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The Psychology of Spoiler Season (or, why you bought Narset for $50)

I published the first draft of this article on now-defunct blog nearly a year ago. Feel free to check out the original if you wish, but this version greatly expands on the theme of the psychology of spoiler season, arousal, decision making, and group interactions.

I recently happened across some interesting research by Dan Ariely of MIT and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University published in The Journal of Behavioral Decision Making under the title Heat of the Moment: The Effect of Sexual Arousal on Sexual Decision Making.

Now, I admit the method of this research might seem a bit crude; Ariely and Loewenstien took a bunch of college-aged participants, split them into two groups, and asked them some questions with the help of a computer program they designed. The interesting part is how they divided the control and experimental groups. The control group was in a “normal” state, while the experimental group was first asked to self-stimulate until they reached a “high but sub-orgasmic” level of arousal. (You can see an example of the computer-based questions used in the study here. Just be warned, it contains animated breasts, so NSFW.)

What the research found is that being aroused has a significant effect on the answers subjects gave to many sexually-related questions ranging from benign (for instance, they discovered that more people found the smell of cigarette smoke attractive and found spanking more fun while in a the aroused state), to strange but harmless (i.e. men were much more likely to answer “yes” to, “do you find women’s shoes attractive” and “can you imagine having sex with a 60 year old women” when they were aroused), to taboo and even illegal (for example, the aroused subject were much more likely to say they could “imagine being attracted to a 12 year old girl” or “imagine getting sexually excited by contact with an animal”).

Now you are probably (and rightly) wondering what arousal and sexual decision making has to do with MTG finance. On its face, not much. But if you dig a bit deeper, perhaps a whole lot.

What is Arousal?

The Psychology Dictionary defines arousal in the following way:

  1. a state of physiological alertness and readiness for action
  2. a pervasive state of cortical responsiveness believed to be associated with sensory stimulation and there, the activation of the fibers from the reticular activating system
  3. a state of excitement or energy expenditure linked to a strong emotion

First off, it is important to understand that arousal is not a sexual state, it is a psychological state. There isn't sexual-arousal and non-sexual arousal, "arousal is arousal is arousal." Furthermore, it is understood that gaming can cause arousal, and since "emotional arousal and excitement of many kinds can hamper rational decision making," this explains the "just one more game" tendency where you stay up to do just one more draft on Magic Online even though you need to be at work in 5 hours. Finally, we have a tendency to over-rate and over-value cards during spoiler season because they are new, and the possibilities seem endless — even though the possibilities are actually limited and many of the cards are unplayable. We focus on the small potential of upside (and financial gain), but look right past the huge downside (and potential financial loss). Other research shows that "prior presentation of positive images increase financial risk taking." Basically, because we have the rosy view of new cards, we are more likely to make poor financial decisions. 

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We are right in the middle of Battle for Zendikar spoiler season, highlighted (so far) by the announcement of Expeditions, new Eldrazi and a bunch of playable lands. Spoilers and the pre-ordering that comes along with the revelation of yet-to-be-released cards is a time when strange, irrational things happen. People pay $40 for Time Reversals, $200 a playset for Narset Transendents, and $10 for mythics that everyone knows will soon be bulk. People do not always, or even usually, make rational financial decisions during spoiler season.

This spoiler season is no different. If you average out the presale prices of mythic from StarCityGames, you'll see that it comes to nearly $11. This is despite the fact that anyone with a calculator can figure out that the average mythic price needs to drop to at least to $5, or more likely to $3 to get the box EV into the typical range. The average rare is selling for about $2.50, although the average value needs to fall to between $0.50 and $1.00. In fact, if you add up SCG presale prices while putting the average price of an Expedition at about $150 and counting full-art basics at $0.10 a piece, SCG is getting $156 for each box they open (not counting commons/uncommons/foil) — boxes that cost them somewhere in the neighborhood of $70. 

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By now it’s widely understood that the price of nine out of ten cards will swiftly decrease, often massively, from their pre-order price point. But still people keep buying and buying and buying. There is a reason that SCG lists Gideon, Ally of Zendikar for $25 and Woodland Wanderer for $4 even though they know that cards from this from this set can't maintain anywhere near this value. SCG (and, to be fair, everyone other big vendor; I'm just using SCG as an example because they are the biggest and most well known) can get $156 for a $70 box and charge insanely high prices during presales is because we, the community, will pay them and I think that Ariely and Loewenstein’s research helps explain why.

For members of the MTG community, spoiler season is an exciting, arousing time. Of course seeing a new planeswalker for the first time isn’t exactly the same as seeing your significant other naked, but it is a form of arousal all the same. Remember, arousal isn't sexual, it's psychological. However, even beyond the excitement of of new cards, there is a second psychological principle that makes arousal a sort of double-whammy during spoiler season. 

Whether we realize it or not, Magic players are a group — a community. We interact at tournaments, local game stores, on Reddit, in the comments of article and tons of other places. Simply being in a group not only arouses, but also intensifies decisions — typically in a way that leads to more risks. Let me share with you a classic social psychology experiment:

Helen, the Writer

Helen is a writer who is said to have considerable creative talent but who so far has been earning a comfortable living by writing cheap westerns. Recently she has come up with an idea for a potentially significant novel. If it could be written and accepted, it might have considerable literary impact and be a big boost for her career. On the other hand, if she cannot work out her idea or if the novel is a flop, she will have expended considerable time and energy without remuneration.

