A Forgotten Project

by Site Author

In 2005, I was a graduate student, struggling to find a research topic. I spent that year—and then all of the next—trying to come up with topics that would lead me to a thesis, pitching lousy ideas to my advisers, filling notebooks with sketches of hypothetical data and with little angst-filled, despairing comments.

One day, I came across an idea that seemed worth pursuing. I thought about the notion of morale: that one win might motivate you for the next challenge. Now studying morale is tricky: it’s rarely randomly assigned. Psychologists have lab experiments that are designed to test how morale affects behavior, but it’s difficult to isolate morale outside of the laboratory.

And that’s where my idea came in: in certain sports, coin tosses influence which team wins the game. A little Googling taught me that the coin toss in American football doesn’t matter so much, but that the opening coin toss in cricket games does matter. The cricket team that wins the opening coin toss is five percent more likely to win the game.

And so my idea was to test whether winning a cricket coin toss made a team more likely to win the next game. This seemed like a neat way to isolate the importance of morale: the outcome of the coin toss is randomly assigned, and so it would allow me to measure whether having won one game improves your chances of winning the next game.

I pitched the idea to a classmate, Matt, and he thought it was worth pursuing. We found a web site that listed the results of cricket games dating back to the nineteenth century. Matt wrote a perl script to scrape the site, and after running the script overnight, we had a dataset with 80,000—80,000!—cricket games.

Then it was my turn to run some regressions. Sadly, those regressions did not lead to a compelling finding. I confirmed that the opening coin toss really did affect who won that game, but I found no effect of that coin toss on the next game. Matt and I had hoped for a more interesting result, a demonstration of the importance of morale. Instead, we ended up with a pretty uninteresting one, and so we never wrote up the findings.

I’ve been thinking about the whole project since last week, when I stumbled on my old notes. The project reminds me of those grad-school years, bouncing from one project to the next, desperate for something that would lead to a thesis. It was a tough time and each idea that didn’t work out took a piece out of me.

But the project also represents what I love about the research process. Granted, this one idea might not have been all that compelling—this is not the kind of work that wins awards. Still, it was just a bit of inspiration, a bit of poking around, and then that little glimmer of opportunity, the chance of ending up with a real paper.