Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Baseball Umpires and the "Inconsequential Bias"

Stanford Graduate School of Business PhD students Etan Green and David P. Daniels have conducted a fascinating new study about umpires in Major League Baseball.   Here's an excerpt from an article on the Stanford website:

Green and Daniels analyzed ball and strike calls made by Major League Baseball umpires for more than a million pitches between 2009 and 2011. In their study, which recently won second place at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, they show that an umpire’s strike zone shrinks in counts when the batter already has two strikes (and therefore a third strike would result in an out) and expands when the batter has three balls (with a fourth ball then resulting in a walk). “Oftentimes, the umpires face a choice between a call that would be really pivotal and a call that would be relatively inconsequential,” says Green. “And what we find is that they err on the side of the inconsequential call unless they’re absolutely certain that the pivotal call is the right one.”

What do we take away from this study?  The findings suggest that decision-makers in high stakes situations may be biased toward "punting" - i.e. they may choose the more inconsequential course of action, if one exists, rather than taking the action with more substantial impacts.   We certainly have all been in situations where we choose the "path of least resistance."  Of course, this study differs from the managerial context in organizations, because the umpires do not experience the consequence here.  The batter and pitcher do (though the umpire is more likely, perhaps, to be criticized if he makes a highly consequential call).   In a business context, the decision-maker often experiences the consequences for themselves.  Still, we should be mindful of this potential bias that may affect us in high stakes situations.   

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