Recency Bias and Getting Ahead of Yourself

The Dr had a procedure today. Before your eyes roll into the back of your head with laughter, not ‘that’ one. But I’m still a little sedated, which I figure makes it a perfect opportunity to write something prior to tonight’s game. That’s what the giant M&M standing next to me seems to be suggesting anyway, even if he is a little hard to understand. He has a mouthful of little lolly humans …

It’s easy to get swept up with Round 1 results, particularly given there were more surprises thrown up than by the Epic Bender Crew over the perfectly manicured Shire front lawns each weekend. Not all surprises were good, clearly, as the Raiders, Warriors and Tigers demonstrated. From all the press I’ve read the past few days, the Grand Final qualifiers are already set – Parramatta vs Penrith, and the Knights vs Souths. We’re all rugby league fans and human beings, meaning we extrapolate like there’s no tomorrow.

Apart from being a bunch of one-eyed so-and-so’s, what we have here is a classic case of ‘recency bias’*. This is a rear-view mirror view of the world where past performance is supposedly suggestive of future results. You know, like financial advisors and super funds like to tell us, without reference to reversion to the mean** (ie. coming back to the pack). Gross oversimplifications are fun because we don’t have to think too hard.

Recency bias is a well-tested psychological phenomenon, and essentially means we overweight the most recent events (like Parramatta thumping a listless Warriors) without taking full account of previous form like, say, last year. Maybe they’re just easier to remember! But making predictions in this way is actually no more accurate than tossing a coin. It is a measure of incomplete information, and is why ‘experts’ so often get the big trends wrong … like the events that led to the Berlin Wall falling, or the Tigers being a no-show last year from being firm favourites.

In some ways, recency can work in your favour. For instance, the Dr sees little value in Head-to-Head comparisons from 1970 onwards, and with a club like Parramatta boasting a new hard-ass coach in 2013, new developments must be taken into account. But so does last week’s opposition.

So check your (over) optimism and pessimism at the door, and choose wisely this weekend, and we’ll regroup after Round 6 when the stats will have more meaning.

Because I haven’t read a word of what I have written, I’ve gone and picked the Eels tonight. More fool me, but I think they have more points in them right now than the Doggies.


*As popularised by world-reknowned psychologist, Amos Tversky (you may recognise the name if you’ve read Emotional Intelligence)

**For an unbelievably good read once you’re done with Rugby League Week, grab a copy of Against the Gods by Peter Bernstein.


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