Math Drives Careers: Author Ignacio Palacios-Huerta

Logical thinking, analytical skills, and the ability to recognize patterns are crucial in an array of fields that overlap with mathematics, including economics. But what does math (or economics, for that matter) have to do with the world’s most popular sport? Economist Ignacio Palacios-Huerta’s recent book, Beautiful Game Theory: How Soccer Can Help Economics  made a splash during the last World Cup, showing how universal economic principles can be understood through soccer. Read on for his thoughts on why the language of modern economics, including behavioral economics, is mathematics.

The Role of Mathematics in my Life as an Economist

To describe the role of mathematics in my life as an economist, I first need to explain what, to me, Economics is all about. So let me take you to one of my favorite books, A Treatise of Human Nature, written almost 300 years ago by David Hume.

Beautiful Game TheoryIn the introduction Hume writes, “‘Tis evident that all the sciences have a relation, more or less, to human nature … Even Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of Man, [which is] the only solid foundation for the other sciences”. By the science of man Hume means the understanding of all facets of human nature, including preferences, senses, passions, imagination, morality, justice, and society. This science applies wherever men are making decisions, be it running public institutions or countries, as employees in firms, or as individuals investing in education, taking risks in financial markets, or making family decisions. This science of man is thus what one may initially be tempted to call Economics for, as George Bernard Shaw puts it in my favorite definition, “Economy is the art of making the most of life”.

But of course this definition is incomplete because other social sciences (e.g., sociology, history, psychology, political science) are also concerned with human behavior. So what makes Economics “different”? Here is the difference: the difference is not the subject matter but the approach. The approach is totally different, and a very mathematical one. As such, mathematics plays a critical role in the life of any economist.

Let me elaborate. Continuing with Hume, it turns out that he also anticipated our methodological approach in modern Economics: observation and logical arguments. Which can be translated as: data and data analysis (what we call econometrics), and mathematics, for mathematics is, after all, the language of logic. So in Economics, as in physics, we write down our ideas and theories in mathematical terms to make logical arguments, and then we use more math (statistical, econometrics, etc) to check whether the data appear to be consistent with the theoretical arguments. If they are, the evidence can be said to support the theory; if they aren’t, the theory needs to be refined or discarded. Yes, lots of math and related techniques provide what is our distinct “economics approach to human behavior.” It is not the subject matter but the approach that is different, and it heavily relies on mathematics.

To economists and other social scientists, mathematics has many methodological virtues: it can lend precision to theories, can uncover inconsistencies, can generate hypothesis, can enable concision and promote intelligibility, and can sort out complex interactions, while statistical and econometric analysis can organize and carefully interpret voluminous data.

None of this is obvious when you begin studying Economics (“Why should I take all this math, statistics and econometrics? Why all this pain?”). But I think most of us soon learn to appreciate that the language of modern economics is mathematics, and that it is rightly so. And this is not math for the sake of math (as in pure mathematics), but math with a purpose: modeling human behavior.

Let me conclude by saying that since the economic approach is applicable to all human behavior, any type of data about human activity can be useful to evaluate economic theories. This includes, why not, sports data, which in many ways can be just perfect for testing economic theories: the data are abundant, the goals of the participants are clear, the outcomes are easy to observe, the stakes are high, and the subjects are professionals with experience. If a theory is “correct”, sport is a good setting to check it.

So just as data involving falling stones and apples were useful to Galileo Galilei and  Isaac Newton to test for the first time theories that were important in physics, data from sports can be useful in Economics to do exactly the same. As such in some of my contributions to Economics I have used math to develop theoretical models, and further mathematical tools applied to this type of data to test them.

And the REAL World Cup Winner is…

IPHWell, surely everybody knows by now – the 2014 World Cup is over, and Germany went home with the trophy.

