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Why Good Refs Make Bad Calls

As the number of articles and TV spots concerning the Super Bowl officiating approaches infinity, I figured, why not make it infinity plus one. Beyond the borderline calls, the personal foul flagged against Hasselbeck for taking out a blocker below the waist stands out. Both in real time and in slow motion, the call defied explanation. CNN.SI's Peter King called it "absurd," which is one of the nicer descriptions.

In my estimation, NFL officiating stands head and shoulders above other sports, given the difficulty of the job. The officials receive genuine evaluation (none of that MLB umpire nonsense such as objecting to tracking the ratio of balls and strikes or each ump having "his own strike zone"). They are promoted and demoted, both out of the league and among the field positions, based on performance. They are assigned to Super Bowls based on performance.

Why it is that a very competent official would make such a terrible error intruiges me as a student of decision making. If incentives, evaluation, and selection mechansims are relataively sound, then do such errors simply reflect a random, uncontrollable human component not really amenable to economic ideas? Possibly. Or, it may indicate an element of decision making that economists have only dabbled in -- information processing.

Economists deal, at length, with information issues, but, by and large, bypass issues regarding information processing, leaving it to psychology. That has changed some as interest in experimental methods has grown. In a seminal piece on the "Economics of Managing" in the September 1992 Journal of Economic Literature (available on JSTOR), Roy Radner devotes a section to information processing. In many ways, the ideas he discusses are relatively basic in that he is trying to organize a foundation for thinking about processing in economic ways rather than building complex and detailed models. One fundamental conclusion:

one cannot maintain constant quality indefinitely as one increases the number of items to be processed

In essence, that's my proposition of why a good NFL official would make such a terrible call -- he has been given too many items to process. Over the last couple of decades, the NFL has placed upon officials an ever increasing number of items to observe from pickier "false starts" rules to complicated holding rules to tackle box rules for QBs to interference rules and beyond. The NFL official making the call on Hasselbeck had a boat load of information to process in milliseconds as the play unfolded.

Cognitive psychologists have done some interesting work in the area also. For example, Harvard Business School's Max Bazerman has attempted to go beyond merely treating every "business ethics" case a matter of "crooks" or "greed" to ask a much more interesting question -- "Why do "Good Accountants Do Bad Audits" along with similar questions (see his website). He attributes the poor performance to various embedded biases. On one level, this may be just digging deeper into the matters that Radner addresses. In a substantive way, however, Radner takes a more "economic" approach by emphasizing tradeoffs and developing logical connections between items.

(Radner's works are a treasure of rigorous ideas on the decision making and various aspects of the economics of organizations. A listing is available at NYU Stern School).