Will statistics, psychology bounce Pitt’s way?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Mark Roth – March 20, 2009 – As the Pitt Panthers begin NCAA tournament play, it’s likely their fans have a split personality.

Even if they don’t want to admit it, a sizable proportion may be focused on how soon the team is going to disappoint them. Others are wondering how they can get to Detroit to watch Pitt play in the championship next month.

How realistic is either mindset?

For the answers, we turn to the experts — social psychologists, computer scientists, sports psychologists and behavioral economists.

None of them has played Division I hoops, and one even said, “You couldn’t fathom the depth of my ignorance about college basketball.” But they have something else going for them — a knowledge of statistics and the way humans behave.

Pitt has made it into the tournament for eight straight years, but has never made it past the Sweet Sixteen, or third round.

And while that may be a statistical trend of sorts, it may not be the right one to use this year, says Sheldon Jacobson, a computer scientist at the University of Illinois.

The key this year is that Pitt is a No. 1 seed, meaning the NCAA selection committee made it the top pick in one of four regions. In the past, Pitt was never higher than a second seed, and in most of the eight-year span, it ranged between a third and fifth seed.

The historical difference in outcomes for No. 1 seeds in the first rounds of the tournament is startling.

Since the modern version of the tournament began in 1985, 72 percent of the No. 1 seeds have won in the Sweet Sixteen round. But only 46 percent of the second seeds have won in that round, and only 24 percent of third seeds have.

So, says social psychologist Jonah Berger of the University of Pennsylvania, the question for any glass-half-empty Pitt fans should be: “What is the correct reference point to use here? Is it past performance, or is it the expectation for a No. 1 seed?”

On the other hand, for those who believe Pitt will relentlessly sweep into the championship game, Dr. Jacobson has these words of caution — once the tournament reaches the fourth round, with just the Elite Eight teams remaining, there is absolutely no statistical difference in results between the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds.

But wait, some fans will say, didn’t all four No. 1 seeds make it into the Final Four last year?

Pity them. They haven’t heard of “regression to the mean,” which is a fancy mathematical way of saying the law of averages will eventually win out.

In the 24 years the modern NCAA tournament has existed, No. 1 seeds have made it into the Final Four about a quarter of the time. So this year, Dr. Jacobson said, the odds are that there will be one and maybe two No. 1 seeds that make it that far (the others are Louisville, Connecticut and North Carolina).

As the teams push forward in the tournament, most fans want their favorites to play with a comfortable lead in each game. It’s easier on the nerves and lowers copious consumption of various snack foods.

But being ahead is not always the best thing, the experts say.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Berger just finished a study that showed that when college basketball teams are behind by one point at halftime, they go on to win more than half the time, and win at a rate that is about six percentage points better than would have been expected.

“The key take-home from this,” Dr. Berger said, “is that losing can be motivating, and as a result can lead you to more success.”

In a lab experiment he did as part of the study, Dr. Berger found that when students playing a keyboard game were told halfway through that they were slightly behind their opponents, they worked harder in the second half of the contest. Interestingly, those who were told they were slightly ahead did not slack off — but they also didn’t boost their effort as much.

For some teams, that leveling-off effect can be magnified if their advantage is even bigger.

“I definitely agree if you’re up by 10 points, you can start to be fat and happy and get complacent,” Dr. Berger said.

“When you have a more talented team playing a less talented team,” Dr. Jacobson added, “and they ‘take the air out of the ball’ to protect a lead, what happens is that you equalize the skill levels of the two teams.”

Part of the reason why some teams squander leads is a phenomenon called “loss aversion,” a basic principle in human behavior that says the pain we feel from losing something we have outweighs the pleasure we get from gaining something we don’t have.

That could help explain why some coaches and players stop taking calculated risks when they have a lead, said George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University.

The other basic human tendency that comes into play in those situations is that players often lose motivation when they get too far ahead, even if they aren’t entirely conscious of it. Having a big lead “is so demotivating that the team that’s behind ends up coming back,” he said.

So, you’re probably thinking, it’s better if my favorite team plays close games all the way through, right?

Maybe, said Dr. Loewenstein, as long as key players don’t fall prey to “regret aversion.”

Regret aversion is the double-whammy cousin of loss aversion. It’s when you not only fear losing something you have (like a lead), but fear that you’ll be blamed for it. When that happens, players can choke, he said.

Dr. Loewenstein, echoing what many coaches say, speculates that the reason some players suddenly become clumsy or inaccurate under pressure is that they start thinking too much about what they are doing.

Most top athletes have trained so long and hard that the majority of their skills are automatic, he said.

“It’s all being orchestrated by unconscious learned mechanisms that tend to be toward the back of your brain,” he said, “and what happens is that when something is really, really important to you there’s a tendency to use the front part of your brain, even though the reality is you would perform much better if you used the back part of the brain.”

John Murray, a sports psychologist based in Palm Beach, Fla., said that fits with the philosophy he espouses in coaching professional athletes.

“I try to get people to strive toward success,” he said, “and not think about the outcome. Focusing on a positive action or skill leads to a successful outcome, but thinking about the outcome distracts your focus on the things you need to do, which is all that you have control over, anyway.”

So doesn’t it make sense that fans of elite teams would adopt the same attitude?

Unfortunately, that isn’t necessarily part of fan DNA, Dr. Loewenstein said.

“If it’s a close football game, and someone can win it with a 40-yard field goal,” he said, “if you ask a typical group of fans whether their team will make that field goal, they’ll say no. If you ask whether the other team will make it, they’ll say yes.”

Of course, that only goes to show that we fans are, as one behavioral economist has put it, “predictably irrational.”

We rely on popular conventional wisdom to get us through most situations, Dr. Jacobson said, but in fact, statistics show that real popular conventional wisdom “is rarely popular and almost never conventional, so whatever people expect to happen rarely does.”