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Attention, Emotion, and the Primacy Effect in Fantasy Football Week 1

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Attention, Emotion, and the Primacy Effect in Fantasy Football Week 1

Just like what happens in Vegas never really stays in Vegas, what happens in Week 1 will find its way into our hearts and minds for the whole 2013 season. Some of the opening weekend stat lines will be truly predictive of season long performance…good or bad. Others will be one hit wonders, and a few will commit fantasy suicide with their debut performances this year. It’s really impossible to know after just one week. What is possible is to understand why Week 1 matters so much. There are two factors at work here, attention and emotion. Both affect how knowledge is learned and memories are formed in a dramatic way.

At Full Attention

I don’t care how long you’ve been playing fantasy football; Week 1 is a new beginning, an unknown. When faced with something new, the brain devotes significantly more of itself to the novel stimulus or task. It could be learning to ride a bike or drive a car. It could be meeting your new co-workers or in the olden days, trying to remember someone’s phone number. The part of the brain that gets the extra work is called the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). This is a special region of the neocortex that is more highly developed in humans than any other species. It is generally thought of as the “executive” of the brain, enabling such high order cognitive abilities as attention, planning ahead, considering alternate strategies, and ultimately, decision making. Most of the sub-cortical brain shares significant similarity with animals lower on the evolutionary scale, and these areas tend to be associated with instincts, reflexes, habits, and learned responses or behaviors.

So the PFC is going to be recruited to help you pay extra attention this weekend. You are literally ‘learning’ week 1 of the 2013 NFL season. When you first learn to drive a car, you must concentrate on each and every step, repeating the instructions in order over and over aloud or in your head, visualizing, then performing the steps over and over again. Then one day, you find you’re just doing it. No rehearsing, no muttering, no thinking, no attention. OK, hopefully just less attention, but if we’re being honest, routine driving is pretty mindless. It’s become automatic. The PFC has disengaged. Of course, you’re not done learning the 2013 season until the 2013 season is over, so the PFC never really disengages fully (this is why we are prone to many of the biases in our decision making), but it is also never quite as engaged as it is the first week. The first week is the most important because everything you learn in Week 1 can be applied to all the other weeks, of which there are the most right now.
The Emotional Attachment

The more you play fantasy sports, the more you write about fantasy, the more you predict, advise on, and project fantasy football, the more you care about what happens during Week 1. This caring goes beyond the average fan’s excitement and enthusiasm for football, which we certainly share. We are definitely fired up for real, meaningful action on the field and in our fantasy match-ups, after the long, long off season. Going a little deeper, it is the desire to win, and more generally, to be right, that motivates us to care a little more than the average fan. I’ve pointed out before that being right triggers dopamine release in the same reward center in the brain as drugs, food, and sex do.

I’d say this reward center, the Nucleus Accumbens (NAc), is a damn powerful place in our brain. Rodents will endure severe punishment to receive artificial stimulation of the NAc, and will likewise easily learn all kinds of tasks that are rewarded with NAc stimulation. The desire to activate the NAc motivates human behavior all the time. Thus we watch closely the players we invested in, either in our bold fantasy predictions or in our high draft picks. Correct calls are rewarded with pure joy, a rush of self-congratulations (that’s the dopamine in the NAc), and maybe a good beer. Guys that fall short of our hopes or predictions this weekend wound us mentally via almost the exact mechanism by which we feel physical pain. The beer is probably still a decent idea. Week 1 can be an emotional roller coaster.

Welcome to the Primacy Effect

Heightened emotions, good and bad, are linked to the release of a certain neurotransmitter called norepinephrine (NE). This chemical is released to the PFC, to the parts of the brain that are specialized for learning and memory (such as the hippocampus), and pretty much everywhere else too. NE’s job is to increase the sensitivity of the neurons it affects. Therefore, it makes it easier for you to pay attention, to learn, and to remember what you’ve just experienced. With the combination of your emotions running high and your attention as full as it gets, you are all set to experience the Primacy Effect. The Primacy Effect is the phenomenon of the first instance carrying the most weight and therefore being recalled most readily.

In football, that means that what happens this weekend will stay with you in your memory throughout the season. The Primacy Effect is pervasive; we have “love at first sight”, “you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression”, and so on. It doesn’t mean that these initial perceptions are correct, just that they are lasting. At some point, I’ll write about how the brain organizes information and why it’s so important for it to categorically assign value as soon as possible. For now, though, just realize that even though you probably won’t be able to stop yourself over-emphasizing these Week 1 performances, they may or may not be relevant to the rest of the season. I’m wishing you only good first impressions and many good beers this weekend.

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By Renee Miller | @reneemiller01 | Archive

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