Is supporting a football team irrational?

Anyone who has really, passionately followed a sports team must at some point wondered whether it is worth it: all the heartbreak, disappointment and frustration. Take Arsenal Fan TV: does it look like a bunch of people having a good time, or just making themselves miserable for no good reason? A fascinating new paper by Peter Dolton and George MacKerron takes up that very question. Using experience sampling data from an app that surveys people on their happiness at random points of the day, Dolton & MacKerron explore how football supporters’ mood is affected by watching their team play.

Their findings seem to suggest that supporting a football team is, in fact, irrational. They find that the negative effect of your team losing is twice as big as the boost to happiness of watching them win. In fact, a draw has a negative effect almost as big as a win. What’s more, the negative effect of a defeat typically lasts longer. You might think that’s just reason to avoid supporting a bad team that loses a lot. But Dolton & MacKerron show that expected wins give you a smaller boost, and shock defeats have a worse effect on your happiness – so higher expectations limit the benefits of following a better team.

The net result is that supporting a football team will almost certainly have a negative effect on your aggregate happiness. Given that’s the case, why do people do it? One response is that it is not a choice at all. But as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski show in Soccernomics, football supporters are far less tightly chained to their teams than you might think. Most are not born into supporting a team, and even those that are don’t feel compelled to watch them play every week – attendances vary dramatically, and tend to decline when a team plays poorly.

But even people don’t typically think about football fandom as a conscious choice, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be. I think part of the promise of happiness research is that it calls into question whether things we take for granted are really good for us. Just because someone’s father and father’s father were made miserable by the local team doesn’t mean they have to be too (although I’m less clear on how you can make yourself stop caring in practice).

Dolton & MacKerron run through a range of explanations for why fans might stick with their team, despite the negative effect on their aggregate happiness. For me, the one that gets closest to my personal motivation is their second – ‘Misrecording of massive highs’. They suggest that their data captures people’s emotions around the match better than during, and so potentially misses dramatic positive emotions such as the immediate effect of a goal. Indeed, even with the data that they have, they find that attending a match where your team wins is one of the most positive experiences a person can have, second only to ‘intimacy’ with a partner.

However, I don’t just think this is a matter of measurement issues underestimating positive effects. I think even if positive emotions are outweighed by negative in aggregate, it may be rational to be attracted by the height of the peak. This has some precedence in behavioural economics, which has found that our impression and memory of an event is heavily influenced by its peak. This is not irrational because remembered utility matters as well as experienced utility.

But I’m not sure even this quite captures it. I think there might be something qualitatively different about the experience of being a football fan that makes it attractive, to consider alongside its quantitative effect. When I think about the best moments of supporting a team, part of their appeal is that their nature is so different to my typical everyday experiences: sudden, dramatic, euphoric. Grown adults don’t get much excuse to jump around and shout and get so excited in the way football fans can. I wonder if this just adds to the diversity of experience, and whether this contributes to their perceived attractiveness?

I’m not sure if this would be considered irrational according to hedonic psychology. Paul Dolan has written about the need to balance two types of experience, pleasure and purpose, to increase our happiness. Perhaps that’s too narrow? Maybe football fandom at its best gives us something different – thrill maybe? – that contributes valuably too? I’m still thinking it through.

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