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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one
 

Mindless guessing

By Sara Foss
Friday, October 12, 2012

Now that the football season is here, I’m back to trying to predict who will win every game.

This has become an annual ritual.

For the past four or five years, I’ve participated in the Pigskin Pick’em group organized by my obnoxious friend from high school. Pigskin Pick’em is pretty simple: The person who correctly guesses the outcome of the most NFL games over the course of a season is the winner. This year, to make things more interesting, I’m also competing in the football pool at work. Apparently there’s no limit to my enthusiasm for making predictions and seeing how right (or wrong) I am.

My Pigskin Pick’em strategy has evolved over time.

For instance, I’ve made an effort to stop picking wild upsets. When I first began participating in Pigskin Pick’em, I couldn’t resist the temptation to try to pinpoint which underdogs would prevail each week, mainly because doing so would make me feel like a genius. (“Nobody else saw it coming, but I knew the Cleveland Browns were going to pick up their first win!”) But I’ve since realized that if you want to have any chance of winning Pigskin Pick’em, you should stick to picking the favorites, because the favorites tend to win. Which is shocking, I know.

I’ve adopted a similar strategy for making Oscar picks.
In my early years, I picked the movies I liked, thinking that if I liked them, Oscar voters probably did, too. If I’ve learned anything from taking this approach, it’s how different my tastes are from the average member of the Academy. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to put my personal feelings aside and pick the films that are most likely to win. I still get tripped up from time to time: I knew Sean Penn was the best actor favorite for his performance in “Milk” four years ago but I loved Mickey Rourke so much in “The Wrestler” that I convinced myself that a massive upset was brewing. And of course I was wrong.

Each week, football prognosticators such as myself post their picks on the Internet. (My favorite are the Football Pick Haikus posted on the website The Awl. They’re usually not very accurate, but they are a lot of fun.) And when the Oscars roll around, movie insiders and experts offer their own predictions. Other areas, such as the basketball playoffs and baseball postseason, inspire similar attempts at prophecy.

But the appeal of winning what essentially amounts to a guessing game is something of a mystery to me, even as I entertain myself by participating in these relatively mindless and inconsequential diversions. I mean, who really cares if you win a football pool or an Oscar pool or any other kind of pool? Does it signify that you’re a person of strong character and superior intelligence? I’m going to go out on a limb and say no.

This being election season, I’ve also become interested in trying to predict the outcome of the presidential election. In this endeavor, I rely on polls and analysis from people like New York Times’ stats maven Nate Silver, who rose to fame after correctly predicting the winner of 49 of 50 states in the 2008 presidential election, as well as all 35 Senate races.

One of the things that makes Silver so good at what he does is that he’s blessed with the ability to understand numbers, which most people, including myself, lack. Every day I look at his blog to see how Obama and Romney are doing. Unsurprisingly, he found that Obama experienced a big surge after the Democratic convention, and a sharp decline after his poor performance at the debate, with the momentum suddenly switching to Romney. My feeling is that Silver’s data-driven approach helps cut through the noise surrounding the election and eliminates much of the uncertainty surrounding it. He makes predictions, but he actually knows what he’s talking about, which isn’t true of most people.

For most people, predictions are a matter of guesswork, based on a combination of hard numbers, gut feelings and conventional wisdom.

In my corner of the office, one of our main diversions is a game in which we try to guess the ages of famous people; whoever comes closest most often wins. There are usually between six and 10 names on the list, and they run the gamut, from country singers to reality TV contestants, and movie stars to writers. I don’t want to brag, but my success at guessing the ages of celebrities has earned me the nickname Top Dog.

Over time, the game has become pretty competitive.

My opponents have improved, and the number of participants has grown, which makes it harder for me to win. My dad has also gotten involved; each week our moderator emails him the list of names, and he sends her his guesses. Much to my chagrin, my dad is actually pretty good at the game. As my losses have mounted, I’ve become a much poorer sport; when I lose, I usually throw a temper tantrum.

The game holds a lot of intrigue for us, and I have no idea why. There’s nothing riding on the outcome, we don’t play for money and the skill in question is not particularly useful — it’s not like there’s a big, lucrative market for people who can correctly guess the age of Danny DeVito and Morgan Freeman.

My theory is that making predictions appeals to us because it gives us the illusion of actually knowing something about the world. There’s so much we don’t know, and being able to say, “I knew that,” provides a certain comfort.

Or maybe it’s just fun to play games.

And, if you’re lucky, win.

Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at sfoss@dailygazette.net.

 
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