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The psychological economics of sports fandom


Many serious sports fans report that the pain of watching their favorite team lose exceeds the pleasure of watching it win.  As one friend put it to me, “the losses are pure agony, while victories bring only temporary relief from future suffering.”  This is consistent with my own experience, although at this point in my life I, fortunately I suppose, remain a fan of only one team in one sport in this serious sense (By “serious” I mean a significant level of emotional involvement in the outcome of a team’s contests — one that introspective fans often recognize is on some level highly irrational.  For those who have no first-hand experience of serious fandom but are curious about it, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is an excellent introduction).

This experience — of hating to lose more than liking to win — appears to be very common in contexts other than sports fandom.  Indeed a central insight of behavioral economics, as reflected in the pathbreaking work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, is that people typically hate to lose so much that they are strongly risk-averse when considering what are framed as possible gains, but just as strongly risk-seeking when considering symmetrical options when these are framed as possible losses.

Here’s a classic example from their work: You are given $1000.  Now you have the option of receiving $500 more, or instead, flipping a coin for a chance to receive $1000 more.  Assuming no significant declining marginal utility at these levels, a risk-neutral person should be indifferent to either option, since a .5 chance to win another $1000 is mathematically identical to a certain $500 additional gain.  But across cultures, a very large majority of people, when given this choice, choose the certain $500.

But if the experiment is tweaked slightly, the results are reversed.  If people are given $2000, then given the option of either having to give $500 back, or flipping a coin to either give nothing or $1000 back, by just as large majorities they choose the coin flip.  Although the four options in the two scenarios are all identical in terms of expected gain — $1500 — framing the $1500 outcome as a gain or a loss leads to radically different results in terms of how desirable that outcome is considered by the subjects.  (Kahneman and Tversky dubbed this “the endowment effect” — people value what they think of as already theirs more than they value equivalent options that they think of as being prospective gains).

Now, the psychology of sports fandom sketched above fits this model well.  But this psychology raises a conundrum: if sporting contests are zero sum in regard to wins and losses, then the psychic damage endured by fans who watch their team lose will, by hypothesis, outweigh the psychic gains enjoyed by an equivalent number of fans who watch their team win. (Of course one consequence of this is that winning teams have more fans than losing teams, but this fact complicates rather than eliminates the need for an explanation of why the economics of fandom works as a practical matter).

This would seem to make sports fandom, in the aggregate, a strongly negative psychic experience, which in turn would seem to be a huge problem for a purely voluntary — not to mention expensive — social practice and form of identity.

I have my own thoughts on ways to explain this apparent paradox, but for now I’m throwing it out for general discussion.

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