How to complete next year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball bracket

A quarantine activity in my sister-in-law’s family is buying stocks. Stonks. Gamestonks? Each week, each kid, gets five dollars. They invest in whatever they want.

The best returns, to date, are from my niece. She’s 8. Her name begins with ‘T’ so her stock choices begin with ‘T’. She owns Tesla.

My three nieces and nephews aren’t competing but they do demonstrate that in small groups the best way to outperform others is ‘be chalky.’ Picking favorites is called chalky because in the days of horse racing, tracks wrote the lines on chalkboards with chalk. Even then, people liked betting favorites, so those odds were updated more often and had fresher chalk marks. Hence, ‘betting chalk’.

The same structure works for winning in any small group. To outperform, bet chalk. **However in a large group, choose variance.** Be different, and be right. We know that something will happen. We just don’t know which something.

One way to think through this approach is to consider the sum of the NCAAM final four team’s ranks. This question was posed on Wharton Moneyball and we have an answer: 11. On average, two number one seeds make it to the final four each year. Only in 1993 did all one seeds make it to the FF.

Yeah, but Covid!

That’s what I thought too. When Cade Massey proposed that it might be a more variable season I thought, base rates be dammed it’s going over. But that’s probably wrong (Narrator: It was not).

What I missed what something Daniel Kahneman wrote about in TFaS: substitution.

Rather than answer the question: Will the sum of the ranks of the final four teams be larger than average this year? I substituted the question: Will there be more variance this year?

What I missed was the idea behind hurdle technologies. In food preservation there’s not just one way that keeps food safe to eat, but a bunch. Food might be too acidic and be cooled and be sealed. It’s the combination of things, a series of obstacles, which limits bacteria.

That same idea applies in a bracket. Oral Roberts (#15) beat Ohio State (#2) and Florida (#7) but had to face Arkansas (#3) too, who won.

Ultimately the final four seeds totaled 15 (1,1,2,11). My direction was right. My reasoning was wrong.

Are you tired? Is that really the question?

“When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.”

Daniel Kahneman

We probably do this a lot more than we think. Consider how many decisions we face in a day, how many are automatic, and how many switches go unnoticed.

It happens to everyone. In a recent post, Scott Alexander writes about an individual randomized control trial for a sleep supplement. Alexander wanted to know if the supplement helped him sleep better, or if it was a placebo effect.

Placebos are powerful and cheap. If they get the job done, all the better it seems. But Alexander is serious, smart, and curious—so he tested this idea.

A friend disguised the supplements and sugar pills in oversized capsules, flipped a coin to determine the order, and placed the camouflaged pills in a monthly pill planner. To test the effectiveness, Alexander recorded hours of sleep and subjective ratings on how he felt. The results shocked him.

But not for the reason he expected.

I think the active ingredient here was not letting myself look at the clock. Without external cues to tell me how tired I should feel, I was forced to rely on how tired I actually felt, which in many cases was “not tired at all”. 

Scott Alexander

In removing the alarm clock, Alexander removed the easier question. If it was before nine, it was too early. Obviously. Or not.

These kinds of tendencies work great for a lot of things, but occasionally work too much and we get interesting results like this.

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