Tag Archives: March Madness

That time when I conducted a scientific research study designed to test the effectiveness of using hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum and transport 18 people to the future so they could fill-out perfect March Madness brackets.

Flower in Bricks

You can probably tell by the title of this post that I’m pretty stoked about scientific research right now.

I typically don’t do much empirical research. That’s why it was a surprise to me and my colleagues that, about six weeks ago, I spontaneously developed a research idea, dropped nearly everything else I was doing, and had amazing fun conducting my first ever March Madness bracket research project.

My research experience included a roller coaster of surprises.

I somehow convinced a professor from the Health and Human Performance department at the University of Montana to collaborate with me on a ridiculous study on a ridiculously short timeline.

My university IRB approved our proposal. Seriously. I submitted a proposal that involved me hypnotizing volunteer participants to transport them into the future to make their March Madness bracket selections. Then they approved it in six days. How cool is that?

I managed to network my way onto ESPN radio (where we called the study ESP on ESPN; thanks Lauren and Arianna) and onto the Billings, MT CBS affiliate (thanks Dan).

And, this is the teaser: with only 36 participants, the results were significant at the p < .001 level.

Damn. Now you know. Scientific research is so cool.

Of course, there’s a back-story. While you’re waiting in anticipation to learn about those p < .001 results, you really need to hear this back-story.

Several years ago, while on a 90-minute car ride back from Trapper Creek Job Corps to Missoula, my counseling interns asked me if I could hypnotize someone and take them back in time so they could recall something that happened to them in a previous life. I thought the question was silly and the answer was simple.

“Absolutely yes.” I said, “Of course I could do that.”

Questions followed.

My answers included a ramble about not really believing in past lives and not really thinking that past life hypnotic regression was ethical. But still, I said, “If someone is hypnotizable, then, I’m sure I could get them into a trance and at least make them think they went back to a previous life and retrieved a few memories. No problem.”

Have you ever noticed that once you start to brag, it’s hard to stop. That’s what happened next, for several years.

Somewhat later in another conversation, I started exaggerating bigly. I decided to extend my imaginary prowess into a fool-proof strategy for generating a perfect March Madness bracket. I said something about, “Brains being amazing and that you can suddenly pay attention to the big toe on your right foot and, at nearly the same time, project yourself not only back into your 7-year-old self, but forward in time into the future. That being the case,” I waxed, “it’s pretty obvious that I could hypnotize people, break down the space-time continuum, and take them to a future where all the March Madness basketball games had been played and therefore, they could just copy down the winners and create a perfect March Madness bracket.”

Through this process, I would turn a one-in-a-trillion possibility into absolute certainty.

I enjoyed bragging about my imaginary scenario for several years. That is, until this year, when, I decided that if I was set on bragging bigly, I should also be willing to put determined it was time to put my science where my mouth is (or something like that). It was time to test my hypnosis-space-time-continuum hypothesis using the scientific method.

We designed a pre-test, post-test experimental design with random assignment to three conditions.

Condition 1: Education. Participants would receive about 20 minutes of education on statistics relevant to making March Madness bracket picks. My colleague, Dr. Charles Palmer, showed powerpoint slides and provided insights about the statistical probabilities of 12s beating 5s and 9s beating 8s, and “Blue Blood” conferences.

Condition 2: Progressive Muscle Relaxation. The plan was for Daniel Salois, one of my graduate students and an immensely good sport, to do 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation with this group.

Condition 3: Hypnosis. I would use a hypnotic induction, a deepening procedure, and then project participants into the future. Instead of having everyone fill out their brackets while in trance, I decided to use a post-hypnotic suggestion. As soon as they heard me clap twice, they would immediately recall the tournament game outcomes and then fill out their brackets perfectly.

Unfortunately, on short notice we only recruited 36 participants. To give ourselves a chance to obtain statistical significance, we dumped the progressive muscle relaxation condition, and just had the EDUCATION and HYPNOSIS conditions go head to head in a winner-take-all battle.

Both groups followed the same basic protocol. Upon arrival at the College of Education, they were randomly assigned to one of two rooms (Charlie or me). When the got to their room, they signed the informed consent, and immediately filled out a bracket along with a confidence rating. Then they received either the EDUCATION or HYPNOSIS training. After their respective trainings, they filled out a second bracket, along with another confidence rating.

We hypothesized that both groups would report an increase in confidence, but that only the EDUCATION group (but not the HYPNOSIS group) would show a statistically significant improvement in bracket-picking accuracy. We based our hypotheses on the fact that although real education should help, there’s no evidence that anyone can use hypnosis to transport themselves to the future. We viewed the HYPNOSIS condition as essentially equivalent to raising false hopes without providing help that had any substance.

IMHO, the results were stunning.

