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More life lessons from football


A friend of ours mentioned in response to one of my earlier Football Life Lessons posts that he would almost prefer his team to be down by four points in the final minutes rather than three, because the latter situation leads to such suboptimal decision making.

Yesterday’s Detroit-Buffalo game illustrated this well: in the final minutes the Lions, who were down by three, were focused on getting into field goal range, rather than taking more chances in the pursuit of a game-winning touchdown. Being the Lions, they followed this already suboptimal strategy in a particularly inept way, leaving enough time on the clock after they kicked the field goal to allow Buffalo to drive for their own game-winning kick. Thus Detroit followed a course of action that gave the team three opportunities to lose: if their kicker missed (he had already missed a chip shot), if Buffalo was left with enough time to win in regulation, and if they lost in overtime.

OK that’s the Lions who apparently represent some bizarre experiment to maintain an NFL franchise that can never win anything, despite a league set up to create the maximum possible parity (I think it was Clint Murchison, Jerry Jones’s predecessor as owner of the Cowboys, who described the league as billionaires who vote for socialism).

But the general psychological phenomenon seems well established, both in football and in Life Itself ™. That phenomenon is that, when more or less intuiting the following probabilities in a decision matrix, the vast majority of people are going to make a suboptimal choice.

Path One: 75% chance of avoiding immediate defeat; 50% chance of victory if immediate defeat is avoided. (This was basically what Detroit did yesterday, ignoring the extra added stupidity of giving Buffalo a chance to win in regulation).

Path Two: 40% chance of avoiding immediate defeat; 0% chance of victory if immediate defeat is avoided. (In other words you play to either win or lose the game right now).

People in general, not just football coaches, seem to have a very strong tendency to go with Path One, even though the probability of ultimate victory is higher by going down Path Two. But Path One makes it more likely that defeat can be deferred for longer — and people seem to value this above and beyond its relation to the ultimate chances of winning.

In other words, putting off defeat has sufficient value that people are willing to accept a higher overall risk of ultimate defeat in exchange for that delay.

On some level I think this describes what’s going on in the current struggle against the attempted takeover of the US government by authoritarian theocrats. We’re playing for that tying FG and hoping to win in OT.

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