How science can improve your “March Madness” bracket and win you some money:


Stop predicting so many upsets:

Every year, billions of dollars are spent gambling on the outcomes of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. This study examines how individuals make predictions for tournament pools, one of the most popular forms of betting, in which individuals must correctly predict as many games in the tournament as possible. We demonstrate that individuals predict more upsets (i.e., wins by a higher seeded team) than would be considered rational by a normative choice model, and that individuals are no better than chance at doing so. These predictions fit a pattern of probability matching, in which individuals predict upsets at a rate equal to past frequency. This pattern emerges because individuals believe the outcomes of the games are nonrandom and, therefore, predictable.

Source: “Match Madness: Probability Matching in Prediction of the NCAA Basketball Tournament” from Journal of Applied Social Psychology

The author of the paper explains:

“Picking the lower seed is a good strategy, but people think, ‘I can’t win by doing that because everyone else is doing this,'” said Ed Hirt, professor in IU Bloomington’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “The upsets people pick are no better than chance. People have this idea that they know how many upsets will occur, but can they predict the ones that will occur? They pick upsets but not the right ones and end up sabotaging their efforts.”

Another tip: Don’t trust the so-called “experts”:

Other studies have shown that making NCAA bracket predictions based on rankings from other experts, such as sportswriter polls or gambling bookies, are no more successful than choosing the lower seeds.


By the way, if you’re watching a game and get frustrated because it seems one of the players doesn’t know what he’s doing, you’re 100% correct. Athletes don’t know what they’re doing. That’s okay though; if they knew what they were doing, they probably wouldn’t be that good:

Skilled athletes often maintain that overthinking disrupts performance of their motor skills. Here, we examined whether these experiences have a basis in verbal overshadowing, a phenomenon in which describing memories for ineffable perceptual experiences disrupts later retention. After learning a unique golf-putting task, golfers of low and intermediate skill either described their actions in detail or performed an irrelevant verbal task. They then performed the putting task again. Strikingly, describing their putting experience significantly impaired higher skill golfers’ ability to reachieve the putting criterion, compared with higher skill golfers who performed the irrelevant verbal activity. Verbalization had no such effect, however, for lower skill golfers. These findings establish that the effects of overthinking extend beyond dual-task interference and may sometimes reflect impacts on long-term memory. We propose that these effects are mediated by competition between procedural and declarative memory, as suggested by recent work in cognitive neuroscience.

Source: “Overthinking skilled motor performance: Or why those who teach can’t do” from Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

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