We were dead on about the EDUCATION group. Those participants significantly increased their confidence; they also improved their bracket scores (we used the online ESPN scoring system where participants can obtain up to a maximum of 320 points for each round; this means participants got 10 points for every correct pick in the first round, with their potential points doubling in every round, and concluding with 320 points if they correctly picked the University of North Carolina to win the tournament).

Then there was the HYPNOSIS group.

HYPNOSIS participants experienced a small but nonsignificant increase in their confidence. . . but they totally tanked their predictions. We had a participant who picked Creighton to win it all. We had one bracket that had Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State in the final. We had another person who listed a final score in the championship game of 34-23. When I shared these results to our research class, I said, “The HYPNOSIS participants totally sucked. They did so bad that I think they couldn’t have done any worse if we had hit them all on the head with a 2 x 4 and given them concussions and then had them fill out their brackets.”

So what happened? Why did the HYPNOSIS group perform so badly?

When told of the outcome, one student who had participated offered her explanation, “I believe it. I don’t know what happened, but after the hypnosis, I totally forgot about anything I knew, and just wrote down whatever team names popped into my head.”

My interpretation: Most of the people in the HYPNOSIS group completely abandoned rational and logical thought. They decided that whatever thoughts that happened to come into their minds were true and right.

It’s probably too much of a stretch to link this to politics, but it’s hard not to speculate. It’s possible that candidates from both parties are able, from time to time, to use charisma and bold claims to get their supporters to let go of logic and rational thought, and instead, embrace a fantastical future.

Another faculty member in our department offered an alternative explanation. She recalled the old Yerkes-Dodson law. This “law” in psychology predicts that optimal arousal (or stress) is linked to optimal performance. In contrast, too much arousal or too little arousal impairs performance. She theorized that perhaps the hypnosis participants had become too relaxed; they were so under-aroused that they couldn’t perform.

It seems clear that the hypnosis did something. But what? It wasn’t a helpful trip to the future. Some friends suggested that maybe they went to the wrong year. Others have mocked me for being a bragger who couldn’t really use hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum.

What do you think? Do you have any potential explanations you’d like to offer? I’d love to hear them. And, if you have any ideas of which scientific journal to submit our manuscript to, we’d love to hear that as well.

Do You Want to Participate in The March Madness Research Project?

Madness 2017

If your answer is yes . . . here’s what you should do and what will happen:

  1. Email: ummadness2017@gmail.com and say “Yes, I’m in”
  2. You will be randomly assigned to one of three “March Madness Bracket Training” groups:
    • Relaxation and focusing
    • Hypnosis to view the games from the future
    • Educational information
  3. You will receive an email telling you where to meet. All groups will meet on campus at the University of Montana in a specific room in the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education building at 7pm on Tuesday evening, March 14.
  4. Show up at your designated room. When you arrive, you will fill out an informed consent form, a March Madness bracket, and complete a short questionnaire.
  5. Then you will participate in the training.
  6. After the training, you will complete another bracket
  7. You will leave your completed packet and your brackets with the researcher and it will be uploaded in to the ESPN Tournament Challenge website [we will need your email address to upload your selections into the ESPN system]
  8. You will receive information at the “Training” on how to login and track your bracket. If you lose or misplace this information, you can request an additional copy via email: ummadness2017@gmail.com

To sign up for this research project, email:

UMmadness2017@gmail.com

What’s Wrong with March Madness?

Being in the middle of March Madness is an excellent moment to step back to briefly reflect on the nature and function hype and hyperbole. Let’s start with a look at madness.

Madness is a 14th century term for insanity and insanity implies a break from reality. As such, March Madness is aptly named. For many (including me) March Madness is a good time to ignore reality, job productivity, and common sense. Filling out brackets and imagining that you might correctly pick every winner and win a billion dollars is a great example of taking a break from reality.

Below is a quick Q & A about some of the main things that are wrong (or insane) about March Madness

Question #1: Who will win the NCAA basketball tournament?

The winner of the NCAA tournament will be (surprise) the NCAA and all rich folks who stand to get richer based on their associations with the NCAA. This includes a certain wealthy man whom I’ll refer to as “he-who-will-not-be-named,” NCAA sponsors, CBS, and Vegas. It will also include one team with a rich coach who makes more than $2,000,000 a year and a roster of about 15 relatively poor guys who make hardly anything (but one or two of which will make bank next year). My point is that you shouldn’t confuse March Madness with a charity benefit. This tournament is designed to do that good old American thing of helping the rich get richer while the rest of us take a break from reality and experience entertainment.

Question #2: Who will be the losers?

Nearly everyone else will be the losers. Last year, Harvard Business Review estimated the cost of the NCAA tournament in losses to worker productivity to be from $175 million to $1 billion. There also will be 67 teams (not to mention the non-qualifiers) who will be admirably labelled losers. In addition, even the winners (players who have spent substantial time and effort working and playing together) will be generally uncompensated.