But there’s another “winner” worth mentioning: Princeton University Press author and London School of Economics professor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, whose latest book, Beautiful Game Theory: How Soccer Can Help Economics, garnered some wonderful press over the course of the tournament. Mr. Palacios-Heurta not only received a mention in the Science section of the New York Times and was the subject of a full-length article in strategy+business; he also penned an op-ed for the New York Times’s Sunday Review and was featured in stories in both the Financial Times and Worldcrunch.

Sure, he can’t rally like Ronaldo or kick it like Klose; but this fùtbol fanatic’s research presents advantages that extend far beyond the pitch.

Palacios-Huerta is unique in that he utilizes soccer data to test economic theories. In his op-ed in the Times, Palacios-Huerta lays out the basics of this experiment by explaining its origins in the Nash Equilibrium, which analyzes how people should behave in “strategic situations” and stresses that, in order to “win,” they shouldn’t repeat their choices. He says that, “according to Mr. Nash’s theory, in a zero-sum game (i.e., where a win for one player entails a corresponding loss for the other) the best approach is to vary your moves unpredictably and in such proportions that your probability of winning is the same for each move.”

He chooses penalty kicks to demonstrate this theory because they’re zero-sum games, wherein it’s ill-advised to use a strategy repeatedly. The explanation for this is relatively simple: a player’s shots become predictable if he always kicks to the same side of the net, making them easier to block. A lot of legwork (pun somewhat-intended) has gone into proving this idea: Palacios-Huerta analyzed 9,017 penalty kicks between 1995 and 2012, to find that successful players typically distributed their shots unpredictably and in just the right proportions. We won’t get into the numbers here, but they’re abundant in both the book and the op-ed.

Other research by me and others has shown that data from soccer can shed light on the economics of discrimination, fear, corruption and the dark side of incentives in organizations. In other words, aspects of the beautiful game that are less than beautiful from a fan’s perspective can still be illuminating for economists.”

And penalty kicks are just one handy example. Data from soccer can also illuminate one of the most prominent theories of the stock market: the efficient-market hypothesis, which essentially posits that the market processes economic data so quickly that any news relating to a stock is incorporated into its price before anyone can even act on it, diminishing the risk of insider trading.

We’re excited to see more of what these soccer stats can do to advance economic theory, and more importantly, how Palacios-Huerta can translate something so complicated, using something so, well…beautiful.


Ignacio Palacios-Huerta is the author of:

BGT Beautiful Game Theory: How Soccer Can Help Economics by Ignacio Palacios-Huerta
Hardcover | 2014 | $35.00 / £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691144023
224 pp. | 6 x 9 | 30 line illus. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400850310 | Reviews Table of Contents   Introduction[PDF] 

Place Your Bets: Tim Chartier Develops FIFA Foe Fun to Predict World Cup Outcomes

Tim ChartierTim Chartier, author of Math Bytes: Google Bombs, Chocolate-Covered Pi, and Other Cool Bits in Computing has turned some mathematical tricks to help better predict the outcome of this year’s World Cup in Brazil.

Along with the help of fellow Davidson professor Michael Mossinghoff and Whittier professor Mark Kozek, Chartier developed FIFA Foe Fun, a program that enables us ordinary, algorithmically untalented folk to generate a slew of possible match outcomes. The tool weighs factors like penalty shoot-outs and the number of years of matches considered, all with the click of a couple buttons. Chartier used a similar strategy in his March Mathness project, which allowed students and basketball fans alike to create mathematically-produced brackets – many of which were overwhelmingly successful in their predictions.

Although the system usually places the most highly considered teams, like Brazil, Germany, and Argentina at the top, the gadget is still worth a look. Tinker around a bit, and let us know in the comments section how your results pan out over the course of the competition.

In the meantime, check out the video below to hear Chartier briefly spell out the logic of the formula.

Happy calculating!

Quick Questions for Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, author of Beautiful Game Theory: How Soccer Can Help Economics

5-28 Palacios-HuertaIgnacio Palacios-Huerta is professor of management, economics, and strategy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He received a B.Sc. in Economics from the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain, and an M.A. in Economics from the University of Chicago, where he also completed his Ph.D. in Economics. Palacios-Huerta is also the Head of Talent Identification at the Athletic Club de Bilbao and is a Senior Fellow at the Ikerbasque-Basque Foundation for Science at UPV/EVU.

