We're Only Human

Irrational Optimism: ‘On Any Given Sunday’

I have been part of a family football pool for many years now. Every week, each of us predicts the winners for every NFL game, right through the playoffs, and everyone’s performance is posted in a running tally. In recent years, I have been one of the very worst players in this pool, but I have a good excuse.

I am a longtime Washington Redskins fan, and I pick the ‘Skins week in and week out. Other family members hail from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and Indianapolis, and they also tend to bet on their home teams. The difference is that those teams are all good — and the ‘Skins are not. In fact, they’re been awful for many years now. So I’m in effect giving away points every week.

Why do I do this when I know it doesn’t make sense? Is it simply wishful thinking? It makes sense that I would favor the ‘Skins at the start of each season — otherwise why be a fan? — but why do I never seem to learn from experience as one dreary loss turns into another? It seems that by mid-season my optimism should have turned sour, but it never does. I genuinely feel, every week, that this is the week they are going to turn it all around.

Psychological scientists are very interested in this kind of irrational optimism, not so much for football pools, but because it also shapes our decisions in consequential realms like finance, romance and health care. For this reason, Yale University scientist Cade Massey and his colleagues decided to explore the human bias for optimism, especially optimism that endures against all logic. They decided that the perfect venue for studying irrational optimism was . . . a football pool.

They studied a pool not unlike my own family’s pool. They invited more than 900 NFL fans to predict the winners of each game for an entire season, although they bet against the official bookmakers’ “spread” as well. They offered monetary prizes, both for weekly picks and for the season’s best prognosticator. The prizes were important, because they wanted the fans to have an incentive to pick as accurately as they could. The pool of bettors included about the same number of fans for each of the league’s 32 teams and, importantly, these were serious fans: They typically watched more than three games a week on TV, and owned not one, but two team jerseys.

The scientists scored each fan’s predictions every week for 17 weeks, giving them feedback on their performance for each week before they predicted the next week. The idea was to see if fans showed an optimism bias for their favorite team, and if this bias persisted or diminished over the course of the season. In other words, did they learn anything from their experience that might make them more rational decision makers? And if not, why not?

The results were unambiguous and intriguing. As reported in the online edition of the journal Psychological Science, the volunteers were much more optimistic about their own team winning than they were about any other team winning. What’s more, their early optimism about their home team persisted the entire season; fans were as optimistically biased after four months as they were after just four weeks. But here’s the interesting part: Their optimism persisted even though they did seem to become more discriminating prognosticators over the four months. That is, given extensive feedback plus incentives, their picks did become more accurate over time — they learned to make better predictions — yet they didn’t give up their unrealistic hopes for their favorites.

Is this the triumph of hope and desire over experience and reason? It appears so. The scientists ran several statistical tests to determine the source of such irrational optimism, and all evidence points to desire. Simply put, if we want something to happen, we’re more sanguine that it will happen.

These studies leave one important question unanswered: Do overly optimistic fans truly believe in their predictions? That’s a hard one to answer, even for myself. When I bet on the Redskins against all odds, I truly believe that they are capable of winning “on any given Sunday.” But just as important, I want them to win and I know that, come Sunday afternoon, I don’t want my emotions divided between my hopes and my wager.

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