Hello Anchoring Bias, My Old Friend: How Anchors Impact Player Evaluation

Pierre McGuire once offered the following analysis of a top prospect at an NHL Entry Draft: “Toronto wins big here. This is huge for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their organization going forward. This is the start of their rebuild, and you couldn’t build it on better shoulders than [Player X’s].”

Without any context, it may seem obvious who McGuire is talking about here: Auston Matthews. Indeed, McGuire is certainly implying that whichever player he is discussing is bound to become the Leafs saviour someday. It should not surprise you to learn that this quote was said during the first round of an NHL Draft, rather than a later round. After all, describing a player in such a manner is normally reserved for generational talents; these kinds of players do not fall very far in the draft, if at all. When analysts describe players in this light, casual fans expect nothing less than greatness, especially in Toronto.

So would it surprise you if Pierre McGuire is describing a player not named Auston Matthews? Here is some additional information to consider: McGuire is talking about a player selected in the top 5, but not first overall. The mystery player is not Auston Matthews (1st in 2016), nor is it William Nylander (8th in 2014). Perhaps he is describing Mitch Marner — the Leafs 4th overall pick in 2015? While I don’t blame you for being convinced that Marner is the correct answer, this is still false.

The final clue is that Player X is a defenceman who was drafted 5th overall by Toronto. Unfortunately, Morgan Rielly (5th overall in 2012) is not the correct answer either. It should be clear by now that there is something wrong with McGuire’s analysis of the player. From the quote alone, though, it is implied that we should expect greatness from this player. But in hindsight, without even knowing the player yet, we know that this is not what the player turned out to be. Not at all.

As the Leafs management team walked up to the podium to draft Player X, McGuire continued his analysis by saying: “When you can get a player like Luke Schenn, you just go crazy as a scout. This is a franchise player.”

(If you don’t believe me, see for yourself by watching Schenn get drafted).

Yes, Player X is indeed Luke Schenn — the 5th overall pick at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. It is fine if you are surprised; what you feel right now is only a tiny amount of the surprise felt by Leafs fans upon realizing that Luke Schenn is actually a much worse version of the player many analysts like McGuire proclaimed he would to become. In reality, he never lived up to the unrealistic expectations that were set for him. The praise bestowed upon Schenn was not only preached by McGuire, though. To the best of my memory, many other analysts were wrong about Luke Schenn at the time, so it is unfair to single out McGuire for this mistake. Neveretheless, many of us fans still find it difficult to view Schenn as the player he is, because in our minds, he will always be the superstar who never was.

Naturally, the next logical step is to determine where everyone went wrong with Schenn. How and why do our expectations for some players get so out of hand? In Luke Schenn’s case, and many others like it, his status as a top 5 pick in the NHL draft attached to him like a parasite. For most NHL players, however, their reputations are not adversely affected by their draft position to the same extent as Schenn’s. But that does not mean it has no effect whatsoever. In general, a players draft position is likely to be mentioned whenever they are traded, signed as a free agent, or even discussed in conversation. As fans, we use their draft position as a reference point to begin formulating our opinions of the player. This is especially the case for younger players with little to no NHL experience. Despite the fact that players cannot control where they are drafted or the amount of hype surrounding them, our first impressions of a player significantly influence our judgements of their performance.

If our opinions of players are completely rational, we would never use a players draft position as a reference point to judge them. But as hockey fans, we know this is not the case. In Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he explains how we allow our first impressions to lead us astray:

“The phenomenon we were studying is so common and so important in the everyday world that you should know its name: it is an anchoring effect. It occurs when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity. What happens is one of the most reliable and robust results of experimental psychology: the estimates stay close to the number that people considered—hence the image of an anchor… If you consider how much you should pay for a house, you will be influenced by the asking price. The same house will appear more valuable if its listing price is high than if it is low, even if you are determined to resist the influence of this number… Any number that you are asked to consider as a possible solution to an estimation problem will induce an anchoring effect.

By using a players draft position to evaluate their potential, we are surrendering ourselves to the anchoring effect. The value that we consider is the players draft position, while the outcome we want to estimate is the future performance of that player. This presents a problem because we already know a player has zero control over their draft position, yet we use that value to estimate their future performance.

Like many problems, they often teach us important lessons. The lesson we can learn from anchoring bias is that an individual piece of information has the power to influence all of our subsequent analysis. Luke Schenn’s draft position suggested that he would become a franchise cornerstone, and the hype surrounding him at the draft validated that expectation. To this day, many fans still blame him for not becoming that type of player. You probably understand that first impressions are easy to form and difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate. The main takeaway here is that our estimations are led astray when we fail to ignore anchors.

