SotG, Morality and Economics

Some of the discussion on last week’s post has tempted me to discuss punishments within Ultimate. I don’t necessarily expect everyone to agree, but hopefully it’s an interesting way of looking at it that you may not have considered.

It’s not really another argument about referees/observers/self-officiation. Regardless of who makes the calls, there is a question of what punishment should result from a foul.

This will probably seem a little off-topic for a while, but bear with me…

indexThe psychologist Dan Ariely and his colleagues performed a wonderful experiment selling chocolate truffles on college campuses. They varied the price, and studied the behaviour of their ‘customers’. At 10 cents each, they sold a bunch of chocolates. At 5 cents, they sold twice as many – more people took some, and each individual took more. At 1 cent, they sold twice as many again.

But when they gave them away for free, they ‘sold’ fewer, even allowing for the fact that yet more individual people took some. Each person who took any took far fewer – and the majority took only one each.

The situation had moved from an economic one – ‘I have x money and y other things to buy, so I will buy z chocolates’ – to a moral, social one – ‘People would think me greedy; I should leave some for others’.

Rationally, there’s almost no difference between 1 cent and free. At 1 cent, you really ought already to be considering your reputation or the enjoyment of others, because the economic cost is tiny. But, for the most part, you don’t. You just buy chocolates. You look at the cost and the reward, and decide that you should buy as many as you want to eat.

No matter how small the cost, there is a psychological difference between that and free.

What’s all this got to do with Ultimate?

Well, in Ultimate in most of the world, there are no punishments. Zero. Zilch. Cheating is ‘free’. Cheating is unequivocally a moral issue, and social norms govern the behaviour on the pitch. If you’ve ever wondered why SotG works, then this experiment may help to show you. It’s not because we’re all nice guys; it’s because we’ve specifically made the reward/cost ratio infinite, and hence kept the whole thing in the moral realm.

There is no ‘economic’ cost whatsoever to cheating, and there’s always a benefit. So whether it’s nudging your guy on the mark at 1-all or hacking down a thrower on game point, the economic calculation is the same – of course you should do it! There’s no cost. Every opportunity to cheat has exactly the same reward per unit cost – infinity! So economically we should cheat all the time. But we can’t cheat all the time, because the game wouldn’t work, and no-one would ever play.

Economics without morality gives no useful guide to behaviour, because its recommendation – cheat all the time – is unworkable.

Instead, our behaviour has to be governed by social norms, by what is considered reasonable, by thoughts of our reputation, by concern for others. This works. If you put people in a situation where their decisions are explicitly social and moral, they will care about how others see them.

If you add in punishments, they might not. There is then an explicit calculation to be made about whether it’s worth it, and they won’t see it in moral terms. That might not be rational – just as a one cent charge shouldn’t make you selfish, the possibility of a TMF for double-teaming shouldn’t make you a cheat. But it just might, if you buy the analogy I’m making between the cost of spending cash and the ‘cost’ of a punishment in Ultimate.

And once we take morality out of it, even severe punishments (like a penalty kick plus a red card in football) are sometimes worth it – witness Luis Suarez at the World Cup illegally preventing a certain goal in the last minute, in the hope that the resulting penalty would be missed. It was missed, and his team won the game.

Punishments will not eradicate bad behaviour, they will merely control some of its excesses. And the price we pay for this is that those same punishments legitimise any behaviour that is ‘worth it’. They turn the cheat-or-not decision into an economic one, and we know how humans respond to incentives in those situations. There are more experiments to show this.

index1In the book Freakonomics, the authors famously discuss the case of the Israeli day care centre who were fed up with children being collected late. They instituted a fee for lateness, and the number of late parents immediately increased. The parents no longer felt guilty, and they were happy to pay a small fine for the flexibility of leaving their kids there longer.

One response to this is simply to increase the fine, which would of course work until the local billionaire decided he couldn’t be bothered to pick up his child. But the point is not about the size of the fine – the point is that the fine did not add to the existing social pressures; it replaced them. It moved from the moral to the economic. A larger fine might do a better job of replacing the moral pressure, but that won’t change the fact that morality, guilt or social pressure have disappeared from the equation.

Charging a ‘late fee’ legitimised lateness. It gave it a definite, measurable cost, and allowed parents to make an economic decision rather than a moral one. Psychologically, it gave people a possible answer to the question ‘Why did you do that?’ which is not tied to their moral failings.

