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Daily Fantasy Football: Your Brain Is The Problem

“How To Think Like a Daily Fantasy Football Winner” author C.D. Carter looks at how your brain gets in the way of good DFS decision making.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

You are not hardwired to succeed in daily fantasy football.

You might think your ability to crunch numbers and apply logic and remain robotically objective in any circumstance makes you a daily fantasy money-making machine. And perhaps you’ve found a system that has led to long-term profits in the maddening Land of Variance that is daily fantasy.

Good for you.

Your very nature — your existence as a human being — works against you in your foray into the world of weekly salaries, values, and projections. We are just like our ancestors, if you take away the processed foods, sedentary lifestyles, and neat little gadgets.

Our brains work in frighteningly similar ways to those who came tens of thousands of years before us, and believe it or not, our ancestors were more interested in surviving than producing an accurate fantasy point per dollar projection for Zac Stacy.

All those billions of neurons firing in that big grey lump encased in that hard head of yours, like it or not, is the problem.

The X and the C

You have two tracks — for lack of a better word — in your brain: the X-system, which processes emotions, and the C-system, the headquarters of our basic logic that sifts through information in a far more deliberate way.

Our brain’s X-system, according to reams of research produced over the past half century, makes judgments and decisions based not on logical underpinnings, but rather shortcuts like familiarity and proximity. The X-system is strongly linked to the lizard brain — the oldest part of the brain meant to help us survive, not to make mathematically sound decisions like those needed in fantasy sports.

C.D. Carter’s “How To Think Like a Fantasy Football Winner” is available on Amazon at a 25% discount

The C-system, on the other hand, is the key to all logical decision making, even those rare difficult decisions outside the realm of fake sports. The C-system is fueled not by fear or desire or pain, but by cold, sober evidence showing something to be true, or untrue. It’s a much slower system than its neighbor, the X, as you might expect.

The problem, of course, is that our brain’s X-system is responsible for the vast majority of our actions and reactions. It makes sense: our emotional reaction to anything — from banging our elbow on a table to reconfiguring our daily lineups in the wake of last-minute injury news — comes first. Our reasoned approach will hopefully follow, but it will almost always come second.

That means, in short, that your X-system is in control. The wires that make up your brain’s C-system fire only after your immediate emotional reaction. Why? Because humans evolved the need for emotion well before they evolved the more rational part of their brains.

Think of the X as a big, dumb giant, stomping around in the recesses of your brain, reacting thoughtlessly to any and all impulses burning up the circuits of your brain. In the corner sits the C, wearing a neatly-ironed button-down shirt, pleated khaki pants, and sensible brown loafers.

The C pushes up its Coke bottle glasses, and watches the lumbering, beastly X have its temper tantrum. The C waits its turn to process the same decisions in its own reasonable, logic-based way.

Sometimes the C never gets its turn. This is the worst of all worlds for daily gamers.

Overcoming design

It’s no secret that fantasy owners of all kinds strive to make decisions as efficiently and logically as a computer, to process the nonstop flow of information in a way that optimizes lineups and bolsters our chances of being right over the long haul.

Some daily gamers think this is the way they operate — like a machine. They’re wrong, and failing to acknowledge the decision-making foibles of our feeble human brains is foolish at best, and destructive to your daily fantasy bankroll at worst.

James Montier, author of “The Little Book of Behavioral Investing,” writes extensively about the havoc wreaked by the brain’s X-system, and how emotional decision making has sunk more than a few investors — even those who seemed to manipulate the market for a time.

Evolution occurs at a glacial pace, so our brains are well designed for the environment that we faced 150,000 years ago (the African savannah) but potentially poorly suited for the industrial age of 300 years ago, and perhaps even  more ill-suited for the information age in which we currently live.

There isn’t a whole lot in modern life that’s more purely information intensive as daily fantasy sports. Stats, injury updates, weather conditions, coaching changes, opponents, recent trends, long-term trends, the day of the week, the angle of the sun, and the color of a player’s socks and underwear — it all floods our brains as we compose our various lineups for various contests.

Our natural reaction is to employ the old X-system and make decisions based on how we feel, rather than processing the vast amounts of information into a logical choice. It’s ingrained in us to revert to the ancient part of our brain, rather than the part best used for creating daily lineups that give us the best chance in tournaments, head-to-head contests, and everything in between.

When is our X-system, that big, dumb lug, most likely to go unchecked in our daily decision making? Psychological research, as Montier points out, shows that the following conditions lead to almost total X-system-based decisions: When a problem is complex, when information is in flux and ambiguous, and when goals are ever changing and hard to define.

Could daily fantasy be explained any more succinctly than that?

“Emotion,” as Montier writes in his little book, “is designed to trump logic.”

Remember that line — recite it like an incantation — the next time you’re sweating over your lineups, pushing back against that X-system bully that wants to break your bankroll.

This is an excerpt from C.D. Carter’s upcoming book, “How To Think Like a Daily Fantasy Football Winner,” which will be available on Amazon in May.  

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