Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Recency Effect

Deryk Engelland scored for the NHL’s Calgary Flames on Wednesday night. Twice.

This is news because they were Engelland’s first two goals of the season, his first in more than a year (literally), and because he had only scored 13 times in the previous 310 games of his career. More important, his second goal tied Calgary’s game with the Dallas Stars and earned the Flames a point–a point which moved them one ahead of the Los Angeles Kings for the final playoff spot in the NHL’s Western Conference. Josh Cooper, a writer for the hockey blog, Puck Daddy, wrote, “If the Kings miss the postseason by one point, they will be cursing Deryk ‘freaking’ Engelland and his first two goals of the season up and down Southern California.”

Yes, it’s that kind of season

Over in the Eastern Conference my beloved Boston Bruins–a popular preseason pick to win the conference and tabbed by more than a few to win the Stanley Cup–are also a point out of a playoff spot. And if they fail to qualify, many will point to a game the Bruins lost last week to the Ottawa Senators, the team sitting one point ahead of them in the standings, as the loss that sank their season.

Yes, it’s that time of year where fans (and media and, to a lesser extent, players and coaches) point to one game as the reason they missed the playoffs. In the inevitable post-mortems of wasted seasons, they will bemoan that one game that made the difference in the season–and it will be a game that occurred somewhere in the final week or two of the regular season.

Meanwhile, Opening Day (and yes, I believe it is written in caps like that) for Major League Baseball is just over a week away and you can bet that no one will get their jock straps in a twist over a loss in April–who cares about a loss in April? It’s just one game out of 162, no big deal, plenty of time to make it up. About the only people who care about a baseball loss in April are managers who are starting on the hot seat, pitchers who get stuck with the ‘L’, and fantasy baseball players. And when August slips into September and teams are watching their playoff hopes slipping away, no one will say, “If only we’d won on Opening Day!”

Is there an official term for this? I’d call it “The Recency Effect,” though apparently that term is already in use for something else–our tendency to remember the last things on a list first. It’s kind of the same, don’t you think? In the world of sports (particularly fandom), it’s our tendency to place greater emphasis on recent events. A loss in a tight playoff race is more important than one that happened in the first week of the season. For the Bruins, everyone will point to that loss against Ottawa at the end of March, but what about the one in January? Or the shootout loss to the Senators in December? How about that mid-October game where they blew a 3-1 lead against Montreal and lost, 6-4? Win any one of those games in regulation and, all other things being equal*), they would still be a point up on Ottawa and that March loss wouldn’t look quite so big right now. Every loss is important, even the ones that happened four months ago.

I’m wondering if The Recency Effect (as I’ve defined it) infects other parts of our lives as well, or if it’s something that we reserve especially for sport. What do you think?

* sports fans are big on a particular brand of Magical Thinking that assumes all other things are always equal, and I may actually have another post on that in the near future. Break? Did I say I was taking a break?

4 Responses

  1. For some reason I read "recency" as "regency" and was waiting for a tie in to royalty. lol I'm such a dope! Yes, your actual tie between sports and lists makes sense. I used to watch the NFL, but no one in the Middle East carries it anymore and I have no time anyway. I wish your Bruins luck in the playoffs!

  2. Every loss matters to me. I like to WIN!!!!

    But I can see how the end of the season makes more of a difference than the beginning. It's closer to the playoffs and most likely how they'll play THERE. Penguins were hot in the beginning. Now? Yikes! I have a feeling we'll be gone after the first round. And that just SUCKS! 🙂

    As for this effect infecting other aspects of our lives, yeah I can see that too. Doesn't matter how well your first book (or job or whatever) did. How did your LAST one do? That's what people look at.

  3. -Lexa and Donna–I had to double-check to make sure I didn't write "regency"! No NFL in Egypt? It's probably only a matter of time, that league is trying to take over the world. And Donna, hockey playoffs are one of those things that is both awesome and awful at the same time. As a fan of the game, I really enjoy it, but when I'm watching my team, I can still get all twisted up inside.

    -Stacy–The Penguins have too much talent to go out peacefully in the first round-though talent alone does not always dictate who will win.

    Thanks, all!

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