None of us likes to admit to ourselves that we’re filthy cheats, though we may often feel a desire to cheat. Our self-image is important, and if we can find some way to describe our actions that doesn’t hurt our self-image, then we’re far more likely to cheat. You might steal from the till because the boss mistreats you, or you might drive too close to cyclists because you don’t believe they should be allowed on the road. You might avoid throwing to women because they’re not good enough, not because you’re a terrible misogynist (oh no, not you, never . . . )

Very few people act like a**holes in the full knowledge that they’re being a**holes – they find a way to lie to themselves about their motives. Economic arguments offer us that excuse we’re looking for. Instead of saying, “Yes, I’m a filthy cheat!” we can say, “Look how clever I am, I got a net benefit out of this! The rules are stupid, man, and I beat them. I win.”

Punishments in Ultimate will allow people to think that way. That’s not rational, but it is human.

Just as all players have a responsibility not to take the easy option (fouling), rule-makers have a responsibility not to take the easy option (punishments). It’s often very tempting to respond to unwanted situations by creating disincentives, but doing so may reframe the question in economic rather than moral terms. As Ariely puts it, “Policy makers should be careful not to add market norms that could undermine the social norms.”

I personally don’t believe that adding small punishments for minor offences (e.g. TMFs in the U.S. or, even more so, yardage penalties in pro Ultimate) will remove those offences; it may make them worse, as it replaces the social pressure.

Either we stick to the principle of the do-over and never punish, or some people will start to look at the whole game in economic terms. People are very, very bad at mixing economic and moral incentives – the economic point of view will tend to win if you give it even half a chance.

Let’s not give it a chance.

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48 Responses to SotG, Morality and Economics

  1. Robse says:

    Fantastic article!!! Thank you.

    Similar idea from another perspective that applies to team management is about doing things for free vs. greed. Researchers have found, and i am sorry, i cannot quote as good as the article above, that a lot of people have the tendency to help and work for free, just to feel good about it. They actually do it for themselves. In Germany we call this volunteering “Ehrenamt”, which is a much better word “honoray office”.

    Once you start to give them money, even if it’s just a few EURO – sorry, i am from the continent – and therefore put a price on what they do, they start calculating and interestingly a lot of them quit. They don’t want to do it for so little money. They compare what they do and want decent money for it – they get greedy and they cannot do anything about it. That is a part of human behaviour that economic science has struggled with for a lot long time. Why do people do things for free?

    I say, I don’t care. I say, it’s a good thing. That is why in our team nobody get’s money for anything. Maybe we help students with travel expenses or fees, but no matter how much you do for the team, you won’t get paid for it. We value a different way, by acknowledging and also by giving more decision power in the team. Yet, no money. Everybody is in because they do it for themselves and to feel good about themseles. I think, that is the best motivation. It’s the kind of motivation that get’s you going even through tough times.


  2. Jon Good says:

    Nice analogy Benji, and pretty apt. The best case in point for your side of this is that first televised game from the US where they had the basketball-style ‘5 fouls per player’ count and, as an attacker wound up for a scoring huck from behind the 2 point line, he was taken out by a defender who had room left in his foul count. Economically that was the smart choice (a la the bitey Liverpool racist).

    The only counter point I have to this is the idea of game theory, which I think applies a lot to how Ultimate has evolved as it has become more main stream: if you play in a sport where very few people cheat, but are yourself willing to cheat more often than they do, you will ‘benefit’ from this (assuming you don’t care that much about who thinks you are an a***hole). Personally I think this has shaped the game a lot over the last 10 years.


    • I guess the point of what people like Ariely and Kahneman are doing is to show that game theory doesn’t always apply. And the more we bring things under economic logic, the more we lead people to a game-theoretic approach. That’s not to say that some people won’t push the boundaries anyway, but some of the possible ‘solutions’ to issues in ultimate would probably make things worse.


      • Jon Good says:

        I don’t think the 2 are mutually exclusive Benji, I think they influence each other a lot. Pick any penalty ‘solution’ for fouls in Ultimate that you like, and I can pretty much guarantee you that economics will dictate the most intelligent choice for a given situation (as your blog implied), it also follows that as more and more people realise this, the intelligent choice has to become the norm because of the perceived ‘benefit’ for those who chose to make the economic transaction.

        Economics will dictate where the middle ground is; game theory will determine which side of the middle ground any individual/team decide to operate at.


        • Sorry, Jon, I think we’re talking at cross purposes here… I see game theory and economics as two sides of the same coin. The idea behind keeping economics out of it is that game theory shouldn’t apply. It does to some extent, of course, because as mentioned by others there is an ‘economic’ value to your reputation which means that even the moral stuff can be viewed ‘economically’ and there are some situations where it’s worth cheating. But nevertheless, I’d still expect the situation to be far, far worse with explicit penalties.


