Dynasty, in Theory: WYSINATI

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Just over a week ago, the NFL debuted a new series of special “color rush” uniforms designed to add a bit of spice to its oft-complained-about Thursday night match-ups. (Entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, this rollout came just in time for the holiday shopping season.) The contrasting red and green uniforms of the Bills and Jets inspired jokes about everything from NyQuil to Super Mario to Santa and his elves.

It also inspired a wave of complaints from the estimated 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women who are colorblind and unexpectedly found themselves tuning in to a matchup between the Greys and the Also-Greys.

Thoughtless blunders aside, this snafu left me thinking about the nature of colorblindness. We say that dogs are colorblind, for instance, yet dogs can see blues, greens, and yellows just fine. Instead, they lack the specialized photoreceptors that allow most of us to see red and its derivatives. Compared to a human, a dog is colorblind. But compared to an octopus, who sees everything in shades of blue, a dog’s world must be a wonder.

Some spiders lack the photoreceptors to see red or blue, but can instead perceive shades in the ultraviolet spectrum that we could not imagine. Are they colorblind or color-blessed? And what about the gecko, which has a much more limited ability to discern color in broad daylight, but can distinguish blues in even the dimmest of lighting?

The most advanced eye in the animal kingdom belongs to the mantis shrimp, who possesses the same red, green, and blue photoreceptors that we have, plus thirteen additional receptors that we lack. Mantis shrimp can see polarized light and perhaps perceive colors we could never imagine. Scientists have found that they can even see cancer, which reflects polarized light differently from healthy tissue.

Despite our inability to see this amazing world that other creatures inhabit, we do not consider ourselves colorblind. That’s because we take what we see as the standard. We live our lives never questioning that what we see is what there is to see.

So let’s go ahead and do that.

Quantifying What We See...

Pro Football Focus, (or PFF), launched in 2007 with the ambitious goal of grading every NFL player independently from his situation and supporting cast. To accomplish this goal, every year they watch and re-watch truly prodigious amounts of film, singling out an individual player and assigning a grade based on how well he executed his assignment.

It’s a worthy endeavor, and it produces much of value. It also relies on the assumption that performance can be observed and graded. This assumption often leads down interesting avenues.

On September 28th of this year, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers played the Kansas City Chiefs. Rodgers was ruthlessly efficient, completing 24 of his 35 passes for 333 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. By traditional passer rating, Rodgers’ performance scored as a 138.5. By PFF’s grading system, Rodgers’ performance scored as -0.8, or just a hair below average.

The result was so counterintuitive that Pro Football Focus wrote a blog post explaining it. Three of his touchdowns, they argued, were easy throws that reached the end zone only through the yards-after-catch efforts of the targeted receiver. In addition, Rodgers had a fumble and threw a pass that a defender got two hands on and should have intercepted. A bunch of easy completions and a couple bad mistakes adds up to an essentially average night.

The blog post then closes with the following paragraph:

“The greatness of Rodgers’ performance last night was in the intangibles. Recognizing the blitz, drawing the defense offsides, catching the Chiefs in bad situations and exploiting those scenarios with simple passes to open receivers. But you cannot — and we do not try to — quantify intangibles, or what comes pre-snap. Our system grades what can be graded — the execution of the play post-snap — and in that regard Rodgers did not stand out in the same way that his statistics did.”

And there it is. Pro Football Focus could not see Rodgers making the correct read on those easy checkdowns with huge yards after the catch. They could not see Rodgers recognizing the defense pre-snap and getting his offense into a better play, or baiting the defense into jumping before the snap.

PFF’s grades rely on the assumption that what they see is what there is to see, and in situations where that is not the case, the grades will diverge from the reality of a player’s impact on the field. This is hardly a novel observation, and it is not meant to disparage the work they do. I merely aim to recognize their limitations. Their grades will overrate players whose greatness is visible and underrate players whose greatness is invisible.

... While Ingoring What We Don't.

This bias, sadly, is hardly contained to one site. Indeed, as our notions of colorblind suggest, it is endemic to the entire human race. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman expresses this bias in a concept he calls “What You See Is All There Is”, (or WYSIATI for short).

As an example of WYSIATI, he offers a hypothetical: he tells you that there is a leader that is both intelligent and strong, then asks if she is a good leader. Most listeners will intuitively feel that she is, though they of course know nothing about her actual leadership abilities. Indeed, had the next word Kahneman spoken been “corrupt”, listeners likely would have intuitively felt she was not a good leader.

Our minds are naturally storytellers, working tirelessly not in the pursuit of objective truth, but to fit the pieces we know together into the most compelling story possible. Recognizing that we have pieces missing reduces the impact of the story we can tell, so we rarely do so.

It follows then that, much like Pro Football Focus, we tend to be biased towards players whose greatness is easily visible. But unlike PFF, we work within much stricter constraints of what is visible. Most of us are not watching and re-watching every play, singling out each player individually. Most of us are limited to broadcast television angles, which focus almost exclusively on the movement of the ball.

Indeed, a grey-on-grey matchup seems a fitting reminder of our limitations. For most of us, we perceive a bare fraction of what takes place on a football field, and then make judgments on what we see as if we have the full story. We can even hypothesize about what this means in practice. Are we all unconsciously biased to overrate large players, since they are more physically imposing on our screen and more likely to draw attention?

Are we biased towards receivers whose biggest strengths come after the catch as opposed to receivers who excel before the catch? Are we biased towards running backs who break tackles at the expense of running backs who consistently read the correct hole at the line of scrimmage?

Most importantly, what can we do about it?

Like all bias, sadly, the prescription offers little hope for a long-term cure. The best we can do is endeavor to treat the symptoms as they arise. To that end, there are two steps that we can take.

First, we can endeavor to see more. We can watch games more critically, with an eye specifically towards things that we would otherwise miss. Second, we can be aware of our own bias when valuing players. We can ask ourselves how likely it might be that we’re overrating or underrating them based on style of play rather than quality of play.

There exists an entire universe of color and sound beyond the limits of our comprehension. This fact is undoubtedly disheartening. At its core, though, it is also a dare, an exhortation.

What you see is not all there is. See more.

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