Emotionally and economically, being a sports fan sucks. So why do we do it?

The agony.
The agony.
Image: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino
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Millions of French soccer fans are feeling great right now. Billions of supporters for other teams are miserable.

Most sports fans will tell you that following their team is agony. Like first dates or Marvel movies, high expectations are almost always dashed. In most professional sports, only one team becomes champion, so every season ends in failure for the bulk of the league.

Loss aversion,” a key theory in behavioral economics, may partly explain why being a sports fan stinks so much. First proposed by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, loss aversion is the idea that the negative experience from losing something is worse than the positive experience of gaining something of the same or greater value. For example, if you offer people a chance to win $5 if a coin lands on heads, but lose $4 if it lands on tails, they often won’t take the bet, even though it would be a good investment (pdf). They won’t do it because they instinctively know the emotional pain of losing money outweighs the positive feelings of winning it. The theory has proven useful in marketing and framing incentives for employees.

Data from a new study (pdf) suggests that loss aversion also describes the life of a sports fan. For the study, economists Peter Dolton and George MacKerron of the University of Sussex analyzed data from the Mappiness Project, a survey in which people are randomly pinged on their phones and asked, among other questions, how happy they are at the moment. Tens of thousands of people have signed up for the project in the UK. In addition to estimating their happiness at a given moment, they also allow the researchers to track their location by GPS, and report what they are doing when they are contacted.

To examine the impact of sports, the researchers looked at the reported happiness of people they identified as soccer fans before and after matches during the British and Scottish seasons between 2011 and 2013. They found that in the hours leading up to a match, the average fan is a bit happier than they usually are at that time of day. If their team wins, in the hour afterwards they are about 3-5 points happier than usual, on a scale of 0-100. A draw brings them down 2-4 points, and a loss 6.5-10 points. (These are average impacts, so some people may be much happier or sadder.)

As loss aversion predicts, losing makes you feel worse than winning makes you feel better. Maybe, then, you could just choose to root for a consistently good team to avoid the angst? Sorry, frontrunners, but this probably won’t work. The researchers found that wins don’t feel as good when they are expected (as measured by betting odds before a game), but draws and losses feel a lot worse.

So if it’s so hopeless, why do so many people still follow sports teams? The researchers don’t really have an answer. As a sports fan myself, I would guess that, like most long-term relationships, fandom is not about happiness. Rather, it is about connecting with others in a community and the intrinsic sense of being loyal to something besides yourself. And besides, misery loves company.