  3. Seamus says:

    Do you think there’s a danger that the 2 seconds extra stall count for marking infractions could be seen as a penalty in these terms by players?

    I do like that rule. But I also think the attitude of “well if I’m breaking the rule you should call it” is more common on the force than in other situations. Do you think that rule change could have created an economic view of the marker-thrower situation?

    (I had been concerned, but since the rule has bedded in, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened very much)


    • Very interesting point. I think it is fairly clear that people’s behaviour on the mark is significantly worse than elsewhere on the pitch, and that their response to any complaint is often, ‘Well, call it and take your 2 seconds then.’ I’d say the situation probably has been made worse, but it’s hard to say that for definite. There are lots of other factors that could have caused this too, but I’d certainly say that rule was a candidate explanation for all that bumping and straddling and disc space infringement.


  4. Chaz says:

    My only critique is that you presuppose punishments are supposed to deter a player from fouling. In the normal ultimate rules, I think this is true. In the pro leagues I don’t think it is. Much like in basketball, the rules are meant to do exactly what you say they do: force a player to choose between fouling and not fouling based on the risk/reward of each option. No one in the basketball realm is suggesting fouls are immoral (unless you have an intent to injure then that’s a different story), in fact, they are an expected part of the game and strategy.


    • Very interesting point also. My (unconsidered) assumption was that rule-makers in Ultimate are more interested in preventing fouls, but as you say that clearly might not be the case in the pro leagues. It would be interesting to hear a perspective from one of those guys.


  5. Dave Tyler says:

    One way that might potentially avoid this is to disassociate the punishment from the exact infraction.

    i.e. Instead of red carding a player who hacks on the mark. The team fee for a team with a history of rule violations goes up [note that this punishment choice is probably poor and irrelevant to the discussion]


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  7. Anonymous says:

    What about that one guy who takes way more truffles than he should? There are always a couple.


  8. GBrell says:

    This is a great post, but I don’t think it applies as cleanly as you imply in the context of competitive ultimate (USA club, WUGC, World Games, etc.).

    Your argument seems based on an interpretation of game theory that I think is overly narrow. The study you cite is excellent evidence that moral costs can outweigh economic ones. That doesn’t mean that game theory doesn’t apply, it just means that specific costs are triggered by the use of the word “free” that aren’t triggered in a monetary transaction. (And as some comments have pointed out, not everyone values the moral costs in the same way, or, for some, even at all.)

    And in the context of pickup, summer league, or even most organized ultimate, I would agree that these moral costs outweigh the minor advantages of cheating/fouling (although there will always be bad apples). But if you were playing for national pride or for money, I’m not sure that the center can hold (see Canada vs. Japan at WUGC2012). Indeed, the very fact we had the discussion last week suggests that these moral costs aren’t sufficient to prevent this creep.

    But I absolutely agree with you that putting in penalties that are minor is likely to increase fouling (for the reasons you elucidate in the last couple paragraphs).

    Basketball is often brought up as a “bad’ example since fouling is ingrained and has been incorporated into the tactics of the game itself. But what if basketball fouls gave 2-3 shots and possession of the ball? That’s how the NBA currently adjudicates “flagrant” fouls (technically, 1-2 shots, but same idea) and last season in the NBA there were 119 total in 1,230 games (or less than 0.1 per game).

    What this suggests to me is that we either need to enforce sufficiently strong penalties for fouls/cheating or we need to enforce none (and rely on moral costs) [since the middle ground is the uncanny valley/danger zone]. So what are sufficient penalties in ultimate? The problem here is that there is very little to penalize the defense with. They are already unlikely to get the turn and even more unlikely to convert that turn into a score. Yardage penalties do very little. Offensive penalties are simple: make them turnovers. But that will require a third party to adjudicate or else the defense has a massive incentive to call fouls.


    • jk says:

      One interesting note: the MLU began the season with 5 yard penalties for most of the minor infractions (bumping, fouling, disc-space, etc) and I think it became quickly apparent that this wasn’t enough of a disincentive to prevent these actions…so they bumped it to 10-yards which I think had a more noticeable impact in game-play as the season went on. I didn’t see any MLU teams use the foul intentionally (a la Luis Suarez/NBA games). Did anyone else see this strategy?


    • I think you’re right (GBrell) that reputational damage can be weighed as a cost like any other, and that some situations – particularly cash prizes – will overcome the moral handbrake on cheating. I’ll probably post something short on my thoughts about cash prizes soon – it’s a bit much for the comments. The national pride thing is different though – if the community thinks you’re cheats, can you really be proud of winning?


