During a three hour Major League baseball game, an umpire makes approximately 120 discretionary decisions.
He needs to pay attention…But is he?
In a recent paper, four economists concluded that attention is a depletable resource. Looking at three million decisions made by 127 home-plate umpires, they decided when we have more and when we have less. But like the money in a bank account, we can budget what we use up.
Below, you can see a typical sample of an umpire’s accuracy. The game was between Arizona and Boston on August 4, 2013. With the rectangle outlining the strike zone, the red dots and red triangles represent the incorrect calls:
Umpires can minimize the number of incorrect calls by wisely allocating their attention. After a period of intense attention, less remains. For that reason, subsequent decisions are more inaccurate. But then researchers confirmed that our store of attention can be replenished. During an inning break, umpires appear to have added to their attention supply. They also are aware of the need to apportion their attention. During the beginning of a game, umpires can employ rational inattention to unimportant calls.
The key is to have enough attention for a spike in leverage. Defined as the most important moments in a game, leverage is measured by variables that include the number of outs, the inning, baserunner positions. It can be most intense during the ninth inning when the score is tied and the third strike can decide the game. At that moment, the umpire needs the optimal store of attention. He needs to be sure he didn’t use it up earlier in the game.
Essentially then, we have a depletable stock of attention that we can budget. If we know when we need more in the future, we can use less in the present. Otherwise, like umpires, we risk mistakes.
Our Bottom Line: Human Capital
Defined as our stock of knowledge, our human capital increases when we absorb more information. But our ability to use our human capital depends on our store of attention. Home plate umpires use their human capital when they call balls and strikes during a game. However, their attention allocation determines the efficacy of their human capital. As professional decision-makers, umpires know how to use their attention strategically. While depending on the “stakes,” on average they call 84 percent of all pitches correctly.
A look at home plate umpires takes us beyond baseball. It shows us when, at home and at work, to accept the cost of paying attention.
My sources and more: Thanks to my NBER digest email for alerting me to the attention study. While this one study was the source for today’s post, it relates to the decision fatigue that we have explored in the past.