The NFL’s Gift to Behavioral Economics

Daniel Kahneman is widely-regarded as the Godfather of modern-day behavioral economics. His seminal work Thinking, Fast and Slow draws on decades of research into the mental heuristics and cognitive biases that influence human decision-making and judgment. In it, Kahneman offers a two-system framework to describe the way we process information: System 1 — a fast, intuitive, and “automatic” mode of thinking (e.g., recognizing a familiar face) — and System 2, a slower, deliberate, more conscious mode of thought (e.g., solving a hard math problem).

Kahneman’s groundbreaking research has netted him many awards over the years, including the Nobel Prize in Economics. Yet even Kahneman himself couldn’t have predicted the gift that he would receive this holiday season from NFL quarterback Kirk Cousins: An incredible illustration of System 1 versus System 2 thinking that played out publicly — and spectacularly — in front of millions of TV viewers across the country.

Kirk Cousins’ “kneel-down debacle”

As the first half in Philadelphia wound to a close, Kirk Cousins moved Washington into scoring position. With the clock running down and no time-outs remaining, Cousins lined up to execute one of the most automatic plays in football; a clock-killing spike, which required only that Cousins throw the ball directly into the ground in front of him.

What happened next shocked fans and players, and left an exasperated announcer to wonder aloud: “What’s the thought-process there?!”

What happened? Instead of spiking the football, Kirk Cousins “took a knee”, inadvertently ending the half along with Washington’s scoring chances. A momentum-building scoring opportunity was wiped out by one of the most stunning moments in recent football history.

For Cousins, one of the most routine plays in football had been anything but automatic.

Or was it?

A typical clock-killing situation in football is frantic. Offensive players scramble to the line of scrimmage, and at the very moment they reach their positions the quarterback barks for the center to hike him the ball. All of the situational cues — from the quarterback shouting instructions, to the hurried movement of the offensive players, to the referee rushing to place the ball down — smack of urgency.

However, when Kirk Cousins approached the line this time something unexpected happened: the game paused. A Philadelphia player swatted the ball away, causing the referee to call a delay-of-game penalty and momentarily stop the action, as he announced the call and reset the ball prior to the snap.

With the feeling of urgency all-but-removed from the game situation — Cousins had time to walk toward the sidelines to confer with his coaches during the announcement — when Cousins resumed his place under center the situational cues had changed. These new cues — a QB casually walking to the line to take the snap, offensive and defensive players set in their formations — suddenly resembled another common end-of-the-half situation: the kneel down.

Primed with these new environmental instructions, Cousin’s fast-thinking “automatic” System 1 took action before his System 2 had a chance to intervene. Look closer at the replay, and you can actually see the moment [0:48] when Cousins consciously realizes his error. Immediately after taking the knee, Cousins spikes the football in a desperate effort to reverse his mistake; that’s the exact moment when his System 2 caught up to his System 1.

Running off the field at halftime, confused Washington head coach Jay Gruden told a sideline reporter “I have no idea why Kirk took a knee. I’ll have to find out at halftime.”

But to those familiar with the work of Daniel Kahneman, waiting until halftime for an explanation wasn’t necessary: Kirk Cousins was thinking fast, when he should have been thinking slow.