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Why football fans are unrealistically optimistic — and why it matters

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs celebrating
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs celebrating with teammates following a touchdown during the Sept. 3 pre-season game against the Tennessee Titans.

The Minnesota Vikings kick off their 2015 season tonight with a game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Both teams’ fans are likely to have an overly rosy view of how well their players are going to do tonight — and throughout the season.

For, as a study published last week in the journal PLOS ONE reports, National Football League (NFL) fans collectively believe their favorite teams are going to win more than 300 games this season — a statistical impossibility.

The reason for these unrealistic expectations is a psychological phenomenon known as optimism bias. It’s the tendency of people to overestimate the likelihood of experiencing a positive outcome and to underestimate the likelihood of experiencing a negative one.

Challenging to research

Optimism bias has been observed in many situations. Studies have found, for example, that people tend to be overly optimistic about their risk for getting in a traffic accident, or developing cancer or getting injured on the job.

Americans, especially young people, conservatives and members of the upper class, also tend to overestimate social mobility in the U.S. — the ability of people to move up economically by working hard and saving money.

Optimism bias is believed to help inspire humans to continue persevering, even under difficult circumstances. But it can also have negative consequences. People who underestimate health risks, for example, may not seek medical care when the need actually arises.

And people who overestimate their personal chances at social mobility may vote against their own economic interests.

Conclusively demonstrating that optimism bias exists is a challenge, however, primarily because most studies do not use a system with zero-sum outcomes. (The fact that one person avoids cancer doesn’t mean that another will develop the disease.) So it’s difficult to establish with certainty whether people’s optimism about outcomes that affect them are biased or not. 

That’s why the authors of the current study turned to NFL fans. The NFL “is the perfect system to study optimism bias because it’s zero sum — one team winning means another team losing,” explains Brad Love, the study’s lead author and a psychologist at the University College London, in a released statement.

Study details

For the study, Love and his colleagues surveyed 1,116 NFL fans (mean age: 34) last April. They were asked to predict how many games they believed both their favorite team and least favorite teams would win this season.

The researchers averaged these predictions by individual teams and then across all teams. The number of wins predicted by the fans for their favorite team averaged 9.59, compared to 6.10 wins for the team that they most disliked. That meant the fans had collectively predicted a total of 307 victories for their favorite teams — 51 more than possible.

The study found that the New England Patriots were the most-liked team among the fans surveyed. It was also, however, the one most disliked. Both groups — those who liked and those who disliked the Patriots — were optimistic about the team doing well in 2015, but the fans were slightly more so, predicting, on average, one more victory.

This “optimism” gap between the predictions of fans and rivals was also narrow (about one game) for the Denver Broncos, the Seattle Seahawks and the Philadelphia Eagles. The gap was widest for the Cincinnati Bengals and the Arizona Cardinals, whose fans predicted an average of 6.6 more wins than did people who declared a dislike for these teams.

“It’s interesting that both fans and rivals of high-profile, successful teams are generally in agreement about their expected performance,” said Love. “By contrast, we see the largest optimism gap for lower-profile teams that receive little national media coverage, enabling fans and local media to construct their own optimistic narratives.”

Unfortunately, the study does not mention the Minnesota Vikings.

Experts also biased

Sports reporters — so-called experts — appear to have biases similar to those of NFL fans.

Love and his colleagues examined data from a pre-season 2014 survey of 32 of ESPN’s football reporters. The experts were asked to predict the final record for the team they had been assigned that year to cover. Collectively, they predicted an average of 8.93 wins for the 16-game season — significantly greater than the average number of wins possible.

“We should perhaps take the predictions of experts assigned to a single team with a pinch of salt as they may not appreciate the bigger picture,” said Love.

Implications beyond football

This study provides an interesting insight into a psychological phenomenon that affects all of us, whether we follow football or not. 

“We find that optimism bias is not limited to one’s own prospects, but extends to those dear to an individual such as a favored team,” write Love and his colleagues in their paper. “These results align with the finding that people judge their friends to be better than average.”

“Perhaps these positive beliefs about close associates confer many of the proposed advantages of the optimism bias to others,” the researchers add. “Indeed, these positive evaluations of close associates may contribute to recipients developing the optimism bias. In effect, positivity may be contagious even in situations where there are only so many winners.”

You can read the study in full on the PLOS ONE website.

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Comments (8)

One of those studies

This is one of those studies that gets belittled by budget hawks in Congress because it sounds silly on its face: we found out whether people think their favorite football team will win. Woopee do.

But it's actually about optimism bias, and provides a useful example where that can be seen. Thanks for the story.

