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March 05, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell on Fast and Frugal Basketball Management



Bill Simmons just ran a nice interview with Malcolm Gladwell, in which he draws on a recognition heuristic example of when more knowledge is worse than less.

"Simmons: While we're on the subject of the Knicks, please enlighten the readers on your convoluted theory about why Isiah Thomas is a terrible GM, because he's one of my favorites.

Gladwell: Here's the real question. If I was GM of the Knicks, would I be doing a better job of managing the team than Thomas? I believe, somewhat immodestly, that the answer is yes. And I say this even though it is abundantly clear that Thomas knows several thousand times more about basketball than I do. I've never picked up a basketball. I couldn't diagram a play to save my life. I would put my level of basketball knowledge, among hard core fans, in the 25th percentile.

So why do I think I would be better? There's a famous experiment done by a wonderful psychologist at Columbia University named Dan Goldstein. He goes to a class of American college students and asks them which city they think is bigger -- San Antonio or San Diego. The students are divided. Then he goes to an equivalent class of German college students and asks the same question. This time the class votes overwhelmingly for San Diego. The right answer? San Diego. So the Germans are smarter, at least on this question, than the American kids. But that's not because they know more about American geography. It's because they know less. They've never heard of San Antonio. But they've heard of San Diego and using only that rule of thumb, they figure San Diego must be bigger. The American students know way more. They know all about San Antonio. They know it's in Texas and that Texas is booming. They know it has a pro basketball team, so it must be a pretty big market. Some of them may have been in San Antonio and taken forever to drive from one side of town to another -- and that, and a thousand other stray facts about Texas and San Antonio, have the effect of muddling their judgment and preventing them from getting the right answer.

I'd be the equivalent of the German student. I know nothing about basketball, so I'd make only the safest, most obvious decisions. "

"The point is that knowledge and the ability to make a good decision correlate only sporadically, and there are plenty of times when knowledge gets in the way of judgement."

"By the way, while we're on this topic, let's play a real world application of this. Let's say I'm so dumb about basketball that all I know is that the best college programs in the country are Duke and UConn, and so as a GM my rule is only draft and/or trade for the first and second team players, in any given year, from those two schools. So I fire all my scouts....[Describes the team he'd end up with]...Is that the best team in the league? No. It is better than the Knicks? Absolutely. The point is that clinging to a very simple rule of thumb here -- that doesn't require knowing much about basketball -- can leave you looking pretty smart."


We asked Germans and Americans to infer which of San Diego or San Antonio has a larger population, and scored their responses, in 1994. The populations of the cities were:

San Diego San Antonio
2.63 million 1.43 million


 16th largest   29th largest 

(city limit)

1.16 million

1.07 million

(city limit)

 6th largest   9th largest 

In 1994 as today, San Diego is bigger than San Antonio by city-limits measures and by metro area measures. Currently, the San Diego metro area has a population of 2.9 million (city limits 1.26), while that of San Antonio is 1.8 million (city limits 1.24 source, source). In an exciting development, by city-limits measures, San Antonio might well pass San Diego in the years to come (though by metro areas, San Antonio would need to gain over 1 million people). It is this explosive growth in the southwest that some of the Americans may have been factoring into their inference that San Antonio was larger in 1994. Many of the Germans had never heard of San Antonio, and none thought it was larger.

One nice thing about the recognition heuristic is that it predicts when people will get the right answer and when they will get the wrong one based on the state of the world, the question asked, and the state of memory. It is the case in a great many domains that recognized objects are larger than unrecognized ones. The recognition heuristic predicts when people who know less can be more accurate than those who know more on particular items.

For aficionados of this sort of thing, the relationship between recognition and the thing predicted (here, population) is called the recognition validity of a domain. Much more detail is found in the recognition heuristic article and the book Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart.

Posted by dggoldst at March 5, 2006 04:30 PM