Conventional wisdom takes a beating

Defense doesn’t win championships. Teamwork isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Momentum is a myth. Punting in football is a waste. Officials are biased. And the Chicago Cubs aren’t cursed; they just stink.

From the Sunday New York Times Book Review of Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won

…One says that humans are more likely to judge an act of commission — for instance, a referee’s calling a penalty — to be intrusive or consequential than they are an act of restraint. So even though the ref who doesn’t throw a flag can be just as wrong as the ref who does, and even though his nonact can put an equivalent skew on the game, we judge him — and he judges himself — less harshly. This so-called omission bias is borne out statistically in several sports, the authors demonstrate, citing umpires who call fewer strikes when the hitter already has two and basketball referees who call fewer loose-ball fouls on star players than on nonstars.

The authors also place great stock in what psychologists call risk aversion, or loss aversion, which states that humans are motivated more forcefully by a fear of losing than by a desire for winning. When a coach always employs well-worn strategies on the field; when an owner declines to hire a successful but unconventional coach; when a golfer takes a firmer stroke on a par putt to fight off a bogey than he does on a birdie putt because he is still safely under par, he is being risk averse, often to his detriment. Statistics (and one brave high school coach in Arkansas) show, for example, that over the long haul, punting on fourth down is a fool’s errand; as for golf, a putt is a stroke, no matter what the circumstances.

…In the end, they determine, stunningly, that home-field advantage in virtually all sports is largely due to the bias of officials toward the home team.

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