More GMs should spend July 1st out of the office

Brian Burke seen here ruining the Toronto Maple Leafs, apparently.

For the second consecutive year Brian Burke spent July 1st away from the office. And for the second consecutive year he did not sign any terrible contracts for players who did not deserve them. I think the two are related.

Our environment has a powerful ability to unconsciously influence our behaviour and our decisions. This is called priming, when exposure to a stimulus influences our behaviour in the future. I think that Brian Burke’s spending July 1st at the Pride Parade caused him to make more rational decisions than if he had been in the office.

Studies have shown that merely being exposed to certain images can influence our thought process and behaviour. I thought of how this relates to the NHL when I read a chapter the book based on his blog “You are not so smart” by David McRaney this past weekend. In the chapter on priming he shares the results of a study that show just how powerful it can be. In 2003 Aaron Kay, Christian Wheeler, John Barghand, and Lee Ross separated their participants into two groups and asked them to draw a line to connect an image with a corresponding written description. Half the participants connected random, neutral objects things like “kites, whales, and turkeys” but the other half “connected lines to descriptions for photos of briefcases, fountain pens, and other items associated with the world of business.”

The second half of the experiment had them paired up with an actor acting as another participant. They then had the subjects play a version of “The Ultimatum Game” in which one person is asked to make an offer to split a sum of money between two people. The other person is only allowed to either accept or decline the offer given. If they decline neither person receives any money. Generally it shows that people would rather receive nothing than accept an offer they deem unfair.  

In this particular test the actor was instructed to let the participant make the offer each time so that each person “was put in the position of making a reasonable offer, knowing if they did not, they would miss out on some free cash.” So, how did the matching exercise affect the offers given in the second?  

They found that 91 percent of the “neutral” group chose to split the money evenly while on 33 percent of those in the “business group” offered an even split.  They ran the experiment again this time placing the actual items in the room in which the Ultimatum Game was being played. Under these circumstances 100% of the “neutral” participants chose to split the money down the middle while only 50% of the “business” ones did. When each group was asked why they made the offers they did they all cited their opinions on fairness or some other reason. No one realized the objects in the room had primed them to be more aggressive, greedy, and “business-like”.

I think that NHL GMs can be influenced in the same way. The pressure to improve a struggling team is immense. Sitting in a boardroom or office with the rest of the front office primes GMs to be aggressive in attaining help during Free Agency. When an offer comes in GMs are like those participants surrounded by fountain pens and briefcases, they are primed to make a deal and may lose the ability to rationally decided if the player is really worth the contract. 

Brian Burke didn’t march in the Pride Parade to prevent himself from wasting money on July 1st. He did it to honour his son. But by removing himself from an environment that has the potential to influence his behaviour he was able to assess the proposed contracts coming across his blackberry in a more rational manner. The same thing happened last year when Burke was in Afghanistan. There were plenty of players that he claimed he was interested in last July 1st but he explained that he felt the prices were just to high. He might not have felt that way if he was sitting with the rest of his front office.  

I hope Brian Burke spends next July 1st fishing on a river somewhere.