Striking out

by Russ Roberts on April 8, 2008

in Data, Sports

Sometimes I get depressed about the quality of statistical work in economics. Then I read something from another social science. Here is a recent study where psychologists find that having the initial "K" increases your chance of striking out when playing professional baseball. Why? Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? The letter "K" is used when keeping score in baseball to represent striking out. So it’s obvious now isn’t it? Still don’t get it? Neither do I. But hey, it’s in the data. Between 1913 and 2006, players with first or last initial "K" struck out 18.8% of the time compared to 17.2% for the fortunate players unhandicapped by their initials. Here is the "explanation" of the authors:

Despite a universal desire to avoid striking out, K-initialed players strike out more often.  For those players, we argue that the explicitly negative performance outcome may feel implicitly  positive. Even Karl “Koley” Kolseth would find a strikeout aversive, but on the whole, he might  find it a little less aversive than players who do not share his initials, and avoid it less  enthusiastically.

But why? Why would having the initial "K" make striking out more pleasant? I just don’t get it. The authors go on to "test" their theory by looking at grades of a sample of MBA students:

The MBA students in our sample are well aware of a direct connection between academic  performance and successful job placement. Nevertheless, despite the pervasive desire to achieve  high grades, students with an unconsciously-driven fondness for C’s and D’s were slightly less  successful at achieving their conscious goal.

That is, Charles Darwin received poorer grades than Alan Alda. But it turns out that Alan Alda didn’t do better than the non-ABCD initialed:

Interestingly, A- or B-initialed students did not perform better than students whose  initials were grade-irrelevant. There are two possible explanations for this. First, students with  grade-irrelevant initials may already be maximally motivated to succeed. Second, because  performance is determined by motivation and ability, any increased motivation to succeed that  arises from having initials that match positive performance outcomes may not necessarily  translate into increased performance.

There is, of course, a third explanation: there is no real relationship and the authors have been fooled by randomness. Yes, their results are statistically significant. But how many relationships did they explore before finding the ones that were statistically significant. And ho many relationships are there to explore? To really test the theory, you’d have to look at baseball players with the initial "E" and see if they commit more errors than others. You’d have to look at guards in the NBA to see if those with initials "A" have more assists. Centers whose initials include an "R" should be better rebounders. You’d have to look and see whether students with the initials IC were more likely to take an "incomplete" in a class.

I guess Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of England should have been a football player. Or maybe he just gets fired more often than the average Briton because it doesn’t bother him as much as someone with a different last name.

Did Kafka know baseball scoring? Does this explain why he found success in life so difficult? Is this why he named a character "K"?

Do players whose initials are a backwards "K" strike out looking more than the average?


77 comments    Share Share    Print    Email

Previous post:

Next post: