Commentary / World

Soccer makes its fans unhappy in the long run

by Cass Sunstein

Bloomberg

Many people feel devastated after their favorite team loses. Sometimes they have trouble sleeping. (Yes, I speak from personal experience.) That raises some legitimate questions: Why suffer? Is it even rational to be a sports fan?

Recent research suggests that it might not be. On average, soccer, the most popular sport on the planet, makes people a lot less happy. The lesson is that if you’re strongly attached to your local team, you might be better off if you decide to disengage — starting right now.

Peter Dolton and George MacKerron of the University of Sussex linked several large data sets. To measure people’s happiness, they used millions of reports from tens of thousands of people, mostly in the United Kingdom, who recorded their levels of happiness at various times in the day, and who also reported on what they were doing during those times.

They also used data on all English and Scottish soccer matches during the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons. The data included the date, the odds and the results.

By connecting the happiness data with the soccer data, they could see how people’s happiness was affected by the outcome of the match. They made reasonable assumptions about which team people were most likely to support, based on where they lived and which matches they had attended in the past.

The basic finding was clear. A victory by the local team had a positive effect on people’s happiness — but it was much smaller than the negative effect of a loss. In addition, the positive effect of a victory did not last as long as the negative effect of a loss. Because the misery of a loss is so much greater than the joy of a win, soccer matches made people a lot less happy on balance.

For those who actually attended matches, both wins and losses had a significantly larger impact on happiness (not surprisingly). But the difference between the two persisted: If you took the trouble to go to the stadium, your suffering after a loss would be much greater than your pleasure after a win.

At this point, you might be wondering about the effects of expectations. In a famous paper, David Card and Gordon Dahl found a significant increase in domestic violence after National Football League games — but only when the home team suffered an upset loss. Maybe soccer fans are fine with losing, so long as their team wasn’t expected to win?

Dolton and MacKerron investigated that issue as well. Not surprisingly, they found that a loss had a more severe negative impact on people’s happiness when their team was expected to win than when it was expected to lose. Importantly, however, they found that people really did suffer when their team lost, even if that was anticipated. So fans didn’t adapt to expectations.

If we put all of the data together, the negative emotional consequences of losing turn out to be far higher than the positive emotional consequences of winning. That raises a question: Unless your team is bound to win most of the time, isn’t it a mistake to go to games, or to make an emotional investment in your side? Shouldn’t we all be finding better things to do?

To their credit, Dolton and MacKerron aren’t sure. They note that many people like having a sense of camaraderie; their data do not measure that, or the benefits of rooting for one’s team in conjunction with others. In addition, it can be a lot of fun to feel curiosity and anticipation.

There’s also the question of memories. Maybe the anguish of losses fades over time, and what remains are positive recollections of the experience. (Croatian and British fans, take heart.)

Being a fan also provides a connection with children, parents, grandchildren and grandparents. That’s gratifying, even meaningful. True, the distress of a loss might be acute, but perhaps it is outweighed by the overall benefits of fandom. There’s also a question whether the study’s findings generalize to other sports, such as baseball, football, hockey or tennis.

Maybe not. But in view of decades of work in behavioral science on the subject of “loss aversion,” it’s not exactly surprising to learn that for sports fans, the negative emotional impact of losses is a lot bigger than the positive emotional impact of wins. For those whose spirits sometimes rise but mostly fall with the fortunes of their favorite team, it makes sense to ask: Is it really worth it?

Bloomberg Opinion columnist Cass R. Sunstein is a Harvard law professor and the author of “The Cost-Benefit Revolution.”