    • Sean says:

      Canada vs. Japan in WUGC 2012 is a very interesting example. I think it actually supports the point of the article in that there was an international outcry against Canada’s behavior. Canada team members apologized publicly and I haven’t seen any evidence since that their behavior has been as bad since. The pressure to play like a**holes existed, they made the decision that the advantage outweighed the costs, societal norms within Ultimate curtailed the behavior. My conclusion is the opposite of yours: the moral cost appears to have arrested the creep towards unsportsmanlike behavior.


      • GBrell says:

        I don’t deny that Furious apologized. But I have seen little evidence that it changed the way they play.

        “Over 10,000 people saw in person the deficiencies of pure self-officiation in the Colombia vs. Canada bronze-medal match that lead to (what they [Colombian spectators] likely perceived as) their own country being wrongfully denied a medal in a prestigious international competition.”

        Top comment:
        “how to play for furious george:
        1. foul everyone. bitch when it gets called.
        2. someone gets beat deep? call a travel.
        i thought they’d learn some class after they disgraced themselves in japan…”

        Now, admittedly, the latter could be based on Furious’ reputation, but their behavior in the game itself doesn’t help. (Neither does Phoenix’s – the player guarding Hibbert early on is making some of the most egregious bumps on the mark I’ve ever seen)

        While I agree that public shaming can work, I don’t know that Furious is a good example of it. And given other examples, both recent and historical (e.g. any of the mutlitude of delayed games at U23’s this year, Univ. of Florida, UNC-Wilmington), it’s clear that there are going to be teams that will push the rules regardless, especially in tight, meaningful games.


        • Sean says:

          Interesting counterexamples. I don’t think the World Games example is applicable to Furious George since it was a coed squad and… well, not actually Furious George. If you’re making a broader point about Canadian ultimate, I suppose we can explore that more fully. Thanks for the link to the second example, the CUC finals, Furious vs. Phoenix. I didn’t see any of the same bitter fire or despicable play from Furious that was so apparent in the WUGC 2012 game. The CUC game was a chippy, physical call-fest, but it didn’t seem to have the same level of acrimony and, if anything, Phoenix was the bigger transgressor (without keeping stats from my office chair, Furious seemed to make more calls, but Phoenix looked like they made more egregious hacks and bumps). I’m not yet swayed by your argument, but I’ll concede that my “not having seen any evidence of continued bad-behavior” isn’t the same as it not existing. We’ll see how the rest of the season plays out.

          As far as history is concerned, I was playing when UNC-W began using controversial tactics and I remember how much anger it stirred up in opposing teams. You’re right that there continue to be teams that push the rules, but by the same token there continue to be teams who succeed at the highest level while vocally and committed-ly focusing on maintaining respect for their opponents and a strong sense of fair play. From my point of view, hacking and bending rules to one’s own benefit was more prevalent ten to fifteen years ago than it’s been in the last few years and I attribute this to a gradual shift in the overall disc culture (strongly influenced by teams like Revolver, Sockeye, and Ironside).

          Your first link, to Kyle Weisbrod’s op-ed piece, also includes the following quote:
          “I am very proud that US National teams frequently finish at or near the top of the Spirit scores in international play while also competing at the highest levels. I believe that these aspects of the sport don’t just make the sport better to play and be a part of but also differentiate Ultimate in a crowded sports marketplace.” In some cases, even when national pride is on the line, the center appears to hold.


          • GBrell says:

            A couple points about the makeup of Team Canada’s World Games Team. First, the Team Canada at 2012 WUGC was mostly Furious, but also had a number of other Canadian ringers. Those included Collins, Yearwood, Lindquist. Plus Menzies and Hibbert (both Furious players), the only non-involved players on the World Games squad were Cam Harris and Mark Lloyd. (Plus, their coach, Jeff Cruickshank, is ex-Furious.) So almost half of their squad (and the majority of their men) were involved in the 2012 WUGC game. It seems fair to draw a commonality between them.

            But I think there is also perhaps a comment to be made about Canadian ultimate in general. I’m wary of over-generalizing from limited data, but the fact that Team Canada’s representatives in two consecutive premier world events are called out for their behavior strikes me as the beginning of a trend. Add in the fact that Canada’s U23 women’s team is also called out for their semis game against Japan and we have another data point.

            But back to the actual discussion, which is whether the center can hold. Regarding the United States’ participation in international competition, I think it’s praiseworthy that USA teams tend to score well internationally for their spirit. At the same time, the quality of American teams vs. the majority of international competition makes pushing the boundaries of the rules unnecessary. Look at the USA-CAN semifinal or the USA-AUS pool play game from WUGC 2012 (both 17-16 games) and you’ll see USA teams pushing the rules.