Judging a player using irrelevant information like his draft position is no more useful than trying to determine the cost of a house for sale by its listing price. We assume, and oftentimes rightly so, that the value we are told to consider is one that the experts believe is correct. When a house is for sale, it is logical to assume that the asking price is the true value of the house, but it is definitely possible that this number is totally wrong. This is why we need to conduct proper research before we decide on the correct price. The same is true for hockey players: after Schenn was drafted, for example, all subsequent evaluations of his potential were anchored by the expectation that accompanies a 5th overall pick rather than his true talent level. It was easy to get fooled by the anchor because all of the praise surrounding him justified our impulse to refer to his draft position. Both factors collaborated to induce unrealistic expectations for him.

As it turns out, his true talent is closer to being a bottom pairing defender than what you should expect from a 5th overall draft choice. He still provides some value, but he is nowhere near as valuable as a superstar. This does not mean that he belongs in the AHL, but we often speak of him as if the opposite is true. The anchoring effect therefore minimizes our ability to acknowledge Schenn’s value.

In order to ignore anchors, we must be able to identify them to begin with. This is simply another way of saying that if we want to evaluate players more accurately, we must separate the signal from the noise. A players context-neutral production is the signal, and his draft position is the noise. Mistaking the latter for the former is what convinces analysts like Pierre McGuire that Luke Schenn is destined for greatness. By teaching ourselves how to recognize and avoid anchors in our everyday lives, we can provide more objective analyses.

Another manifestation of the anchoring effect is hidden within this article itself. Before I revealed that Pierre McGuire was describing Luke Schenn, you were expecting Player X to be a superstar. There is no indication in the opening paragraph that Pierre McGuire was not describing Auston Matthews. Due to this, your expectations were anchored on the expectation that Player X was either Auston Matthews or a similar Leafs player. Once I revealed the true identity of Player X, your thoughts on both Luke Schenn and McGuire’s analysis were heavily influenced by that anchor. While the hidden anchor within this article is a quote rather than a number, it still induces the same effect. In this case, our expectations are based on a certain “value”  — Auston Matthews is much more valuable than Luke Schenn — and we are surprised when that expectation is not met. The lesson this teaches us is that although anchors are sometimes useful, they are also capable of misleading us.

Although anchors influence our estimations, it is possible to move our estimations away from the anchor to a certain extent. Many of you likely experienced an adjustment of some sort as I slowly revealed the identity of Player X. Adjusting away from an anchor is also accounted for in Kahneman’s description of the anchoring effect, but he adds that “the adjustment typically ends prematurely, because people stop when they are no longer certain that they should move farther.” As I revealed more information, you became increasingly uncomfortable having Auston Matthews as your answer. You gradually adjusted your guess away from Auston Matthews and towards Morgan Rielly. By the time I revealed the final clue — Player X is a defenceman who was drafted by Toronto 5th overall — you would not have been surprised if I had said that Player X was Morgan Rielly. Sure, Rielly doesn’t exactly fit McGuire’s description of Player X, but he is still a major part of the current Leafs core.

Regardless of how well you adjusted from Matthews to Rielly, however, you were almost certainly surprised when you realized the true identity of Player X. This happened because you were unable to entirely ignore the anchor. You were expecting a superstar, and I gave you a bottom pairing defenceman. In this way, you can now see how all subsequent analysis is influenced by your first impressions.

In general, this is also how many hockey fans evaluate NHL players: we are anchored on where they are drafted, and we adjust our opinions of them as their careers progress. This is especially true around the trade deadline  — a time when many potential trades are being discussed by fans and analysts alike. In particular, the Leafs are still searching for a number one defenceman. Those who don’t believe that the Leafs need one will point a finger towards Morgan Rielly and say “he was drafted 5th overall in 2012 and is currently playing on the top-pair — he is our number 1 defenceman!” While you know that Rielly is definitely better than Luke Schenn, you also might believe that Rielly has not shown that he can succeed on the top pair just yet. That does not mean that Rielly is bad, it simply means that his maximum potential might only be as a top 4 defenceman, not a top 2. Morgan Rielly still provides value, but you know not to justify your impulse to call him a superstar by referring to his status as a former 5th overall pick. Less knowledgeable fans will be influenced by the anchor, but you won’t. You know better by now.

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