The Economics Of Observers

Benji Heywood, the director of Ultimate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland (who is also doing this awesome project on throwing mechanics), published a blog post today about behavioral economics and morality in ultimate.

Here’s an excerpt:

[quote]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.[/quote]

You’ll need to read the entire piece for the context here, but a basic idea that has come out of the study of behavioral economics is that putting a price on something makes us more selfish. We are more likely to view a paid transaction in a cold, “rational” way as opposed to thinking about fairness or other moral considerations.

It’s very compelling research, and something I studied quite a bit during college as an economic theory major. But does it apply to ultimate?

I’ve seen the same idea raised earlier by Kyle Weisbrod during the discussion over Ben Van Heuvelen’s article, ‘What Do We Stand For?‘ The concept here is that by introducing third-party officiation (like observers or referees), you change the mental calculus away from a moral one to a cost/benefit one. The theory is that players will cheat much more if they have to be “caught” by an observer or referee.

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but it’s not one that I think readily applies from market transactions to the playing field. I think, first of all, that there has to be a bright-line division between observers and referees, which are very different.

My experience with the observed game is the exact opposite of Heywood’s theory: it is cleaner, less chippy, and more fun. Players swallow bad calls and the bad calls that are made are overturned. While I think the system can be improved by giving more teeth to penalties, players certainly are less likely to cheat in an observed game than an unobserved one.

What I’ve seen so far from the professional leagues and full referees is less encouraging. I have heard anecdotes of intentional hacking, as referees have been slow to whistle fouls on the mark. There is a lot more physical play in the stack. But many players welcome that game, and it certainly — on balance — seems better than the alternative: getting repeatedly hacked on the mark in a self-officiated game and continuing to watch the player contest your foul call.

Spirit has not disappeared in officiated games; instead, the bad apples are finding it harder and harder to cheat. Trying to apply a very specific economic situation — free v. paid transactions for goods in a market — to the ultimate field seems to me to be a bit of a stretch and more of a pseudo-scientific confirmation bias (I think observers and referees are bad –> behavioral economics shows us a way in which observers and referees could be bad) than an actual situation we are confronted with.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email ( or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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