Belichick, Rationality and Why the Colts are 14-1

Aaron Reid
Ph.D. Chief Behavioral Scientist, Sentient Decision Science

kevin faulk 4th down aa18c149eb438d9a large Belichick, Rationality and Why the Colts are 14 1It’s fourth down with two yards to go. You’re facing the decision to punt the ball to Peyton Manning and Colts offense with a little over 2 minutes to play and giving your defense the chance to stop a touchdown drive, or to go for it and essentially end the game with a first down.

In the decision sciences we call this type of situation: “decision making under uncertainty”. Rational decision theory says that we calculate or estimate the likely probability of success in each scenario and we choose the option with the greatest expected utility. In this case, a rational decision-maker chooses the option with the highest probability of winning.

Frank Frigo co-creator of ZEUS (an algorithm that can run potential NFL outcomes based on different decisions) and blog author at the New York Times Fifth Down blog – recently argued that many critics of Belichick had a “gross misunderstanding of decision theory” and that if readers would “leave emotion on the sideline for a moment, objectivity and computing power can get to the core of problem.” Frigo went on to argue that Belichick followed rational decision theory and maximized his expected utility, thereby making the best possible choice for his team and the New England faithful.

There is just one problem with Frigo’s argument…we have at least 30 years worth of research in the decision sciences showing that humans do not follow the rational model of choice in decisions under uncertainty (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). The problem with the rational decision theory perspective is that it herald’s rational choice not only as prescriptive for the “right” decision, but also as descriptive of how these decisions are made. Whether people should make choices using rational theory is another conversation altogether, but in the very least, we know from the last 30 years of research on human decision making that rational decision theory is not how people actually make decisions.

This is why Frigo’s request to leave emotion on the sideline is so problematic. Economists have long argued that emotions are irrational and have no place in decision theory. However, recent research has shown that the including emotion in rational choice models actually improves the accuracy of choice prediction (Reid & Gonzalez-Vallejo, 2009). And while we are led to believe, here in New England, that Bill Belichick is as stoically rational and calculated as they come, there are emotions that are driving his decisions just as they are driving yours and mine. To understand the role of emotion in decision making it is useful to consider recent advances in motivational research.

From a motivational perspective, Bill Belichick is something social psychologists would call “promotion focused” (Higgins, 1998). A promotion focused motivational disposition leads to the strong pursuit of achievement outcomes even at the risk of failure. For a promotion focused individual, taking chances to succeed is much more motivational emotionally than being conservative to avoid a negative outcome. On Belichick’s 4th and 2 decision, there was much more going on than the rational calculation of probabilities of success embodied by a ZEUS type algorithm. Yes, the estimate of success is important in the decision, but the outcome of having tried and failed carries different emotional weight than the same failed outcome having not tried to make the first down at all.

Consider Bill Belichick’s motivational style by reading his own words:

“It came to, if we had made that play, we would have been able to run out all or most of the clock so we didn’t need very much, we felt good about the play…we tried to win the game on that play and it didn’t work out. It’s fourth and two, you make that play, then you can win the game. As opposed to giving them the ball back with time and a timeout, and letting them control the game, so that’s what we elected to do.”

Now, I would guess that Belichick is unlikely to admit that the emotions he felt when considering the possibility of making a first down on that 4th and 2 play had anything to do with his decision. (He wouldn’t be only person on earth that thinks emotions don’t influence their decisions – in an informal poll of my Emotion and Rationality class about 50% of my students claimed to not be influenced by emotions). However, it only takes one look at the Patriots’ masterful, unrelenting march toward regular season perfection (16-0) two years ago to be convinced that Belichick is motivated by the achievement emotions tied to a promotion focused disposition. Which brings us nicely to the discussion of the Colts “prevention focused” decision to let their pursuit of regular perfection fall by the wayside last week.

Coach Jim Caldwell has been sharply criticized for pulling his starters during the second half of a winnable game against the New York Jets. He has staunchly defended his position, citing a strong desire to avoid any injuries to his starters that might jeopardize their Super Bowl chances. The avoidance of negative outcomes is the hallmark characteristic of a “prevention focused” motivational state. Individuals who are prevention focused are more motivated by emotions related to the avoidance of negative outcomes than those associated with the active pursuit of positive outcomes. That is not to say that the thought of an undefeated season did not strike positive emotional chords with Caldwell and the Indy staff – but it is to say that the negative emotions related to the potential of Manning getting injured were much more motivational and weighed in more heavily on the decision.

In closing, it is important to note that emotions do not prescribe a “right” decision in either case. Motivational theory would argue the same: that goals can be achieved using either a promotion focus or a prevention focus. The key purpose of this argument is to add some humanity to the discussion around decision theory and the choices people make in pursuit of their goals. We are not simply cold calculating choice algorithms laying waste to difficult decisions with bolts of reason laced lightning from the clouds above, rather, we are hot, earthy, blood pumping emotional beings who care so much that we use our reason and our “guts” to try to make the best decisions possible to achieve our goals.

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