Perception and the Primacy Effect

14th May 1953:  A four leaf clover, a rare find and traditionally thought to bring good luck.  (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)


Jonathan Willis recently had a post on luck and the effect it can have on NHL careers. In it, he discussed how timing of some random event (say, an injury) can create or derail an opportunity. Similarly, the ordering of events can have a significant effect on the perception of a guy and his fitness as an NHL player. A good or bad series of bounces at a certain time can be largely influenced by randomness, but nonetheless will alter or skew a decision makers’ perception of the player in question.

For example, several years ago David Moss was a relatively unknown prospect for the Calgary Flames. A former seventh round draft pick, Moss had made his way through a decent if unspectacular college career before landing on the Flames AHL affiliate Omaha Knights. During his sophomore pro season, the parent squad was suffering through a number of disappointments (Tony Amonte) and injuries (Chuck Kobasew) which resulted in Moss being recalled part way through the season as an injury stand-in. In his first three games for the Calgary Flames, Moss scored three goals, one of the game-winning variety. As you can imagine, he never saw another game in the AHL.

It turns out that the confluence of beneficial circumstances didn’t lead Darryl Sutter astray as Moss turned out to be a capable enough NHLer. However, one wonders what would have happened if David’s shooting percentage hadn’t have been 75% in his first three NHL outings? Would he have been shuttled back to Omaha and left to battle for an NHL job in relative obscurity? There’s no way to prove it one way or other but it’s certainly possible.

The ordering of events in this situation are important in that Moss’ first impression in the show was a good one, which is powerful when it comes to human perception and recall. In memory, for example, there’s something called the primacy effect, which means the items at the beginning of a list are easier to remember later than those in the middle. Similarly, first impressions create perceptions which become privileged in the mind of the observer going forward. This is due to a couple of human cognitive biases:

1.) Confirmation bias, wherein people seek to reaffirm what they already know (or at least believe to be true).

2.) The enduring assumption that the first impression we get of someone can’t be an artifact of randomness.

This latter point is a fairly rational one on it’s face. If you run into a stranger who strikes you as intelligent, the natural assumption is that he’s generally pretty intelligent, not that your initial encounter happened to be a “good moment” and not truly indicative of his mental acuity.

Of course, such biases can introduce irrationality when it comes to decision making. I recently discussed the Steve Mason contract and why his perceived value by Scott Howson and the Blue Jackets is likely skewed by a single outburst of notable performances that now seem to be an aberration. What was also powerful about Mason’s remarkable .950 SV% December was that it was at the onset of his career. Like David Moss, Mason wowed his bosses pretty much immediately upon being recalled. That likely caused Howson to subsequently decide that Mason was the “goalie of the future”, a perception that led him to minimize the importance of Mason’s giant step back last season and then grant the youngster a new contract that was at the top of the market anyways.

If we were to re-order Mason’s performances through his career thus far and put his aberrant spike somewhere in the middle rather than the start, it’s probably safe to say he wouldn’t be perceived quite so favorably at this point and, in fact, may not even be an NHLer. Again, consider the case of David Moss and his 75% shooting rate – if Steve Mason hovered around the .900 SV% mark during his first month or two in the league, there’s a good chance he takes a short trip back to the farm and Howson is instead shopping for a cheap, established guy this off-season.

Glove-tap to the Contratian Goaltender for inspiring this post with this discussion.