            You note that there has been a shift in team culture in the last ten-fifteen years (which you attribute to Revolver and Sockeye among other teams). I remember watching Revolver-Bravo at UPA Nationals in 2009 and after the fifth or so call in a point, hearing a Bravo player yell: “Revolver is the new Sockeye! Call to win!” I have no opinion on whether he was justified in his claim and this was an isolated incident, but I don’t think the new teams on the block are immune from the pressures of competition.

            I think more likely than an improvement in human nature, improvement in the last ten to fifteen years are coincident with the expansion of the observer program. Even so, at least at the college level, many of the teams at the highest level still struggle with spirit.

            That game, which Pitt won on universe point, was chippy and heated throughout. At one point, a Pitt player went up for a disc and came down with his foot clearly on the line. He called himself in. Florida, outraged, tried to get him to change the call. But it wasn’t going to happen. Pitt’s Alex Thorne said on the sideline, “There’s no such thing as a bad call in this game,” capturing the tone of the game.

            After a handful of throws, UNC-W senior Alan Gruntz came in behind Pitt senior Isaac Saul after Saul made a catch on the sideline and shoved him out of bounds. Saul jumped up and shoved Gruntz right back as Alex Thorne rushed in to shove him as well. Several other players from both teams moved to get involved before the observers split the teams up.

            Do we think it’d be better if we removed the third party checks we’ve placed on them?


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  10. These are very useful clarifications by GBrell. I admit in advance that I haven’t read Ariely’s book, but at face value I’m not convinced by either the explanations given for the example, or the applicability to ultimate.

    It seems to be a vast over-simplification to suggest there is no economic cost to taking free chocolates (characterised above, a little heroically perhaps, as analogous to “cheating”). In the example, it’s not purely a moral choice that people don’t take more truffles when they’re free. Here are a few reasons why it could also be an economic choice:
    – They might simply expect to be able to come back and get more later, and avoid carrying chocolate around with them all day (which is an implicit economic cost).
    – They might value a good less when it’s free (e.g. “Hmm, why is it free?”).
    – There could be a currency distortion too, if you consider people’s aversion to carrying pennies around with them. If not many people tend to carry 2-4c in pennies, but plenty in the US would carry coins like 5c (a nickel), 10c (a dime) or 25c (a quarter), then the quantity purchased when the price is 1c compared to 5c could be further distorted upwards by the convenience of buying more and getting fewer pennies for change.

    In terms of how the argument applies to ultimate, I’d follow my line above and suggest there is no transition point between moral and economic decision-making, as you refer to it. I struggle to imagine any decision-making situation that doesn’t involve some combination of the two. Do punishments encourage more fouling? Perhaps they do, in some situations (even in a sport whose ruleset assumes no player intentionally fouls), but the absence of punishments may still be suboptimal, and the suggestion that moral decisions necessarily take a backseat or are replaced by economic decisions when punishments are introduced strikes me as highly dubious.

    You seem to be forgetting there is a considerable economic cost to cheating in ultimate, too, despite your suggestion that it’s purely a moral decision not to. Fouling on the mark can in many situations benefit a defence, but in others it can shoot the defence in the foot – e.g., you don’t always benefit from giving the offence the opportunity to do-over, a high-stall throw can be much harder to complete at full speed than when it’s coming in at stall-whatever and everyone is stationary. There are swings and roundabouts to this, sure, but you can’t assume that cheating always benefits, and the implicit economic cost (potentially independent of any moral cost to cheating) to your team needing to play more defence is important to consider in the decision-making.

    In general, punishments could not necessarily be intended to reduce fouls, they could just be an effort to even the playing field given that fouls are somewhat inevitable. So the aversion to punishments due to their inability to eradicate fouls seems like a red herring argument to me.

    All that said, many thanks for this interesting and thought-provoking post.


    • Kevin, I don’t agree. Your points about how the conclusions of the research could have been flawed are interesting (though I guess they’re questions for Dan Ariely rather than me), but I don’t agree that every situation involves a combination of economic and moral factors. The evidence seems clear to me that there are certain situations in which morality or thoughts of reputation take a clear and sudden back seat.

      This may not be irrational on the part of the individual – perhaps the community as a whole responds to the introduction of a price in the same way, and so will not judge you for buying lots of 1c chocolates. Thus it would be rational for the individual to ignore reputation. But clearly something irrational is going on, even if it’s going on for everyone rather than just the buyer.

      The day-care example makes very clear that a penalty replaces the moral question – they don’t work together.


