Hope Springs Eternal for NFL Fans

A study of football fans finds that when we desire a given outcome, we are biased to believe it will occur.
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A study of football fans finds that when we desire a given outcome, we are biased to believe it will occur.

From Rodgers and Hammerstein to Ricky Gervais, pop culture has portrayed Americans as irrepressible optimists. But is that cliché really true?

A new study of football fans finds the answer is absolutely yes — to the extent that we will stubbornly cling to our sanguine attitude even in the face of unforgiving facts.

Writing in the journal Psychological Science, a research team led by Yale University's Cade Massey describes a study of 386 Pollyannaish pigskin prognosticators. At the beginning of the 2008 NFL season, these football fans (who watched an average of three games per week) revealed their favorite team. Then, each week, they predicted the winner and final point differential of each game on the schedule.

The participants had a small cash incentive to be clear-minded, as they could earn up to $3.50 per week for accurate predictions. Only those who completed at least 14 of the 17 weekly surveys were included in the study.

"Participants predicted their favorite team would win at least 60 percent of the time, and they predicted that all other teams would win approximately 50 percent of the time," the researchers reported. This bias was "reliably positive in every week" of the survey, meaning those fans whose teams were well under .500 late in the season were still biased to believe they would win the next game.

"Football fans are as optimistic after four months of feedback as they are after four weeks," they write.

Using four different measurements, the researchers confirmed conventional wisdom, concluding that these optimistic predictions were "uniquely related to the desirability of the outcome."

"In the eyes of people who desire them, relatively unlikely events, such as teams winning when objective observers pick them only 30 percent of the time, become 50/50 propositions," Massey and his colleagues write.

Noting that this bias literally cost the study participants money, the researchers, well, punted on the issue of “whether this kind of optimistic bias is rational.” They note that “any benefits from the hopes we observed must be set against the risk of disappointment when these hopes are not realized.”

Indeed, although unwarranted optimism can lead to disastrous decision-making ("The value of my house could never go down!"), psychologist Roy Baumeister argues that “optimal psychological functioning is associated with a slight to moderate degree of distortion in one's perception of the self and world." Playwright Eugene O'Neill put it more succinctly, suggesting we all need our "pipe dreams."

And O'Neill’s hard-drinking characters would surely appreciate Massey's conclusion that optimism "appears to be as fueled by experience as it is sobered by it." Hope may be the thing with feathers, but apparently it's one tough, resilient bird.