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NFL and the Illusion of Explanatory Depth

For those of you without a formal background in psychology, the illusion of explanatory depth relates to the human tendency to believe that we can know the full inner working of an event or phenomenon we encounter on a regular basis, when in fact, we have no clue. For example, if I were to ask if you could explain to me how a helicopter’s rotor turned, you would probably say yes. Upon attempting to draw the mechanism, however, you would soon recognize your depiction didn’t come close to resembling reality. Our sense of familiarity with seeing a helicopter fly provides an inaccurate assessment of our knowledge of what is an extremely complicated mechanism.

This same principle applies to the NFL. As devoted fans, we believe that with a reasonable level of accuracy we can consummately evaluate the play of the various teams, when in fact there are so many moving parts, that this is simply impossible.

The evolution of more advanced statistics has helped us get a better picture of what is really happening in sports, but our knowledge is still woefully incomplete, especially when it comes to football. There are so many moving parts (22 players and all the possible outcomes) that simply evaluating the outcome of the play and a few of the directly related causes isn’t nearly enough. For example, if a QB throws an interception their are a variety of subtle factors that must be considered including how the receiver ran his route, whether the offense line picked up their blocks, unseen penalties, etc.

This is the reason I am such a staunch supporter of ProFootballFocus, where they spend hours breaking down each part of each individual play. While this is by no means a perfect science, such intense scrutiny will go a long way into helping break the illusion of explanatory depth.

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