May 5, 2014 report
Basketball study says cooperative play lessens during playoffs
Why this is so has to do with what the authors call "a fascinating case of mixed incentives" confronting professional sports teams. Although they compete fiercely for group honors, players are rewarded financially based on evaluations of their individual performance.
Uhlmann and Barnes analyzed NBA statistics and examined player and team behavior and performance across all 30 teams from the 2004–2005 through the 2012–2013 seasons. They also examined labor contracts signed by individual NBA players following the 2003–2004 and 2004–2005 seasons. "As collecting individual salary data for every NBA player was labor-intensive we stopped after obtaining a sufficient sample (N = 131 players across two full years) to test our theoretical hypotheses regarding changes in compensation across time."
The authors also noted limiting effects of a non-cooperative strategy, scoring points for self rather than ensuring the team wins, to improve one's tally and market value as a lose-lose proposition for the team and the individual; a reputation as someone who plays for himself rather than the team "may damage a player's value in the eyes of peers, fans, and coaches. Thus, reputational concerns and costly punishment by teammates likely circumscribe individuals' willingness to adopt noncooperative strategies."
Questions raised by their findings: Do women and members of teams outside the United States play more selfishly when the stakes get high? One can argue that "collectivist" cultures might not have such conflicts between personal and team incentives.
The authors said it was possible that "players in nations such as China, Japan, and India may not reduce their backing-up behavior during important games. Also, that women are more relationally oriented than men suggests that even within the United States, high-stakes games in women's sports leagues may not be associated with diminished levels of team cooperation."
Another important question for research, they said, is whether money does all the talking. Are players motivated by money only or is money a proxy for more intangible rewards, such as public acclaim and prestige?
"Regardless of whether the rewards of noncooperative play are primarily material or psychological, our analyses make it clear such behavior is especially likely in high-stakes games and is rewarded by increases in individual level financial compensation.".
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