Emotional wins

May 12, 2000

Football fans undergo the same emotional processes as their sporting heroes following a win or a loss, psychological research has suggested.

According to Sandy Wolfson, a principal lecturer in psychology at the University of Northumbria, football fanatics on and off the pitch tend to focus on external factors when their side is losing. "Fans and players will blame their defeat on the referee's decisions, the state of the pitch or the weather. Yet the referee is barely mentioned when the team is winning," Dr Wolfson explained.

Fans and footballers on a successful side will draw attention to internal factors, such as ball skill and athletic ability.

"The fact that people are much more willing to take credit for their successes is to do with the tremendous ego boost that comes with a win. Basking in reflected glory allows players and fans to share their victories," Dr Wolfson said.

Although this kind of cognitive bias can help top sports performers to keep their levels of self-esteem high, Dr Wolfson believes that it can hinder development and improvement.

"Failure will sometimes be due to external factors, but only using them to explain a loss will be counter-productive," she said.

A self-confessed obsessive Newcastle United supporter, Dr Wolfson works with sportspeople in an attempt to help them identify and overcome their shortcomings.

"Swimmers who have not done well tend to imagine that the water temperature has had a negative impact on them and nobody else," she explained. "But we all experience cognitive bias when we fail a driving test or suffer rejection. It is just a product of human nature."

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