      • Whereas for me, the day-care example isn’t illustrating much for this discussion. It’s an additional cost on what is probably already an expensive service, you can’t really assume when this additional cost wasn’t present, that parents would be in the “moral-only” realm when they’re already paying a lot of money for the initial service – for me, this is far too noisy an assumption. And to extrapolate those undesirable incentives structures to how people would play ultimate just doesn’t a seem reasonable approach either. Lastly, depending on the setting, what is appropriate for ultimate at one level may not be for another – the optimal mix might be some combination of costs and benefits to skew the incentives to the best outcome, but in your view it seems to be impossible to improve outcomes by adding in costs.


        • I’m interested then as to how you explain the increase in lateness with the advent of a fine? I’m struggling to see it as anything other than the removal of guilt.


          • To begin with, I’d place less emphasis on the extent to which guilt/social pressure was deciding the previous equilibrium; they’re parents paying for an expensive service, and perhaps they’ve heard the terrible saying that “the customer is always right”. Flexible daycare facilities would reasonably be worth more to parents than rigid ones, but at the end of the day they do want to collect their children, just when it suits them best.

            I’d also speculate that the fine was simply too low to be effective, and that by advertising essentially a cheap “overdraft” facility, the daycare centre probably stimulated demand for more daycare than some parents previously realised they could obtain.

            Utility may have improved thanks to the increased supply of services, though – this could especially be so if guilt wasn’t so much of an influence to begin with. Rather than replacing moral pressure, the fines alleviated a probable shortage of supply.

            In ultimate, I’d contend there is significantly more moral pressure not to “cheat” than in the cases you cite, and I think there is clearly economic cost for most breaches of the rules. Higher penalties for cheating wouldn’t necessarily replace any of the moral pressure not to cheat, I don’t think, and they could enhance it – if more tournaments banned teams from returning for having terrible spirit scores, it’s reasonable to say teams’ spirit would improve, wouldn’t it?


  11. Tom Abrams says:

    @GBrell The problem with putting in place strong punishments for rule-breaking is that players are then incentivised to “play for the foul” (i.e. to dive or flop). This is most evident in football where in most situations a penalty kick is given (~90% chance of a goal) the fouled team was much less likely to score than if the foul had not occurred, hence the number of times we see someone go down in the box.


    • Good point. I hadn’t thought of that when reading the previous comment. By the way, all, I’m desperate to reply to some of these interesting points that have been raised, but words can’t express how hard it is to frame a coherent argument when only ten words at a time fit on the phone screen… It took forever to reply on Charlie’s ultiworld piece last night. I’ll be back in the UK soon.


    • GBrell says:

      Tom, I absolutely agree that increasing penalties correspondingly increases the incentive to “play for the foul” (football is a good example of this, but it happens routinely in basketball and American football, too). But this is going to be a trade-off of any system that creates significant advantage to one side based on a call.

      Interestingly, this conversation has been focused almost entirely on the foul-er side of the discussion, but the same argument applies to the foul-ee. There is almost no economic cost in ultimate to making foul calls; it’s a sphere that is ruled by moral costs. And I think that it’s more successful in regulating that space, though perhaps cruder (comments from last week about “weak fouls” come to mind) (though there are also some counter-examples: Florida’s college team circa 2008-09 had an us-against-the-world mentality that isolated them from community dislike; UNCW this year could be another example).

      But imagine if the penalties for fouls were much higher (automatic possession on the goal line, automatic turnover, etc.) and the sport were self-officiated. I am skeptical that the moral costs would prevent foul-ees making bad foul calls.

      So we are pushed in two opposite directions along two different axes: either self-officiate and keep punishments weak/non-existent (leave both spheres to moral costs) or delegate to a third-party (observer/ref/etc.) and increase punishments (to avoid the economic problems of the original post). I still believe that given sufficiently strong motivation (pride, money, etc.), the moral costs that the first option relies upon aren’t sufficient to cabin excessive behavior.


      • It’s certainly possible to make as many bogus foul calls as it takes until your team scores, but I’d still struggle to see this as a purely moral choice with no economic cost. Receiving a bad spirit score is to be expected if your team does this, thus your team’s chances of winning the Spirit award fall. Can the Spirit award be thought of as purely a moral victory? Is there really never any economic benefit to winning it?

        I would have thought the whole point of having a Spirit award (and the cool prizes for it as many tournaments have) is to provide economic incentives (albeit weak ones) for not cheating. For some tournaments, your spirit score determines eligibility to play in it the following year. So the suggestion that the decision not to cheat is a moral-only consideration doesn’t seem correct to me.


