Are Cricketers Rational? Behavioral Economics and Cricket

I wanted to expand on my previous post on emotions and cricketers. As part of my job, I’ve had to read a lot about behavioral economics and the many errors people make when making decisions. It’s interesting stuff (really!), and it got me thinking: what do we really know about cricketers’ on-field performances? What framework do we have to explain their choices?

So I’ve compiled a few behavioral economics/social science concepts to apply to cricket (mostly wrongly, I’m sure). Enjoy:

1. Loss Aversion: Researchers have discovered that we tend to hate losses much more than we like potential gains. Could this explain M. S. Dhoni’s curious behavior during the tours of the West Indies and South Africa last year? He had the chance to press an advantage, but failed to do so as it would have exposed his team to more risk. Since the team was the “best” at the time (i.e., No. 1), you can see why a loss would have hurt more than a victory would have pleased.

2. Context and Situations: It’s strange how much a particular situation can affect how humans make decisions. Researchers have discovered that when we’re in threatening/unfamiliar/weird situations, our brain tends to take on a lot of cognitive load, leaving it less resources to adequately concentrate on the tasks at hand. You see this all the time in cricket, especially in close matches — players who otherwise would easily dispatch balls suddenly become wrecks who go for risky runs and act stupid.

3. Information Asymmetry: This is more of a market failure concept. The problem is that consumers don’t always know what they need to about a particular product (classic example: car insurance; you only know how good a company is after an accident). Batsmen face the same problem: they don’t know what a bowler is going to do once he reaches the crease. The better a batsmen can figure this out, the better he will perform. But it’s not easy: first, it takes time (which is why it’s easier to get new batsmen out); knowledge of the pitch (watch Australian batsmen leave balls even when they’re pitched on middle stump) and the bowler (the English, for example, don’t know how to read spinners at all, leaving them exposed), and a good eye.

4. Identity Salience: This is a tough one. Experiments have shown that humans shuffle through identities in the course of a day (I’m a boyfriend, commuter, New Yorker, American, Indian, Community fan, etc.). But particular identities can climb up the hierarchy and influence your decisions and behavior. In one experiment, researchers primed Asian women (who are stereotyped to be good at math), who went on to perform better at a math test. (The opposite is true as well: African-Americans, when primed about their identities as African-American, tend to do worse on tests because they fall to the stereotype they cannot succeed in school.) Think how Shane Warne picked on Daryl Cullinan as his ‘bunny,’ or how batsmen behave differently once they become captain (though becoming captain could also add to cognitive load).  Or how Indians are constantly reminded on tour that they are, and always have been, bad at fielding. Mind games.

5. Cost-Benefit Analysis: Not really a behavioral economics concept, but still important: Batsmen should try and find a balance between the risk of a shot (i.e., getting out) versus potential gains (i.e., runs). The Bangladeshis are terrible at this — they play risky shots when they’re not really needed, or ones that wouldn’t get them many runs to begin with.

6. Cognitive Limits: Related to (1), we tend to value gains in the present much more than potential (bigger) gains in the future. It’s one of the reasons Americans are so bad about saving for retirement — who thinks about a future 65-year-old self relying on Social Security checks when you’re 25? I wonder if cricketers have this problem in Test cricket during the first innings — do they think hard enough about what the second innings will look like? Or do they think, “Let me enjoy myself now and deal with the problem of the chase in the 2nd innings later.”

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7 thoughts on “Are Cricketers Rational? Behavioral Economics and Cricket

  1. Once again, great post. I would add that at least one part of the decision-making is similar to that of a goalkeeper manning the goal during a penalty (i.e., on the spot decisions). When a pitch (or bowling) is unpredictable, the batsman is making wild guesses to protect his wicket. But even in normal times, a great bowler can make a batsman sweat by preventing him scoring and beating him once in a while. And the reverse too – when a batsman takes the attack to a bowler, the bowler is pretty much clueless where to put the ball. Especially after a few good balls have been smacked to the boundary.

    So with cricket, what you have is those split-second decisions mixed with a lot of short-term, mid-term and long-term incentives – the former constantly changing those decisions and re-aligning the incentives.. I have not myself thought through this, but if you get a chance, maybe you should write a post on that.

  2. chrisps says:

    Each of these concepts deserves a post of its own – but I would say that as I’m exploring number 1 in a series of posts about test match declarations, which have over Test cricket history only produced victories in 34% matches for the team declaring, despite them having the upper hand: http://wp.me/p1OY5E-4H .

    I wonder if some cricketers struggle to move between the different forms of the game (first class, one-day, T20) because they have inadequate control over identiity salience (no.4)?

    Really interesting stuff.

    • duckingbeamers says:

      Wow, thanks for the link to your post. You are my new cricket-statistics crush.

      I think identity salience definitely makes sense in the context of different formats. You often hear cricketers saying they trip over how they should “change” their game; Yuvraj Singh at one point said Gary Kirsten told him to play like a one-dayer during Tests, which led to some amount of success for him.

  3. […] talked before about behavioral economics and its implications for cricket; let me talk quickly about one concept in particular — status quo bias — and the case […]

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