Imagine you are advising Helen. Please choose a number from 1 (Helen should attempt to write the novel even if it is very unlikely to be a success) to 10 (Helen should only attempt the novel if it is certain it will be a success) that is the lowest probability you could consider acceptable for Helen to attempt the novel?

An interesting thing happened during this experiment. When participants were asked to answer this question alone, they gave a high number (signifying Helen should take less risk). However, after placing the same participants in groups of five, the number decreases. So if you take a group of people that picked "7" (meaning Helen should be reasonably certain the novel should succeed before trying to write it), put them together and give them a few minutes to discuss the scenario, the group will together choose "4" (meaning Helen should attempt the novel even if she thinks it is slightly unlikely to succeed). 

Furthermore, research suggests that this effect can and does take place on the internet. I could probably write an entire article about how the principles of arousal, group polarization and anonymity relate to, and likely cause, much of the crass behavior in Twitch chats or the all-too-common Reddit "witch hunts," but we'll stick to the issue at hand. Places like Reddit, MTGSalvation, Twitter and Facebook allow Magic players — a group of "like minded individuals" — to band together, which has a tendency to crystallize diffuse hatreds and mobilize lethal force. Being together, even over the internet, polarizes our views, hardens our pre-existing beliefs and leads to more risky decision making. Being in a group and influencing each other leads to individuals saying, doing and acting in a way they would never (or at least not typically) behave on their own. So, let me put the same scenario above into Magic terms:

Helen, the Magic Player

Helen is a Magic player who is said to have considerable talent but who has limited income because she is currently a college student. Recently she has come up with an idea for preordering Narset Transcendent. If Narset Transcendant is heavily played and accepted, it might have a considerable price increase and be a big boost for her collection and pocketbook. On the other hand, if Narset Transcendent does not work out or is a flop, Helen will lose a considerable amount of money.

Imagine you are advising Helen. Please choose a number from 1 (Helen should buy Narset Transcendent even if it is very unlikely to be a success) to 10 (Helen should only buy Narset Transcendent if it is certain it will be a success) that is the lowest probability you could consider acceptable for Helen to buy Narset Transcendent?

Based on the research, it is likely that if you are sitting in a room by yourself, you would tell Helen she should probably shy away from buying Narset Transcendent during preorders. After all, how many planeswalker can maintain a $50 price tag? (Hint: it is two, Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Liliana of the Veil, of the 66 planeswalker that have been printed). However, let's say you get on Reddit (a group) and hear people talking about how Narset Transcendent is the second coming of Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Legacy. In fact, she is probably better that Jace. Plus, she is going to revolutionize the Standard meta. Actually, there is a very real possibility she will be emergency banned. She is just too good. 

Research suggests that this interaction will not only arouse you psychologically, which in and of itself leads to poor decision making, but also increases your tolerance for risk (the "risky shift"). Next thing you know you empty your meager bank account to buy every copy of Narset Transcendent you can get your hand on only to spend the next four months watching Narset Transcendent be the biggest weekly price loser for 20-something weeks in a row. Oops. 

Meanwhile the big vendors are laughing their way right to the bank at the expense of the community. They know that our senses will be aroused from spoilers and that we will cause each other to take more risks by our hyped up Reddit posts and endless speculative articles, and they take full advantage. Now, just to be clear: the vendors are not doing anything wrong. They are doing exactly what they should do based on the tenets of capitalism; in all fairness we, as the community, are doing this to ourselves. 

Wrap Up

If sexual arousal can cause “normal” college students to find 12 year-old girls and 60 year-old women attractive, is it really that far-fetched that spoiler-season arousal can cause people to pay $40 for a card they know (if they actually took the time to think about it logically) will be $15 in a couple months, or $8 for a card they know will be $1? I don’t think so.

During the high arousal time of spoiler season, many magic players (and financiers) all too often let their hyper-aware, aroused state and the influence of the group get in the way of their rational minds. In the end, it costs them big time.

Thankfully, in many instances, this is an easy problem to fix. Let’s go back to Ariely and Loewenstien one more time. “At the individual level, there is considerable research showing that one’s meta-understanding of one’s own preferences can in many situations be almost as important as the preferences themselves… for example… Ariely and Wertenbroch found in a study of students taking a class that those who were aware of their own tendency to procrastinate, and hence voluntarily set deadlines for themselves, got higher course grades than those who did not. Self-insights when it comes to sexual arousal [or pre-order periods] and sexual [#mtgfinance] behavior is similarly likely to be important to decision making.”

The first and most important way to avoid the pitfalls of making risky (or downright stupid) decisions while in a state of arousal is to be aware that simply being aroused has a tendency to lead to risky (or downright stupid) decisions. Keep this in mind for the rest of Battle for Zendikar spoiler season (and every spoiler season thereafter).

Over the next days and weeks the pros will be hyping new cards in their articles, the finance community will be looking for undervalued assets and telling you what you should (and should not) buy, Saito will be posting intoxicating but untested decklists. Things will be crazy, irrational, and fun. Just be aware that this is a powerful mixture, and try to avoid clicking the “buy” button on cards you would never purchase in your “normal” state.


Anyway, that's all for today. Leave your thoughts, ideas and criticisms in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter (or MTGO) @SaffronOlive. 

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