  12. Fine=Price says:

    Interesting article. The crux of the issue is this:

    A fine is a price.

    Everyone that works near policy or economics has this beat into their brain. You are right that if a fine (penalty) exists, the decision of whether to foul or not is economic. This is the reason why basketball players purposefully foul in certain situations, or why I speed basically every time I’m on the highway. However, you are wrong that this magically becomes an economic decision once you introduce a penalty.

    What you describe as moral pressure is well studied in behavioral economics, and this field states that moral pressure and social consequences *are* a price, just like quantitative fines are a price. If I take all the free chocolates, I look ridiculous, so I don’t do it. If I hack someone’s huck from behind in a summer league game, my peers think I’m an asshole. So I don’t do it. You mention this. But where you get it wrong is that just because this moral and social pressure isn’t quantified doesn’t mean it’s not a fine, and therefore, it doesn’t mean it’s not a price. My decision, like all daily decisions, is still ‘economic’ by any definition of the word.

    You’ll notice that people stretch the rules more as the competition level increases. No one’s going to purposefully foul, or even call a foul in a backyard game. In summer league people let a lot of things fly. Games don’t get ‘snippy’ in college or club just because they get more competitive; they get like this because the economics indicate they should. The cost of not doing so increases.

    Back to the point. Social pressure is a fine just like a yardage penalty is a fine. And both of these are a price. Your example that people take less chocolates when they’re free just shows that this *transition is not smooth*. There’s a step-change in incentives. This is interesting, for sure, but this step-change doesn’t mean that by going from a ‘moral-based’ (pure sportsmanship) system to an ‘amoral-based’ (penalty) system, that the game suddenly becomes a free market of horrible incentives, devoid of morals, and full of Ayn Rand aficionados.

    With a foul-based system the game incentives actually transition to a hybrid of behavioral economics and quantitative prices. In other words, all of my sportsmanship doesn’t vanish, but the incentives are now different.

    Can this hybrid game be abused? Sure, if you design it poorly. If you are charging $0.01 for your chocolates, people are going to take a lot more than when they were free. This simply means you didn’t understand the step-change in behavior when transitioning to the hybrid system and you set your price (fine) incorrectly. But this paragraph is fundamentally wrong:

    “Either we stick to the principle of the do-over and never punish, or some people will start to look at the whole game in economic terms. People are very, very bad at mixing economic and moral incentives – the economic point of view will tend to win if you give it even half a chance.”

    That’s a false choice, and it misstates economics. As I mentioned, it’s *already* economic. But more importantly, you could design a game with appropriately sized fines (i.e. don’t charge $0.01 for your chocolates) such that it’s not abused. Just consider the difference between basketball and hockey. Basketball “fines” are small, and purposefully fouling makes good economic sense during many parts of the game. But hockey fines are relatively way larger, and it very very rarely makes any economic sense to foul. In other words, the games are designed with different incentives in mind.

    TL;DR: don’t hate the player, hate the game.


    • Fine=Price – I take your point that reputation can be considered as an economic incentive in its own right. So perhaps the step change is between ‘moral economics’ and ‘punishment economics’. But there is nevertheless a step change, and – specifically – one largely replaces the other. And I’d argue that the ‘moral economic’ perspective offers benefits that we don’t get from the punishment perspective.

      Reputation is a broad thing, which is impacted by a large number of possible behaviours – punching the opponent, calling bad travels, spitting, swearing, avoiding a handshake, nudging the thrower etc. Choosing a set of punishments for all of these behaviours would be a very serious challenge, and despite your faith in the ability of disincentives to control behaviour, I cannot see any possible way that we could set exactly fair penalties without unwanted side effects. Perhaps we won’t all turn into Ayn Rand characters, but I see no evidence that it won’t become a more unpleasant free-market of fouls.


  13. MKT says:

    “Your example that people take less chocolates when they’re free just shows that this *transition is not smooth*. There’s a step-change in incentives”

    This is a good point, and points the way to an understanding which encompasses both the original point of the article, which is excellent; and also the counter-argument that others have made that it’s not a black-and-white, either-or situation when we move from the free chocolates to the 1 cent ones.

    However, the conclusion is not valid:

    “you could design a game with appropriately sized fines”

    There’s a lot of hidden assumptions behind that statement. “Just set the fines at the appropriate level, and things will work out.” In markets, the market-clearing (i.e. equilibrium) price is efficient only under certain circumstances. Under other circumstances, in particular imperfect information and lack of protectable property rights, the resulting situation is notably inefficient and sub-optimal.

