Economics Can’t Capture the Emotional Heights of Football

This article appeared in City A.M. on May 15, 2018.
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Why do we put ourselves through this, year after year?

Most football fans ask that question at some stage each season.

It might be after a humiliating 4–0 home defeat on a wet Tuesday night. For me it came on Friday, after what was ostensibly a good result in a crucial match for the team I support.

Derby County eked out a hard‐​fought 1–0 win against Fulham in the first leg of the Championship play‐​off semi‐​final. A pleasing victory, sure, but one which only heightened my anxiety ahead of the second leg, which will be over before you read this. As they say, it’s the hope that kills you.

In a new paper, economists Peter Dolton and George MacKerron have shown though that football matches, on net, make fans unhappy. Wins unsurprisingly improve our mood, but defeats sour it by anything from twice to four times the magnitude of our delight of victory. The effect on our emotions is asymmetric.

The researchers use data from ping surveys to people’s mobiles, which ask respondents how they are feeling, what they are doing, who they are with, and where they are. Linking to GPS data and matching against football stadium locations, the academics can identify fans and monitor their moods.

And they find that matches themselves, on net, tend to leave football supporters more miserable than they’d otherwise be.

On a 0–100 happiness scale, the build‐​up before a game tends to make us feel more positive by 1.5 points. Following a win, our happiness score improves by 3.9 points.

If the team loses, though, supporters’ happiness drops dramatically — by 7.8 points in the first hour, though somewhat less pronounced thereafter.

These results are amplified for those at the match. We feel much happier in anticipation of the game, and a win raises happiness by 10 points (not far off the happiness spike we see after intimate moments at plus 12).

Still, though, a defeat has a far bigger impact — and at minus 14 points is somewhat close to the minus 19 associated with being ill in bed. We take defeat even more badly if a win for our team had been expected — as my family can attest.

Taken at face value, this suggests that millions of us plod along to games or buy cable and satellite subscription packages to watch every week, when deep down football makes us more miserable. Why?

Asking this reminds me of articles we see every year suggesting that Christmas presents are a “social waste” because people tend to value gifts at less than their cost.

If an economist’s model cannot explain observed behaviour, it is more likely that there’s something wrong with the model, rather than us fans.

That both reveal people behaving differently from predicted shows the dangers in thinking our happiness or the value we place on things are easily measurable or able to be manipulated.

And in this case, there are some obvious explanations. Being a football fan is about much more than the matches. It also means following team news, the gossip, the tribal Twitter feeds, having the conversation topics with friends, winding up colleagues at work, and so much more.

Yes, some of this is tribalism — something human beings yearn for. But isolating the effects of matches alone doesn’t fully capture what it means to be a football fan, and the happiness and camaraderie that can bring at other times.

Within‐​game emotions are also surely a crucial omission. The high of your team scoring a peach of a goal or saving a penalty are moments you remember and want to re‐​experience. They remain with you, whatever the final result, and that sugar rush is something you crave again and again.

Then there’s the value of the uncertainty of the contest itself, and the joy of watching the unfolding drama.

Indeed, one reason defeat is so bitter but victory relatively less pleasing surely comes from a sadness effect embedded in knowing that the match is over and you have to go a week until the team can rectify their loss or you get to feel the joy of victory again.

However, the researchers’ conclusion that victories in matches themselves are somewhat less emotive than the pain of defeat certainly resonates. If Derby did scrape through to Wembley last night, the inevitable joy I’ll feel will be far less intense than the dejection of playoff heartbreak again.

Yet I’ll still try to catch every game next year. There’s no more enjoyable way to feel miserable than football.

Ryan Bourne

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.