New study shows that professional football coaches tend toward conservative decision-making behavior

A fascinating new study in the April 2006 issue of the Journal of Political Economy analyzes a common situation in professional football – the choice on a fourth down to either kick a field goal or go for a first down – and finds that coaches systematically depart from the decision that would maximize their chances of winning.

"The decisions are comparatively simple, the possibilities for learning and imitation are unusually large, the compensation for coaches who make the decisions is extremely high, and the market for their services is intensely competitive," writes David Romer (University of California, Berkeley and the National Bureau for Economic Research). "Despite these forces, the standard assumption that agents maximize simple objective functions fails to lead to reasonably accurate descriptions of behavior."

Instead, Romer argues, coaches tend toward "conservative" behavior, weighing the consequences of failure more heavily than the impact of success. With a finite time frame, this risk-aversion becomes even harder to justify.

"At the end of the game, one team will have won and the other will have lost," explains Romer. "Thus even a decision-maker who faces a large cost of losing… should maximize the probability of winning."

Specifically, Romer shows that trying for a touchdown rather than a field goal would increase the team's chances of winning the game by about 3 percentage points, which is very large for a single play. However, when faced with the decision, every NFL team in Romer's sample chose to attempt a field goal.

"Much of the previous evidence of systematically conservative behavior involves highly stylized laboratory settings with small stakes and inexperienced decision-makers devoting relatively little effort to their choices. Thus previous work provides little evidence about the strength of force pushing decision-makers toward conservatism," Romer writes. "The results of this paper suggest that the forces may be shockingly strong."

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JPE has been presenting significant research and scholarship in economic theory and practice since its inception in 1892. Publishing analytical, interpretive, and empirical studies, the Journal presents work in traditional areas--monetary theory, fiscal policy, labor economics, development, micro- and macroeconomic theory, international trade and finance, industrial organization, and social economics. For more information, please visit: www.journals.uchicago.edu/JPE.

Romer, David. "Do Firms Maximize? Evidence from Professional Football." Journal of Political Economy 114:3.


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