Weekly Cognitive Bias: Regression to the Mean

Posted by: Avinash on Wednesday, October 15th, 2008


Image above originally found here.

This article (hattip via EDSBS) caught my eye this past weekend.

One week after defensive end Greg Hardy dismantled Florida with his pass rushing ability, the talented junior seemed invisible during the Rebels’ 31-24 loss to South Carolina on Saturday.

By the second half, Hardy was rarely on the field and finished with just one tackle. The UM coaches say the decreased playing time was because they didn’t feel Hardy was giving maximum effort.

“In this sport here, if you’re not excited about Saturday, something is wrong,” defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said. “I don’t know what was wrong (with Hardy), but I got a lot of kids out here that want to play. Counseling time is over. I made a switch because I was trying to win the game.”

This is an unusually harsh analysis of a young college football player, especially after the dominating performance he put on in Gatorland, but oh well, what have you done for me lately.

Houston Nutt was more levelheaded.

“(Hardy) just wasn’t playing at the energy level that we’re used to from him,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “… But he wasn’t the only one. For whatever reason, we had some guys who weren’t right that day. We’ve got to get better.”

Nutt seems to be describing a phenomenon that is common in the college football landscape:

Disregard of regression toward the mean — the tendency to expect extreme performance to continue.

A week before they got beat up by a fairly lame South Carolina team, Ole Miss went into the Swamp and upset one of the top five teams in the nation. Although Ole Miss is a talented team (they were ranked in my top 25 blogpoll at the beginning of the season based on talent alone), they’re still far behind the Gators in terms of depth.  You could say they played at the extreme level of . This game was pretty much a replication of Nutt’s triple OT thriller in Death Valley with McFadden and Arkansas last Thanksgiving).

Unsurprisingly, the team shifted back to first gear when they played South Carolina, and lost.

USC dominated an Ohio State team in the most hyped game of the year, and then went into Corvallis and sleptwalk their way through three out of four quarters in the biggest upset of the season. Alabama throttled Georgia in a Black Out, then promptly sleptwalk through the Kentucky game. These things happen all the time.

Candidates to look out for this week: Colt McCoy and Texas, possibly Saban and Alabama (facing…guess who…Ole Miss).

Recent Golden Bear example: Remember when DeSean Jackson had some good returns but was quiet for most of the first four games, had that fabulous game against Oregon last September, then disappeared in nonprominent games not featured on ABC? People may wonder if he was sabotaged by bad quarterback play, or toxic locker room drama, or Tedford refusing to call passes for him. The explanation is probably more simple: Defenses doubled up on him, forced Cal to dial up plays to Hawkins and Jordan, and perhaps he got mixed up on a few plays after being rock solid the week before.

In other words, he regressed to the mean after acheiving perfection. Just like many college athletes do.

Can you think of any other athletes who regressed to the mean after an astounding performance?

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