Ten Tips to Banish Bias from Your March Madness Bracket

Looking to win your office’s March Madness pool this year? Nothing busts a bracket quicker than letting behavioral biases guide the selection process. Use these 10 tips to remove behavioral biases from your own picks and perhaps exploit the biases of others.

    1. 1. Bust Familiarity Bias: Identify the three tournament teams you have the most affinity for. Don’t pick these teams to beat a better-rated seed in the bracket. Pick upsets in the tournament, but not where your heart holds sway. To exploit familiarity bias, assess whether there’s a high proportion of graduates from a particular conference within your office pool. If so, differentiate your bracket by picking against those teams.
    1. 2. Avoid Anchoring: If you only watched a handful of games this season, make sure they aren’t the sole reason behind predicting a deep tournament run. If you’ve selected a team beyond the Sweet 16 based solely on one game, find at least three more pieces of information to support the pick. Can’t find them? Then ditch the pick. To take advantage of others who might anchor predictions to a single game, know that the most-viewed game this season was the March 3 contest between Duke and North Carolina.
    1. 3. Let Go of Loss Aversion: Don’t be scared to pick several big upsets. History shows there’s an average of six upsets among teams seeded 10-15 each year. The 12/5 seeds are particularly ripe for upsets, with 28 of the last 32 tournaments featuring at least one 12/5 upset.
    1. 4. Don’t Succumb to Information Overload: The amount of basketball data available is overwhelming these days, but that said, don’t resort to using a single statistic to simplify decisions. Rely on at least several statistics to guide selections. In a video explaining his own process, Jay Bilas suggests a few key statistics to guide picks: RPI, teams in the top 20 in offensive efficiency and top 15 in defensive efficiency and teams with an offensive rebounding rate above 30%. (While helpful, these factors did not correctly predict last year’s champion.)
    1. 5. Stay Away from the Herd: To avoid herding, don’t copy picks from a popular analyst everyone follows. Instead, aggregate picks from several analysts or use a computer-based model to analyze teams. This FiveThirtyEight article suggests several computer models: Jeff Sagarin “predictor” ratings; Ken Pomeroy Pythagorean ratings; Joel Sokol LRMC rankings; and Sonny Moore power ratings. To intentionally avoid the herd, be mindful that Jay Bilas, Andy Katz and Jeff Goodman are the most followed ESPN analysts on Twitter.
    1. 6. Root Out Recency Bias: Don’t overweight the significance of conference tournaments that take place just before March Madness. Pay closer attention to the regular season conference record. Preseason polls offer another talent assessment that isn’t influenced by recent games.
    1. 7. Eliminate Confirmation Bias: Actively seek negative information about the teams you predicted to make the biggest upsets. Objectively weigh that negative information against the positive reasons you believe that team will win.
    1. 8. Oust Overconfidence: Don’t let overconfidence influence your Final Four picks. Take a critical look at how each of those teams might be flawed and see if there is another team in their section of the bracket that would expose those flaws. For example, if your team is a poor rebounding team, could they potentially face a tall, strong rebounding team?
    1. 9. Don’t Fall for the Gambler’s Fallacy: Simply put, don’t predict a team or particular seed winning just because “they’re due.”
    1. 10. Avoid the Halo Effect’s Glow: Don’t let a flashy player or Cinderella story influence your picks. A dazzling dunker or sizzling shooter can’t carry his team alone. As a rule of thumb, if the best player in the tournament plays on a 10-loss team don’t expect him to suddenly lift his team to Final Four glory. Similarly, if a surprising team makes it into the tournament for the first time in ages, remember it doesn’t ensure they will advance.

For more background on behavioral biases and how they influence March Madness picks, read our article on the topic.