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Football makes fans less happy

The pain felt by football fans after a defeat is more than double the joy of winning, according to researchers at the University of Sussex.

The team analysed three million responses from 32,000 people on a smartphone app called Mappiness, which periodically asks users how they are feeling, what they are doing, where they are and who they are with.

By combining this rich data with GPS locations of football stadia and times and results of football matches over three years, they were able to pinpoint football fans and monitor their mood in the build-up to and after matches.

Even though in-match mood levels were not analysed, the study suggests that the cumulative effect of being a football fan is “overwhelmingly negative”.

By quizzing people in the moment via a random ping on their phone, the app reveals a much more accurate snapshot of momentary happiness than traditional research techniques, in which responses can be filtered through rose-tinted glasses.

On average, fans were 3.9 percentage points happier in the hour following a win, dropping off to 1.3 and 1.1 points in the second and third hours.

A defeat, meanwhile, caused a drop in happiness of 7.8 points in the first hour, and 3.1 and 3.2 points in the second and third hour.

The joy and pain is felt even more keenly by those fans actually in the stadium.

The jubilation of a win felt by those attending a match is around three-to-four times higher than for those watching at home, boosting happiness by around 10 points. To put that into context, only lovemaking or intimacy had a bigger effect on happiness across all the millions of responses to the Mappiness app.

The flipside is that the sting of defeat becomes even more extreme, with a dramatic drop of 14 happiness points if you are in the stadium to see your team lose.

Dr George Mackerron, co-creator of Mappiness and behavioural economist at the University of Sussex’s business school, said: “Most fans would tell you that football makes them happy, but our unique data tells a different story. The average football match seems overwhelmingly negative for people’s moment-to-moment happiness.

“Continuing to follow a team even though it causes more pain than pleasure looks irrational from a traditional economic perspective.”

So why do people keep going to matches? The answer partly lies in the pleasure of simply anticipating the spectacle of a live football match. The researchers saw a large 7.9 point spike in happiness among fans in the stadium before a ball was kicked. Supporters at home  experienced only a tiny 0.2 point pre-match bump.

Another explanation from the researchers is that being a football fan is addictive, with fans always trying to get back the massive high of seeing your team win in person.

The researchers also suggest fans systematically over-estimate the probability of their team winning and never revise or learn from experience. Being in a tribe and the camaraderie in the stands are other potential explanations.

Co-author Professor Peter Dolton says: “Despite making them less happy overall, it seems football fans are willing to endure this for the rush of pleasure when their team does actually win, despite the payoff not being as great as the pain of losing.

“Football is the biggest sport on the planet and the way it makes us feel is hugely important for economies, and very interesting for economists.”

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By: Patrick Reed
Last updated: Tuesday, 15 May 2018

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