    Applying those examples to Ultimate, if we don’t like the amount of fouling in the sport when there are no refs, does introducing refs and small penalties for fouling improve the situation? No, the incentives are to foul like crazy. (This doesn’t happen instantly, but if the rewards financial and otherwise are big enough, then after a few years the players will gradually adapt foul-heavy strategies. In the NBA it’s taken years for players to adapt to the 3-point field goal, and gradually shoot more and more of them.)

    So the economist might say, no problem just increase the penalty for fouling. There are two problems with that: the stakes for getting the call correct are now higher, and even the best refs in the world in basketball, soccer, and the like make a number of blown calls each game. More importantly, these increased penalties now increase the reward for flopping, for semi-fouled players to make a bad call (or to pretend they were fouled, if we have true refs rather than observers).

    So overly lenient penalties result in too much fouling. Over severe penalties result in too many bogus foul calls. No matter where they set the penalty level, the rules-makers will be stuck.

    They can try to introduce penalties for flopping, as the NBA started doing in 2012-13, or as soccer does with yellow cards for “simulation”. But that simply shifts the problem up a level rather than solving the problem. How does the ref know whether to call a player for flopping? Are the penalties severe enough, or too severe? No matter where you set the penalty, there will be real flops and bad-call flops, and once again the rules-makers are stuck.

    Or they can set the penalty to zero, and rely on the Spirit of the Game.

    Is that ref-less outcome guaranteed to be better than the refs-plus-penalties outcome? Of course not, but there’s likewise no guarantee that adding refs will lead to an improved outcome.

    It then becomes an empirical question. But having seen and played other sports and Ultimate for decades, I’ll take Ultimate’s outcomes.

    tl;dr: adding refs and penalties doesn’t guarantee that the number of fouls, flops, and disputes about calls will be reduced.


  14. MKT says:

    A question on a different but related topic: according to this NY Times article, a cricket player recently failed to call himself out, resulting in a debate about whether he was violating the Spirit of Cricket.

    What really caught my attention however is not that there is a Spirit of Cricket, but that it dates back only to the year 2000:

    I know nothing about cricket; I’m guessing that the Spirit of Cricket was implicit in the game all along, but simply hadn’t been codified. But was the formal rule instituted because of declining spirit in cricket? Or to simply formalize what had been and remains a spirited game? (I’ve literally never even seen a cricket match; I have a vague impression that its players play with a higher level of spirit than say football (soccer) players do but I could be wrong.)


  15. Cricket has traditionally been fairly spirited. I think the codification of spirit in law probably was a response to a perceived decline in spirited play, and an attempt to hold it together.

    This is an interesting one – whilst there has been a bit of comment, I think we’re a long way from any form of national outrage about this. One of my friends didn’t like it much, but most are fine with him not walking as long as we win. Fifty or a hundred years ago, an Englishman would have been appalled to see one of his team behaving this way, and I suspect the player would have been dropped for it. But now? Well, the Australians are the ones who started to push the boundaries, both with not walking like this, and with sledging (verbal abuse) and such like.

    Does this all imply that spirit will inevitably be eroded over time, as more and more people push the boundaries? Or does it only imply that that will happen in situations where spirit is an add-on to the rules rather than the fundamental basis of them? I’ve no idea.

    But at the very least, it does lend weight to all those slippery-slope arguments about what will happen with observers/referees when we allow third parties to make the judgement. Cricket has been singularly unable to maintain its spirit, despite extremely strong traditions. I couldn’t guarantee that unrefereed Ultimate could do better – the slow creep of physicality at the top level certainly doesn’t look good (though that is led by a country with some third-party officiation) – but I am confident that refereed ultimate could not.


  16. Pingback: Understanding the sport of Ultimate | India Ultimate

  17. Liam Kelly says:

    gutted that Jon Good called Suarez “the bitey Liverpool racist” =(


  18. The number of players playing win at all cost Ultimate as opposed to Spirit first Ultimate is increasing. The only answer I see for this is increase the cost, and the easiest and in my opinion best way to do this is punish the team, the program, or the country. If WFDF came out and said that Canada was banned from international competition for x number of years and Colombia was banned for y number of years because of their Bronze medal match at the World Games, the entire problem goes away. Players that don’t like SOTG wouldn’t make their National teams and coaches that couldn’t control their players would be replaced. And yes, eventually all of these players would find another avenue to compete, but that is going to happen anyway as soon as big money gets into the game. The other benefit of this solution is that nothing has to happen in the moment or from a bad perspective. Everything can be analyzed and discussed after the fact, and the appropriate punishment determined.


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  26. ultiben says:

    Reblogged this on Diaries of an Ultimate Kid and commented:
    This was an eye-opener!


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