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Cognitive Efficiency in baseball decision-making

Moneyball was never about on-base percentage or valuing pitchers that got outs over pitchers that looked the part. Moneyball was about thinking differently. 


Competitive advantages will come and go as the game changes. As organizations caught up to the Oakland A’s in their value of on-base percentages, that competitive advantage disappeared. 


As pitchers became better and better, hitters decided an all-or-nothing approach would be the most effective way to beat them. 


This spawned a new competitive advantage exploited by the Houston Astros. They soon found success investing in players with high contact rates.


All along, the competitive advantages have changed but they are really only being exploited by the teams with what I call cognitive efficiency. Cognitive efficiency is not merely intelligence. Cognitive efficiency is the ability to make effective decisions through sound thinking habits and metacognitive awareness. 


A cognitively efficient person is aware of and notices himself becoming a victim of flawed thinking habits such as confirmation bias and black and white thinking. There are dozens of biases/flawed thinking habits people exhibit every day. 


A cognitively efficient person does not let his emotions reason for him. Cognitive efficiency includes emotional intelligence. 


A cognitively efficient person sifts through group dynamics to avoid the myriad of problems that create groupthink. 


Everything that follows is informed by years of in-depth study of the world’s worst decisions and catastrophes. I’ve studied everything from the groupthink that led to John F. Kennedy’s decision to invade Cuba to his emotionally-driven decision to have affairs with the wives of mobsters and sleep with 19-year-olds IN THE MIDDLE of the cuban missile crisis. 


I’ve also studied the lessons Kennedy learned from the Bay of Pigs invasion that stilled him during the missile crisis. 


I’ve researched the ego-driven decisions that led to the disaster at Chernobyl, the poised decisions that Abraham Lincoln made guiding America through the Civil War, the decisions surrounding America’s entrance into war with Iraq after 9/11, and many more historical exhibitions of both cognitive efficiency and inefficiency. 


I’ve also gotten the real-life experience of observing professional organizations and coaching staffs at all levels struggle through misalignment and cognitive fatigue, inefficiency, and apathy. 


Fortunately, I’ve also had the up-close-and-personal opportunity to observe some of the best systems thinkers and cognitively efficient leaders in coaching history. It was my master’s class in coaching, motivating, and culture creation. 


All of this has led me to see baseball and decisions through a unique lens. 


First, the most cognitively efficient leaders in the world are aware of and avoid ineffective thinking habits/biases. In his groundbreaking book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman called these biases heuristics. 


Another word for a heuristic is a shortcut. These heuristics came into existence because, for the most part, they were effective at creating shortcuts to the right decisions most of the time. However, when we do not know about these shortcuts or believe that we can fall victim to them, then we make ourselves vulnerable to them when they lead to the wrong decisions. 


Confirmation Bias is probably the most common of these heuristics. This is when we favor information that aligns with our already-held beliefs. This is especially common in baseball. 


We are seeing this with BOTH old school and new school approaches to the game. There is so much information out there now, either side can grab whatever information they so choose to confirm their own beliefs.


Cherry-picking information to bolster your beliefs is so common in the game of baseball that the examples are infinite. An old-school coach that sees a ground ball base hit win a big game, he might say, “see! The Launch Angle Revolution is crap!” 


Being aware of this bias is one of the most effective way to make good decisions. Constantly asking yourself, “how might I be wrong here?” is a good way to keep yourself from falling victim of this cognitive bias. 


Also, surrounding yourself with people who have different opinions (but are open-minded) is key to avoiding confirmation bias. 


This is also where creating a culture of radical honesty and open-mindedness comes into play. In his book, Principles, Ray Dalio writes about creating such a culture that allows employees to openly share their opinion without having to be afraid of being mocked or punished for doing so. 


The Curse of Knowledge is another common cognitive bias that inflicts many baseball organizations and coaching staffs. This is when experts lack the ability to see things from a different point of view. 


Smarter people tend not to listen to people they view as not as smart as them. It’s as simple as that. 


The problem with that is that many productively disruptive ideas and innovations come from outsiders who lack knowledge or expertise but also lack the biases that come from the inside view. 


