you would actually pay for each item.

When I take all those judgments from a class of 30 people, the following pattern usually appears.  Those with higher reference numbers are willing to pay more for the items compared to people with low reference numbers.

Scatter plot of Price Willing to Pay for Laptop by Last Two Digits of SSN


Scatter plot of Price Willing to Pay for New Office Chair by Last Two Digits of SSN

The last two digits of your social security number are essentially random.  But the value of your social security number is still taken into account.  Being repeatedly exposed to that number creates a set point in our minds.  When we later try to decide on an actual value to pay for the item, everything is processed in relation to this random number.  We set down our anchor on this meaningless piece of information.  We don’t adjust like we should because our brain is busy focusing around the random number.

As another example, look at how prominently the “Minimum Payment” is displayed on your credit card statements.

Research shows if one isn’t going to pay off the whole balance, the presence of a minimum payment field actually reduces payments compared to when the information isn’t there at all.  We anchor on the minimum payment.  In this case making our financial decisions worse.

Which leads us back to the Combine.  The NFL Combine is a place where numbers are everywhere.  Anyone with an internet connection can look up any number they want on any NFL prospect.  And those numbers will stick with us, even if we don’t want them to.  We know they are largely meaningless, we know they will make your decisions worse, yet we are still influenced by them.

We might not care that Quarterback Prospect X ran a 4.40 40 yard dash.  We might not even know if that is especially good for a quarterback.  But now you’ve heard that number.  That number is in your brain.  And that number is going to become an anchor.  It’s going to bump up that prospect ever so slightly in your decision making.  Just like we are more willing to pay for items when considering if we would pay more or less than two digits in our social security number, we’re more willing to pay for prospects that show good Combine numbers.

We know the number is meaningless, but that doesn’t stop it from working its magic.  And this might be the worst problem the Combine creates.  The simple act of publishing the meaningless numbers and getting people to talk about them is going to lead to worse decisions.  And isn’t that the most infuriating thing of all?

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