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Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Dynamics of Inattention in the (Baseball) Field

J. E. Archsmith, et al. 
IZA Institute of Labor Economics
June 2021


Recent theoretical and empirical work characterizes attention as a limited resource that decision-makers strategically allocate. There has been less research on the dynamic interdependence of attention: how paying attention now may affect performance later. In this paper, we exploit high-frequency data on decision-making by Major League Baseball umpires to examine this. We find that umpires not only apply greater effort to higher stakes decisions, but also that effort applied to earlier decisions increases errors later. These findings are consistent with the umpire having a depletable ‘budget’ of attention. There is no such dynamic interdependence after breaks during the game (at the end of each inning) suggesting that even short rest periods can replenish attention budgets. We also find that an expectation of higher stakes future decisions leads to reduced attention to current decisions, consistent with forward-looking behavior by umpires aware of attention scarcity.


Conventional economic models embody agents able to make perfect, optimising decisions.  An important strand of recent efforts to increase the behavioral realism of models has been to acknowledge that attention is not costless---the effort required to attend to decisions and execute them well can be costly and cognitively tiring---and incorporate that in models. Models of “strategic inattention”, predicated on rational agents adjusting their behavior to account for attention being either limited and/or costly, are increasingly mainstream (for examples Caplin and Dean, 2015; Sims, 2003; Falkinger, 2011).

While the idea of costly attention is intuitively appealing, rigorous evidence characterizing its implications in real settings remains limited and primarily focuses on static effects in cross sectional data. This paper adds to and extends this evidence. Studying the quality of decisions made by a panel of professional decision-makers with strong incentives to get these decisions right, we show that MLB umpires systematically vary the effort they apply to individual decisions: applying greater attention to those associated with higher stakes. This is consistent with established theoretical models of strategic inattention. Our data-rich setting, in which the same umpire is called upon to issue a long series of decisions, allows for careful study of the dynamics of inattention and delivers our most novel results.