Dr. Palacios-Huerta is a contributing editor of In 100 Years (MIT), an engaging text that draws on the expertise and imagination of ten prominent economists to “present their ideas about the world of the twenty-second century,” considering topics like “the transformation of work and wages, the continuing increase in inequality, and the economic rise of China and India,” among others. He continues to produce scholarship on economic theory and has several articles, like “Consumer Inertia, Choice Dependence and Learning from Experience in a Repeated Decision Problem” (Review of Economics and Statistics), up for publication in 2014.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?
Ignacio Palacios-Huerta: In recent decades, economics has extended across many fields and areas previously considered to belong to sociology, political science, psychology, and several other sciences. What distinguishes this book is that its basic idea is just the opposite: it is not what economics can do for area or field X, but what X can do for economics. And so it takes exactly the opposite route. In the book X is, of course, soccer. And the idea is to attempt to obtain and present novel insights into human behavior using data and settings from soccer. This is what distinguishes this book from other economics books and from other books on the study of sports, and I think it is its most important contribution. After all, if the economic approach is applicable to all human behavior, then any type of data about human activity is useful to evaluate economic theories.

What is the biggest misunderstanding that people have about what you do? (I.e., is it anthropology? Economics? etc.)
I think this picture (taken from N. Gregory Mankiw’s blog) captures quite well a number of misunderstandings:


What are you reading right now?
A novel by Ramiro Pinilla, Aquella Edad Inolvidable, a biography of British graffiti artist Banksy by Will Ellsworth-Jones, and Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh.

What was the most influential book you’ve read?
I would say, for different reasons, these three books are tied in first place:

Economic Theory by Gary S. Becker; A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume; and The Passions and the Interests by Albert Hirschman (Princeton).

Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?
The actual writing took me around 4-5 months, but I was thinking about it for a long time, probably around 3-4 years, collecting data, developing experiments, running the different empirical tests, and reading and keeping relevant stories and anecdotes in my mind to make the book as engaging as possible.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?
Lack of time: time to think, and time to work and write.

“The idea is to attempt to obtain and present novel insights into human behavior and data settings from soccer. […] I am interested in pushing the economic approach to human behavior.”

Why did you write this book?
Two reasons. First, as indicated in the first question, there is a clear aspect that distinguishes this book from other economics books and from other books on the study of sports. To the best of my knowledge this is the first book that takes this novel approach, and so I felt that, from this perspective, there was a genuine chance to present a unique contribution. Second, I am interested in pushing the economic approach to human behavior. And so, if any type of data about human activity is useful to evaluate economic theories, what could possibly be most appealing to a wide audience than data from sports, and in particular data from the world’s most popular sport?

Who do you see as the audience for this book?
Anyone interested in economics, anyone interested in sports, and anyone who thinks that he or she might perhaps become interested in economics and/or in sports, especially if he or she has a curious or scientific mind.

How did you come up with the title or jacket?
The title was a suggestion by the initial editor of the book at Princeton University Press, Richard Baggaley, and by my colleague at the London School of Economics, David De Meza. They both, independently of each other, had the same suggestion. And as soon as they suggested this title, I thought it was great. I really liked it and instinctively knew that it would be the title of the book.

With respect to the jacket, it was a suggestion by an excellent designer at Princeton University Press. I suggested some ideas, and one of them was distantly related to the one in the final jacket since it contained a “bicycle kick.” But the jacket is more striking and spectacular than anything I could have come up with. I really like it.


Ignacio is the author of:

5-28 Palacios-Huerta BGT Beautiful Game Theory: How Soccer Can Help Economics by Ignacio Palacios-Huerta
Hardcover | 2014 | $35.00 / £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691144023
224 pp. | 6 x 9 | 30 line illus.| eBook | ISBN: 9781400850310 |Reviews Table of Contents Introduction[PDF]