Thursday, October 11, 2007

Adaptive Expectations

This post was originally going to be a reply comment to the Sunday Morning Quarterback’s "BIG PICTURE: SPECULATION AND DEMISE AT USC"

But it grew a bit too lengthy, so rather than tie up his comments section, I decided to place it here.

Read his entire post, but the comment that really got me thinking was this -

“I only mean to say that our perceptions are shaped by the recent past more than
the present, and we typically hold on to them far too long in the face of
mounting evidence to the contrary, until something truly drastic happens to
change them”.
In my “real” business I am in the financial industry, and what he describes is what we call “adaptive expectations

It is a cornerstone of all human behavior, not just macroeconomics. People believe what they have seen in the recent past will continue on to the future. That’s why we have bubbles, whether in the stock market or, more recently, real estate. People believe housing prices can rise forever, that the “tree can grow to the sky”, so they take on increasingly risky and illogical behavior, like pre-construction condo flipping or refinancing their homes with unsustainable loans to “cash out” the value.

Adaptive expectations even apply to the sense of “security” we Americans had pre 9/11. Because nothing bad had happened for so long, we couldn’t imagine it would. (A “recess” from history, as you will)

Adaptive expectations nearly always end very badly.

As the SMQ points out, USC had two very troubling losses last year. The evidence was there that this was not the Trojans of 2003-2005. Yet, when they blew out Michigan in the Rose Bowl, the national sports media was more than ready to anoint them this year’s team to beat.

Why? Well for one adaptive expectations. Couple that with the media’s innate attraction to all things SoCal and Pete Carroll, and the Trojan bandwagon was rolling in earnest pre-season.

The commentary about the 2007 Trojan team – before they had even played a single game – borders on the absurd. We had Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh calling them the “best team ever”. We had every single “expert” but one predict that USC would win the national championship this year (which, they admittedly still might).

Take a look at those expert predictions again in this post. A lot of them look pretty ridiculous now.

There were plenty of warning signs that USC might not be the team of the century they were hyped to be. We now know that Michigan team USC beat in the Rose Bowl wasn’t very good. People shrugged off the rather marginal Idaho win as Trojan “indifference” to their overmatched opponent. In the so called “marquee” win against Nebraska, 420 Husker offensive yards and 31 points were explained away as “cheap” late game scores.

In regard to that Nebraska win, it was interesting how the Trojan enablers were able to ignore the Husker’s close win over miserable Ball State one week later, in which the Cardinals put 610 yards total offense on Nebraska, or 153 more than USC managed. We have now confirmed that Nebraska, post Missouri, isn’t very good. But in actuality you knew that well before last weekend, if you were paying any attention.

The Trojans close win, over 2-3 Washington in a game that came down to an onside kick, was similarly ignored. Colin Cowherd said after the Washington win because USC was number one because "teams should be judged on their worst day, and USC still struggled and won.”

As it turns out, Washington wasn’t their worst day. But was any other team this year getting even half the breaks from the sports media the Trojan’s received? Every narrow win had an explanation, and perhaps (in Cowherd’s case) was proof of Trojan strength.

I noted here, in ranking USC 7th in my BlogPoll before the loss to Stanford, that I wasn’t sold on the Trojan’s resume. To quote myself -
"USC’s resume as an unbeaten is not impressive, and it was a very close call to rank them ahead of Kentucky. Had Louisville not been entirely undressed by Syracuse, UK would be in front of USC.

USC’s “best” win is at Nebraska, a team that has since sullied itself considerably with an embarrassing performance against Ball State. The Trojan’s near death experience this weekend at Washington (27-24) compares very unfavorably with Ohio State’s same visit to Husky Stadium (33-14)."

I was directly criticized for ranking USC 7th. What I should have asked my critics is why they had them ranked any higher. Media hype? What did you see that I did not?

This is why I am personally so critical of polls, especially pre-season polls. You have media types employing their adaptive expectations (as well as personal bias) to who is the “best” team. You then have them hyping that team beyond all rationality. There were actual discussions about how USC would match-up with LSU in the BCS Title game (which, again, is still not impossible). But can’t we save that for when we know it is going to happen?

We are all guilty of feeding this monster. I had USC my preseason number one also. I used a four year trailing ranking of talent to make that assessment, but you can be damn sure I felt pretty good in doing so when I saw the Trojans were number one. After all, I didn’t want to be controversial in my first BlogPoll vote, and if everyone else loved the USC, it was a safe pick.

Polls actually matter to this game we all obsess about, so this is not a moot point. USC is still considered a top ten team, though no other team with a similar loss would be so highly ranked. They continue to get a “pass”. The media still wants that BCS Title game to happen.

And the system, as it is, continues to be a farce.

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