Well...

At the end of the day there's almost nothing truly consequential about sports, these are games and whether or not anyone wins or loses these games is actually inconsequential. We know that people are irrational about sports but it doesn't matter because... it's sports.

The only problem arises when people try to apply sports mentalities outside of sports, stadiums and arena policies based on sports mentalities for example.

Unrealistic optimism is a real thing, its not a new idea or a new observation... ask the Nazis or Napoleon, or the guys who opened fire on Fort Sumter. In many ways we live in a society that actually promotes unrealistic optimism, but is that really about optimism or is it about a failure or reluctance to look at evidence and think critically?

I think it's the latter... wherever you find unrealistic or disproportionate optimism you find a lack of critical thinking. You see it in games because games aren't about critical thinking and evidence, they're about being a fan and enjoying oneself either as a player or a spectator. Games are an escape from consequences and critical thinking. Even Chess, which is supposed to be an "intellectual" game isn't really about critical thinking, it's about patterns and rules, this is why the Russians don't rule the world.

The problem is people keep thinking they're gong to study games and athletes and then tell us something important about the real world... this is why "game" theory in economics has never once predicted a single recession or collapse. This idea that we can make sports more than just a game... like we're going to unravel the mysteries of human nature by studying football?

Conservatives are competitive

The reason conservatives are among those who demonstrate "optimism bias" is because as sports fans (and business people) we are competitive, a trait shared with most successful people. As such, we go into any competition with the belief that we can win.

All competitors have this belief or they would simply stop competing or paying attention to competition in general. I mean, if you don't believe you'll be successful, why try, right? If you don't believe your favorite team will be successful, why follow their season?

In sports, business, war (the ultimate competition) conservatives are competitive.

Liberals tend to avoid competition. Most liberals have never competed in sports, most have no interest in following the exploits of local sports teams, most would rather work in non-competitive occupations (government, non-profits, unionized jobs), and they certainly avoid war at all costs.

But what's this mean? "And people who overestimate their personal chances at social mobility may vote against their own economic interests."

The left uses this a lot and I have no idea what it means. Voting for a particular party or candidate will increase my take home pay? How does that work? Seriously.

If I am suffering from a lack of "social mobility" how does voting for a democrat enhance my economic self-interest? Surely there's an enlightened liberal out there who can explain it to me. But I doubt it.

Please

Stop the Hate!

Competition

I'm ignoring what you wrote from paragraph 5 on because you veered totally off track there and the balance of your post has nothing to do with the first part, which I am responding to.

Yes, a lot of liberals probably dislike competition (I'm one of them). For me, it's because of the inherent characteristic of competition that says someone will win. Of course, that also means someone will lose. And losing may or may not have severe consequences for the person affected by it, depending on the situation in which the loss occurs (e.g. in sports, consequences just mean you lost the game. In - say - job applications, losing may mean a major life reversal.)

In cases where losing has a major impact on a person's life, this is not something to be taken lightly. Liberals have concern for the wellbeing of individuals, and so this is why you probably detect a general dislike of competition among liberals.

Now this is not to say that ALL forms of competition are bad. "Personal best", for example. You say that liberals don't compete in sports (generalization), but that does not mean they don't *participate* in sports. It's just that often the kinds of sports they're drawn to focus more on personal improvement than on beating someone else down.

And of course when it comes to war, it's why liberals will tend to favor the diplomatic solution over the hawkish. Why does it have to be necessary to defeat someone if a less harmful yet effective alternative is available?

I make no apologies for my dislike of competition just as I make no apologies for being a liberal. As far as I'm concerned, a less competitive world would be a better world.

Right...

Conservatives love competition so much that they fight tooth and nail to eliminate it by any means possible.
By the way, this liberal played college basketball and still holds track records. But I enjoyed your schoolyard bravado anyway.

Best to ignore everything from word 5 on....

Conservatives are competitive and liberal's aren't? Sure, that's why EVERY billionaire is a conservative and conservatives win EVERY election... liberals just don't know how to "compete".

Again, the issue is critical thinking, not "optimism".

Maybe you could explain how voting for Ronald Reagan...

...enhanced the economic self-interests of "working class" (meaning wage-earning) people ?? Good luck in that attempt.

Once you've realized that those voters shot themselves in the foot by electing Reagan, you'll realize that voting for someone else (e.g. a Democrat) does make a certain sense. Of course, that someone else may also be spinning false narratives and serving up snake oil like Reagan, but at least it would be a different snake oil, without the trickle-down theory and slow starvation of the working class brought on by Reaganomics.