Neuroeconomics and Fantasy Football: The Fear of Regret


It’s got mountains, it’s got rivers, it’s got sights to make you shiver…You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone, when I’m gone, you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone (Anna Kendrick, Cups (Pitch Perfect’s “When I’m gone”)). It turned into the theme song for an 1800 mile road trip I took this summer with my two boys, 9 and 11. It was pretty catchy too, until the 673rd time we heard it traveling from upstate New York to North Carolina and everywhere worth seeing in between.

It might also be the theme song for the new field of Neuroeconomics. Scientists recently discovered that what drives consumer behavior is not only a desire to get what we want, but a fear of losing out on something worth having. In fact, the fear of missing out on or giving up on a product or commodity too soon looks like the most powerful predictor of bidding at an experimental auction. Let that sink in: More important than how much we like something, how much we need something, how much we are drawn toward it, what drives our actual behavior is the avoidance of regret.

The most dreaded words in the English language are “I should have” or “I shouldn’t have” We all know the emotional pain and regret that comes when we have to own up to having made the wrong choice. Yes, it is something you want to avoid! You stay in a relationship long after the love is gone, hold a stock that is steadily dropping, and you’re still starting Dwayne Bowe or Larry Fitzgerald on your fantasy team. In all these situations, there was once true value and the potential for future greatness was certainly there. It’s when the current value doesn’t match the expected value that we’re faced with tough decisions. A) We can admit we were wrong and move on, cutting our losses, starting over, acknowledging and healing the wounds. We find a new source of hope. Or B) we can hang on, stick with it, praying that value will return and that the best is still ahead. We acknowledge that we had a good reason for picking the partner, stock, WR, whatever it is that isn’t living up to our expectations and are unable to let them go for fear of missing out on the greatest performance yet to come.

So what do you do with your Alfred Morris, Ray Rice, C.J. Spiller, Hakeem Nicks, Doug Martin, CJ.2K, etc? What about you 2QB leaguers stuck with Eli, Vick, or Kaepernick? The higher the expectations (read auction price or draft pick you used on them) the harder it is to bench or cut these guys.

First, you don’t want to admit you were wrong about them; that activates parts of the brain that signal pain, called the insula and cingulate cortex. These are ancient, highly conserved neural networks that evolved to hone our ability to detect and avoid painful stimuli. Interestingly, the human brain responds to emotional pain, such as being wrong, being excluded, being criticized or put down, exactly like it responds to physical pain. It’s a powerful system for motivating behavior.

Second, you don’t want to risk anyone else reaping the rewards of your guy if you do cut him. You’re afraid that as soon as you drop Tom Brady, he’ll start passing for 350 yards and a 3 scores every week, taking someone else to your fantasy playoffs. You can just hear Tom {or insert your personal fantasy let down players here} singing in your ear, “you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone…”.

But will you miss him, really? Is the fear worse than the reality? Neuroeconomics helps us understand what neural patterns drive value-based consumer decisions. Can knowing that it is the fear of regret that drives our behavior at least as much, if not more than reward seeking help us make better fantasy decisions? For me, the balance is tipping more toward being afraid of regretting leaving unproductive players in my lineups next week.

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By Renee Miller | @reneemiller01 | Archive

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