Heuristics: Utility Theory vs. Prospect Theory - How it Applies to Decision Making in Baseball

Updated: Sep 14, 2019


First and foremost, human behavior is extremely difficult to predict and read at times. Especially without having familiarity of that particular individual, or more importantly if that individual doesn't feel comfortable enough to show you his true personality. In baseball and really any team environment whether sports or in business, you may have someone extremely valuable to your team and you don't even know it because that person is not comfortable enough to open up as their true self. Maybe even worse, that individual hasn't learned everything you may have assumed everything you think he should have learned by now. Now how about if we turn the spotlight to you, the coach, when evaluating your decision making? How is your personality going to effect the your decision making process?


So what are Heuristics? It is simply any approach to learning, problem solving, or discovery. It is your "hunch", your golden rule, or rule of thumb and "common sense". It's a way for an individual to take a mental shortcut and rely on their instincts, rather than taking in all aspects of the problem, you focus on one. Especially the one that comes to mind first and allows you to easily make a decision quickly. Don't let the funky word confuse you, it's just a definition for the process. Here is the thing about heuristics, it leads to bias. Just because something has worked before, doesn't mean it will work again. Relying on that past decision can make it difficult to see other possible options in decision making. Below are the types of decision biases:



 

How about Utility Theory? Utility theory refers to the satisfaction each choice provides to the decision maker. It means that the "best choice" or option, or even most logical choice (according to the decision maker) provides the most satisfaction. Utility theory is a positive theory that seeks to explain the individuals observed behavior and choices. Each individual will show different preferences, which appear to be hard-wired within each individual. We can thus state that individuals preferences are intrinsic.


Prospect Theory - During the processing phase of a situation, outcomes of a decision are ordered according to a certain heuristic. Prospect Theory investigates how people make decisions based on the potential value of losses and gains using certain heuristics, rather than the final outcome. The model is descriptive, which mean it relates to real-life choices, rather than optimal decisions.


Now what does this really have to do with baseball? Well when you are coaching in a game or designing your practice plan heuristics is going to play a role in what you decide to put into action. It is imperative not to fall into those biases that could quite possible push you to an incorrect decision and cost your team the game.

For instance the hindsight bias, you KNOW you have a great base stealer on the bench late in the game because he is fast and he stole a base late in the game of the first weekend of the season to get into scoring position and scored the winning run. But in reality he is only 3-8 on the year stealing a base, and he doesn't even work to improve on that rate in practice. Do you really think it's a good idea to put him in to steal a base late in the game?


How about the commitment escalation? You may be so committed to having the "most conditioned team" in the league. So after every practice you have the player do long distance running and sprints, then some form of core work. On top of the lifting they are doing with the strength coach weekly. In reality you are draining your players and killing their energy and more importantly slowing their recovery, which is leading to injuries. Having 6am lifts Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while also have team yoga on Thursday and making that Thursday practice an inter squad. You are setting your team up for failure because you want to make sure their endurance is high.


Sometimes coaches don't understand the value of an off day and what it can do for the body. The objective of this article was to point out you may fall into the trap of trusting yourself too much and you need to keep an open mind and absolutely use the resources of the additional coaches on your staff for feedback. Two minds truly are greater than one.

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