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Luck and Regression To the Mean

One of the Most Fundamental Sources of Error in Human Judgment

PEYTON MANNING IS ONE OF THE GREATEST QUARTERBACKS in NFL history, and in 2013 he had one of the best years of his career. He threw 55 touchdown passes with only 10 interceptions. ESPN commentators talked about the 2013 season as if that was pretty much all that mattered for the forthcoming 2014 season. They talked about Peyton Manning’s pass receivers, the team’s running backs, and the offensive line. They didn’t talk about luck—about how an exceptionally good or bad performance typically involves fortune or misfortune. No one said a word about how Manning might have been fortunate in 2013. They assumed that he would do just about as well in 2014 as in 2013. They predicted he would throw 48 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions and, once again, be the top NFL quarterback by a wide margin.

The commentators were overreacting to Peyton’s 2013 stats and ignoring the likely pull of the mediocrity magnet in 2014. They should have looked at Manning’s entire career and considered the possibility that he had good luck in 2013, because the more he benefited from good luck, the less likely it is that he would have as much, or even more, good luck in 2014. Before the start of the 2014 season I posted a blog titled, “Peyton Manning is Likely to Regress to the Mean.” I ended the post with this prediction:

Peyton Manning’s phenomenal 2013 season surely benefited from more good luck than bad. Defensive players slipping, offensive players not slipping. Defensive players making bad guesses, offensive players making good guesses. Fumbles lost and recovered. Passes caught and dropped. Holding penalties called and not called. The list is very long. Luck—good and bad—is why the best team doesn’t win every game, why player stats go up and down from one game to the next. Manning is a Hall-of-Fame quarterback, but 2013 was not a below-average season for him. Manning is surely not as good as he seemed last year, and almost certainly will not do as well this year. You can take that to the bank.

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DECEPTION IN CANCER TREATMENT SPECIAL ISSUE: The Cancer-care Industry’s Marketing is Among the Most Deceptive on the Consumer Landscape. SPECIAL SECTION: Classic Skepticism: The Amityville Hoax at 40; Alien Sulls: Do the Mysterious Rhodope Skull and Adygea Skulls Belong to Aliens?; The Real Meaning Behind the Nazca Geoglyphs; Clown Panics: Sightings of Mysterious Clowns Rattle Nerves ARTICLES: The Case for a Galactic Defense System; Is “Spirituality” so Broadly Defined that Testing for it is Meaningless?; Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?; Luck and Regression to the Mean: One of the Most Fundamental Sources of Error in Human Judgment; Political Obfuscation: Thinking Critically about Public Discourse. COLUMNS: The SkepDoc: Anti-Aging Claims: The Fountain of Youth is Still Only a Legend, by Harriet Hall, M.D.; The Gadfly: Can Working Memory Be Trained to Work Better? by Carol Tavris REVIEWS: “Three books about the Salem Witch Trials and their legacy: The Witches: Salem, by Stacy Schiff; In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, by Mary Beth Norton; America Bewitched: America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem, by Owen Davies JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Mammoth Mysteries! Part Two, by Daniel Loxton