Question #3: Seriously, who should I bet on?

First thoughts on this: (a) Bet on the home team; (b) bet on the East coast; and (c) bet on the favorites (aka: the big names). Even though the NCAA tournament is played at neutral sites, like most things NCAA, this is only partly true. This year, we have Florida in Florida, Duke in Raleigh, NC, Wisconsin in Wisconsin, and Kansas in far off St. Louis, Missouri. Of course, this doesn’t always work out (think Duke), but it’s a good start. Also, NCAA basketball nearly always tilts Eastward. This is related to ESPN’s contractual preference for Eastern conferences (and efforts to ignore the left coast). Finally, come crunch time, the big name players and coaches will get the call (or non-call) from the officials. In the end, when it comes to NCAA basketball, the refs appear unable to help themselves from favoring the favorites.

Question #4: Who will be the winning coach?

When in doubt, it makes sense to tip your hat to whoever has the most resources. Consequently, consider what the following well-dressed coaches make annually (and compare it to what their players and college/university presidents and professors make) and then go with the resource rich . . . because this is America, where the rich are usually favored in the lottery of who gets richer.

  1. Duke (Mike Krzyzewski: $7+ million) – oops, lost already
  2. Louisville (Rick Pitino: About $5 million)
  3. Kansas (Bill Self: About $5 million)
  4. Michigan State (Tom Izzo: About $4 million)
  5. Florida (Billy Donovan (About $4 million)
  6. Ohio State (Thad Matta: About $3 million) – oops, lost already
  7. Indiana (Tom Crean: About $3 million) – oops, didn’t make the NCAAs
  8. Arizona (Sean Miller: About $2.5 million)
  9. Wisconsin (Bo Ryan: Over $2 million)
  10. Villanova (Jay Wright: Over $2 million) – oops, lost already.

Based on the preceding list, it looks to be a good year for the Big Ten. Or a bad year, if they spend all that money and come up with what I think they’ll come up with.

Question #5: Who will win the sportsmanship award?

Of course, there is NO sportsmanship award, but if there was one, I’d give it to all the players and coaches who display fabulous restraint despite exposure to stupefying heckling fans and enigmatic basketball officiating. They will rarely complain. They won’t storm the stands to try to shut the mouths of fans who should be arrested for what they say. They will just politely take all the crap aimed their direction. Seriously, the players are 18 to 23-year-olds and they show WAY more maturity than we should expect . . . which is why college basketball really needs to do something to protect them from the fans and the officials.

Question #6: How can you make yourself even more insane?

The is simple: just read any of a bevy of sports message boards on the Internet. If you read these you’ll be exposed to perhaps the most inane and ridiculous commentary on the face of the planet. My advice: Just say no to reading the message (comment) boards. I’ve done it and nearly always instantly regret the effect it has on my mental health.

Question #7: Why all the upsets?

There will be upsets because there are always upsets and we know from decades of tightly controlled psychological research that the best predictor of the future is the past. We also know that the only thing people can really predict is the past . . . which is why I’ll be submitting my Billion dollar bracket right after the tourney ends.

The other reason we know there will be upsets is because most members of the NCAA selection committee can’t see very far past the three letters they’ve scrawled right next to their navels. These letters are R-P-I. You probably know that RPI stands for ratings percentage index. What you may not know is that the RPI is seriously flawed. I mean seriously. That’s why the 12 seeds nearly always beat the 5 seeds. And did anyone really think that UMASS was a 6 seed or Duke a 3 seed or Ohio State (5-4 in their last nine games) deserved a 6 seed? The RPI is a bogus statistical procedure that tends to help teams from BIG conferences with more money. Unfortunately, odds-makers at Vegas could do a better job at seeding the NCAA tournament than the selection committee.

Question #8: Why didn’t anyone win the Billion dollars

“He who will not be named” did a big promotion of temporary March insanity when he offered one Billion dollars for a perfect bracket. This was such a scam that. . . hahaha. . . you could almost hear the evil laugh. Like most scams, this was just a publicity stunt. You would have better odds of winning two back-to-back powerball lotteries with two single tickets than the Billion dollars of “He who won’t be named.” If you really thought you could win, then, although I’m generally against psychotropic medications, I would recommend Lithium. This is all really too bad because I used to respect the man I won’t be naming.

Okay. Let me end with an apology. I would have started with an apology but the great author Henry James said you should never start a letter with an apology. So here’s my closing apology: Sorry for going all negative. I love college basketball. I just hate the fans, the refs, the selection committee, and the unequal distribution of the wealth and glory. Besides, my bracket got busted, so I’m in an insanely bad mood.