One of my favorite TV shows includes a line from an entry-level employee who is hesitant to introduce an idea he has to a group of experts in their field. He says, “if this was a good idea, someone would have had it already.” The head honcho then says, “I find fault with that logic.” 


The fault with that logic is that sometimes outsiders or newcomers to an industry can provide unique insights an expert would have never considered.


An example of this in baseball would be the successful new wave of people being hired from outside of professional baseball. Mixing the expertise of the experienced with the perspective of the newcomers is imperative to remaining cognitively efficient. 


Valuing the opinion of the less-experienced or outsiders from other industries is a great way to avoid the curse of knowledge. Reading books, articles, and studies from other industries might spark ideas you never would have had. This will also keep you from falling prey to this cognitive bias.


Emotional Reasoning is a cognitive bias that might fall under the emotional intelligence section of this post, but the reality is that it is a bias that invades baseball decisions everywhere. 


When a coach desperately wants to get out of a jam, he might not make a pitching change, hoping that the current pitcher (who he knows is not the right fit for the moment) can escape the jam quickly. The right decision is to go make a pitching change to take advantage of a better matchup. But that would add time to the stressful situation. 


The coach/manager has to endure more excruciating minutes of fear and anxiety if he makes a pitching change. Sometimes, it seems like a coach would rather get out of the inning quickly having given up 4 runs than get out of the inning only given up 1 run but taking twice the time. This is because it is actually true for the emotional part of the brain. 


Availability Heuristic is extremely common in baseball. This is where someone places greater value on the information they have the easiest and quickest access to. 

This is where the old saying, “when you are a hammer, everything you see is a nail” comes from. 


In baseball, a mental skills coach will see every slump as a mental/emotional problem. A biomechanist will see every slump as a swing problem. A new-school coach will see every slump as an attack angle problem. An old-school coach will tell a hitter he “just doesn’t want it enough” or that he is not hitting enough ground balls. A pitch recognition specialist will tell every struggling hitter that he is swinging at the wrong pitches and taking good pitches to hit. An effective velocity believer will see every slump as a timing problem. 


Keeping different perspectives around is massively important to avoiding this and many other cognitive biases. For individuals, it is important to pursue a range of knowledge so that you can keep a range of perspectives in mind. At the very least, you should know exactly what bucket you fall into and how you see the world so that you can know what information is most immediately available to you. This will help you catch yourself when you begin to apply your perspective too widely. 


The Halo Effect is common in every sport. This is when your personal impression of a person colors every aspect of their character or actions. 


We see this when a general manager can’t let go of a player he loves, and when a coach plays a player too much who he personally identifies with or likes. 


When we evaluate talent, we have to be extremely careful to leave our feelings for the person out of it. This is hard, but this is what Billy Beane excelled at in the Moneyball era. This is what Bill Belichick excels at with the New England Patriots. It is a large reason for their sustained success. 


Hindsight Bias: This is a HUGE bias in baseball. How often do we see the results of a decision determine its quality? This is the hindsight bias at work. The hindsight bias happens when we look back at a decision with more information than we had at the time the decision was made and make conclusions about the quality of the decision with that new information at hand. 


This happens when general managers or entire cities turn on managers when a decision to pull a pitcher results in a game-losing hit. 


More applicable to us in the hitting development world, this happens when a player comes to us with a story (narrative bias is another big bias in baseball) about how a tweak to his swing by a former coach ruined his results. It may very well be true that the swing change ruined the hitter’s results, but it should be tested before it is believed. 


The change in that hitter’s results might have come from a lack of buy-in by the player in the swing change. The results could have come as a result of a new scouting report that got out on the hitter at the same time as the swing change. 


It is important to pay attention to how a hitter feels about changes made to his swing or physiology, but it is important to keep an open mind about how the past is being interpreted in the process and how future analysis of coaches and their results is being skewed. 


Other common cognitive biases (in brief) that we see in player development are: 


Attentional Bias: The tendency to ignore the good things about a player you don’t like while only paying attention to the bad things that player does (or vice versa. 


