Cognitive Bias In Fantasy Football: The Anchoring Effect

We are all prone to cognitive biases and heuristics, mental shortcuts, which affect our accuracy in making decisions. Many of these biases occur at the unconscious level. We are not aware of them and would deny that they play any role in our decisions. We don’t, and can’t, sense the role that our minds’ unconscious processes have in our daily lives. Yet, those unconscious processes do exist and do effect our decisions.

I will be writing a series of articles that examine the role that some of these biases have in our decisions regarding fantasy football. One of the intents of psychological research into biases and heuristics is that by naming and describing the phenomena, we can more easily recognize and neutralize their effects. My hope is the same. By highlighting what some of these biases are and where they might appear in fantasy football, we might more effectively combat them.

The Anchoring Effect

Did Michael Floyd have more than 300 targets in 2015?

How many targets did Michael Floyd have in 2015?

The answer is in the footnote below.1

Anchoring is a cognitive bias whereby our minds rely too heavily on the first piece of information that we are given, the anchor, when making a decision. The anchor is often a number. It could be randomly determined, a completely unrealistic estimate, or another person’s guess. Whatever it is, the first number we see relating to a decision we are trying to make will be given too much weight. The more subtle and potentially dangerous point is that we won’t, and can’t, sense that this number has had an effect on us.

A psychological experiment conducted in Germany showed that exposing judges to a random anchor, that they knew was determined randomly, affects their sentencing decisions. Judges were presented with a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting. They were then asked to roll a pair of dice that were loaded so that they would land on either three or nine. The group of judges that rolled a nine recommended a sentence of 7.81 months. The group of judges that rolled a three recommended a more lenient sentence of 5.28 months.

Participants in another study were split into two groups. Both groups were fed implausible estimates of Mahatma Ganhdi’s age at death, meant to serve as an anchor, then asked to estimate his actual age at death. One group was asked if Ganhdi died before or after the age of 140 and then was asked to estimate his actual age at death. The second was asked if he died before or after the age of nine. The group that was given the high anchor estimated that he was 67 when he died, while the group given the low anchor estimated that he was 50 when he died. Even though the anchors were clearly not credible estimates of his age at death, they still had a strong effect.

The anchoring effect has been observed in numerous studies. It is one of the most reliable effects in all of psychology.

Leveraging the Anchoring Effect in Fantasy Football

Free Agent Bidding

If you belong to a league that uses a free agent acquisition budget, just throw a bid out there on the message board of your league and let your league mates see it. If you want people to overspend, throw out a high number. It doesn’t even have to be realistic. It will have an effect. If you want to acquire a player for cheap, try floating a low number.


The first offer in trade negotiations will have an unduly large effect. You can take advantage of this by making the first offer and anchoring the deal to that offer. Research shows that people who make the first offer tend to benefit. Conversely, if you receive a lowball offer that’s way out of line with reality, don’t counter by asking for the world. Rather than trying to counteroffer, you should simply walk away from the table for a time. Revisit the trade when the anchor has been forgotten.

DFS Salaries

DFS salaries serve as an anchor for player value. Don’t let the salaries at FanDuel or DraftKings influence your rating or projection of a player. Both sites make mistakes in pricing players. I suggest not looking at the salaries until you have finished all of your baseline analysis or projections. Alternatively, you could set up an automated spreadsheet or script to do your analysis that removes subjectivity. I’m not against using subjectivity in rating players. I’m just guarding against the influence of some number that may or may not reflect the actual value of a player that week.

Site Rankings and Draft Order

Just about every site that hosts fantasy football leagues has its own rankings. The rankings are often prominently displayed in the draft room of the site. These rankings will have an effect on the people that see them, especially the less experienced. Take advantage of this fact by waiting on players that the particular site has ranked much lower than you do. There’s no guarantee that the player will remain undrafted for longer than you think he should, but the anchoring effect suggests that he will.

Combating the Anchoring Effect

You will always be affected by the anchor although you will not know it and would deny that it had any effect on you whatsoever. But you cannot know how your thinking would have been different if the anchor had not been present. You should assume that any number to which you have been exposed will have an anchoring effect on your thinking. What do you do if you have already been, or may have been anchored?

Mobilize your critical thinking to combat the effect of anchors. The anchoring effect occurs at the unconscious level. The best way to combat it is with your conscious thinking. Take more time with the decision and think of rational reasons for making it. Distrust your intuition in this case. What you ‘feel’ is right may have been influenced by an anchor.

Anchoring effects are everywhere. I’m sure that you can think of a few that I left out of this article. Beware and realize that your unconscious mind is influencing you in ways that you don’t realize.

  1. Michael Floyd had 89 targets in 2015. Were you high or low?  (back)
By John Gambill | @GamblinJohnny | Archive

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