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Hope, the Quintessential Sports Fan Emotion

NFL fans and ESPN reporters alike demonstrate a psychological effect known as optimism bias, according to new research.
God love you, Raiders fans. (Photo: sgrace/Flickr)

God love you, Raiders fans. (Photo: sgrace/Flickr)

With the National Football League's first game of the season now behind us and the usual slew of games coming Sunday, psychologists have a helpful reminder for all the fans out there: Your team probably won't be as good as you think. That's because, as a new study reports, football fans collectively believe their favorite teams will win more than 300 games—something that's arithmetically impossible.

Important an observation as that is, psychologists Bradley Love, Łukasz Kopeć, and Olivia Guest weren't primarily interested in football. Instead, they were interested in optimism bias, the tendency most of us have toward overly rosy expectations regarding workplace hazards, social mobility, and even cancer. But optimism bias is hard to pin down in the real world, and some have questioned whether it really exists—perhaps, they argue, the effect is an artifact of less-than-perfect experimental designs combined with a general paucity of truly bad events.

Fans predicted their teams would get 9.6 wins on average, or 307 total victories this season—51 more than are actually possible.

Football is different. "When two teams play, only one team can go home victorious," Love, Kopeć, and Guest write in the journal PLoS One, which means not every team can have a winning season. For example, let's say I predict the Seahawks will win 11 of 16 regular season games this year, and when I poll fans of other teams, they all say the same thing—"my team will win 11 games." But with only 256 games per season, there aren't enough victories for all 32 NFL teams to win 11 games. Some of us—maybe all of us—are being overly optimistic.

Yet that's how fans think. The researchers first asked each of 1,116 men and women to pick their favorite NFL team and then predict how many games the team would win that season. Then, they averaged those by team to get 32 team predictions, and then averaged those predictions across all the teams. Fans, they found, predicted their teams would get 9.6 wins on average, or 307 total victories this season—51 more than are actually possible.

Experts aren't immune from optimism bias, either. In 2014, ESPN assigned 32 reporters to each cover one NFL team, and asked them to predict that team's total number of wins and losses. Adding up all the wins those reporters predicted, the total came to 284, or 8.9 wins per team. (This year, they predicted 281 wins, or 8.8 per team.)

"Fans, like professionals assigned to cover a team, were overly optimistic about their team's prospects," Love, Kopeć, and Guest conclude. "Because success within the NFL is zero sum, these results make clear that [optimism] bias exists and that collective decision making is inconsistent."

But, footballs fans, there is always hope—unless your team is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Tennessee Titans, in which case probably not.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.