Self-Serving Bias: The tendency to blame external, uncontrollable forces when bad things happen to you or the players in your charge while giving yourself credit for the good things that happen. 


Actor-Observer Bias: This is when we attribute other people’s failings to some internal negative quality while attributing our own negative actions to external things outside our control that forced us to behave negatively. 


Anchoring: Anchoring happens when the first thing we are exposed to affects everything we see from there on out. If your first coach was an old-school ground ball-praising coach, you are likely to be that way as well. 


Narrative Bias: This is when connecting the dots to make sense of results is more important than the truth. This happens when we connect events together that aren’t actually related to make sense of or feel at ease about the results that happened. These results could be good or bad, but beware of trying to make sense of results through story. It is one thing to have access to big data, but interpreting it correctly is a talent unto itself. 


Illusions of Control: This is the belief that things we have control over will turn out better simply because we have control over them. Illusions of control lead coaches to exaggerate their ability to change external events. 


Loss Aversion: Most of us would rather avoid loss than achieve a win. This is exhibited when a coach plays NOT to lose rather than aggressively trying to put teams away. 


Regression Fallacy: This refers to when we fail to account for regression to the mean. This happens often in baseball when we think a player has made gotten either better or worse permanently. When that player returns to his normal performance outputs, we are shocked. This is the regression fallacy at work. 


There are many more cognitive biases at work every single day decisions are being made in baseball. Knowing these biases and being aware of your tendencies to fall for them is a good first step toward cognitive efficiency, but it is just the first step. 


Second, the most cognitively efficient leaders in the world are emotionally intelligent. They are aware of their emotions, can identify them accurately, and manage them effectively. They can also do the same with others’ emotions. 


They can identify others’ emotions accurately and, thus, manage their relationships with other effectively. 


Emotions have ruined more decisions than it is possible to calculate. Most people think that effective decision-making is about taking your emotions out of the thinking process. This is true to an extent. 


You have to be aware of the emotional part of your brain. You have to know which decisions engage your emotions and how. 


The brain functions on a conscious level and a subconscious level. This just means there are things going on in your brain you notice and things that you don’t. The things you don’t notice are happening in your subconscious mind. 


Your emotions reside in your subconscious mind.


You subconscious mind also is home to your habits, biases, fears, and your deeply-held beliefs about yourself and the world. 


What this means is that 90 percent of your actions are controlled by your subconscious mind. 


We are actually really good at getting what we want. But we are really bad at knowing what we want. 


Almost everything you have in your life is a result of wanting it on a subconscious level. Just because you didn’t notice it inside your brain does not mean your brain didn’t make it happen. Before this turns into an existential argument, let’s get back to how this impacts cognitive efficiency in baseball. 


The only way to manage your emotions effectively is to become aware of them. You can only do this by examining what you have in your life and why you might have wanted it. This will lead back to why you are experiencing certain emotions in certain decision-making environments. 


If this sounds too touchy-feely for you, you’ll never be emotionally intelligent enough to make cognitively efficient decisions. 


Thirdly, the most cognitively efficient leaders in the world practice a way of thinking that allows them to observe themselves thinking. 


Mindfulness has become a trendy topic recently. Most of the worlds most effective leaders practice either mindfulness meditation of transcendental meditation. Both are effective ways to observe yourself thinking. This is called metacognition. 


Most people are trapped in a cycle of thinking habits that they are completely unaware of. It is a MAJOR competitive advantage to be able to separate yourself from your thinking. 


In a world distracted by everything, it is incredibly rare to find someone capable of observing their thinking as it is happening and stilling themselves to respond rationally and confidently. 


Establishing a mindfulness practice will be an extremely useful tool to make better decisions. Also, establishing a habit of thought and thinking habit observation will do wonders for your cognitive efficiency. 


In summary, cognitive efficiency is the ability to use less mental and emotional energy to make better decisions. To do this, you need to use sound thinking habits, manage your emotions, and develop an ability to observe your thinking. 


Becoming cognitively efficient will help you make better baseball decisions. It will also help you evaluate baseball decisions more accurately. 


Cognitive efficiency will always be the biggest competitive advantage in the game because it will always show you the next competitive advantage on the field.

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