England fans are strange

Note: I think this post is going to cost me some readers or at least will create some visceral reactions. Feel free to hit me with your best insults if you like. I can take it.

I have to admit, as a German, I do not understand English football fans. Or English sports fans in general for that matter. Every time the FIFA World Cup or the UEFA European Championships come along, the English pretend that their team is one of the favourites to win the title. Nobody else in the entire world thinks that England has anything more than a slightly above-average team, but England fans are convinced they are going to win it this time – only to be devastated when their team crashes out of the tournament in the group stages or at the latest in the quarter-finals. 

And don’t get me started about the last World Cup in 2018 where England reached the semi-finals. They managed to get to the semi-finals by beating the football power houses of Tunisia and Panama in the group stage (while losing against Belgium) and then Colombia and Sweden in the knockout stages. Even Germany managed to beat Sweden at the last World Cup, even though Germany had its worst tournament ever. Heck, England lost its semi-final against Croatia!

As I write this, the Rugby World Cup is on in Japan and tomorrow the team is playing against Australia in the quarter-finals. Everywhere I go, England fans pretend that their team is one of the favourites to win the title at the Rugby World Cup this year. I am no expert on rugby, but I suspect, there might be some optimism involved here that may not be 100% justified.

As a German, my approach to supporting my team is far more cautious. At every World Cup we expect our team to crash and burn and at best make it into the quarter-finals. And then they win the bloody thing. And again. And again. And again. In total four times by now. And how many does England have? But I digress…

The advantage of my approach is that I am far less disappointed when Germany actually does crash and burn as they did in the last World Cup. It is a form of emotional hedging or diversification. By mentally betting on Germany to lose, I dampen my disappointment when Germany actually does lose and increase my pleasure when Germany wins, because I didn’t really expect that to happen (see also my argument why pessimists have it better).

But now I have come across a study by Lajos Kossuth and his colleagues that shows that England fans are incredibly reluctant to bet against their own team. What they did was to give people the chance to bet for or against England during the World Cup 2018. They then asked people to rate their happiness before and after the match. The chart below shows that if they bet on England and England won, they were, of course, happy, but only mildly happier than before the match. If on the other hand, they bet on England and England lost, their happiness dropped significantly. Compare this to my strategy of betting against the team I support. England fans who bet against their team still were slightly happier than before if England won, but if England lost, their happiness did not decline. Instead, their winnings compensated for the emotional loss and they remained happier after the game than before the game no matter the outcome. In other words, betting against your favourite team makes you happier.

Betting on England and happiness

Source: Kossuth et al. (2019)

Yet, only 15% of participants in the experiment were willing to bet against England in the group stages while 40% wanted to bet for England. In the knock-out stages it was even more extreme. 18% of participants were willing to bet against England but 59% bet for England to win. Presumably, it gets harder and harder to win the longer a tournament lasts, but in the case of England fans they were more and more willing to bet for their team than against it. So much for the ability of football fans to think rationally.

In essence, what we observe here is a form of home bias. Just like investors are prone to invest too much in companies of their home country, so they invest too much in their favourite sports teams. The result of home bias is a portfolio that often suffers more losses than a well-diversified portfolio and in the case of fandom it is a life that becomes an emotional rollercoaster.

But England fans can rest assured that they are not alone in their inability to make sensible decisions with their passions and emotions. A study by Carey Morewedge and her colleagues asked fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team in the NFL if they would be willing to bet for the Steelers or rather the Philadelphia Eagles in an upcoming match between the two teams. The chart below shows that Steelers fans were far more likely to bet on their team rather than the Eagles, no matter what odds they were given.

Propensity of Steelers fans to bet for or against their team

Source: Morewedge et al. (2016).

I know there are some pretty avid Eagles fans amongst the readers of my blog so all I can say is that this shows that Steelers fans are stupid. Eagles fans would never be so biased in their decisions.

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