Consumers / Events / Fans / Prediction

World Cup Watching

Why people can't help watching the World Cup, despite the pain

Professor Simon Chadwick

Posted: July 6, 2018

Perhaps more than any other football tournament in history, this World Cup has been characterised by attempts to spot patterns, identify trends, and predict outcomes. For performance directors and gamblers, there are inevitable and obvious reasons for doing this: to win matches and to win money.

However, the rest of us are equally culpable in fuelling what has become an arms race in seeking to impose meaning and understanding on something that will happen in the future.

At its simplest this has resulted in, for example, people concluding that because Pep Guardiola was managing in Spain when it won the World Cup, and then Germany when it too secured victory, then England is set to win in Russia.

Yet an industry has seemingly developed to service our need for a ‘prediction fix’. As such, this has come to embrace everything from connecting country population size, income levels and national team success, to the creation of heatmaps highlighting where most players kick the ball during a penalty shootout.

The key thing about predictions though, is that many of them are often wrong.

Yet as humans we appear determined to continue trying to predict, which implies something either about our inability to learn and move on, or else about our relationship with uncertainty (or perhaps even a combination of both these things).

Research indicates that our relationship with uncertainty is simply a DNA thing; at the heart of our existence is the need to survive. Hence we have developed as a species firstly by anticipating good and bad outcomes, and then by predicting the likelihood of them happening. Thus in simple terms: we just can’t help ourselves from seeking to avoid uncertainty and engage in prediction.

And we take this to extremes, particularly in the way that we let our perceptions of negative future outcomes stress us out to such an extent that our anxieties become even greater than uncertainty itself.

In thinking about the next match our football team will play, many of us may be unable to cope with the uncertainty and we therefore create scenarios in our minds that are intended to address the trauma we have inside us. It helps us if there are ‘experts’ around who can provide reassurance.

One view is that people (in this case football fans) seek out neutral or trusted third parties who can arbitrate the conflicts and problems in their minds. It is into this psychological space that all manner of ‘predictors’ have migrated. It is a diverse crowd, including everyone from stats geeks and former players to informed intellectuals and octopuses.

Yet they are all playing the same game – trying to help us assuage our fears and insecurities about the future by informing the calculations we all make in our heads about what will happen when we get there.

But if football is so painful in these terms, then why we do we keep watching? Well, fundamentally our survival instinct induces us into competing and winning (or at least trying to). But it could also be the case that tournaments permit us to vicariously engage with uncertainty.

After all, most of us would not want our health or our financial security to be dependent upon the same kind of process as Eric Dier taking the final penalty in a tense last-16 shootout. We can say in general that when someone like Dier misses, the consequences for our lives are not as serious as losing the family fortune or becoming terminally ill. People like Dier let us experience uncertainty without the profound consequences of a life or death decision.

There is something about the psychology of uncertainty that draws us into sport rather than takes us away from it. In fact, the greater the uncertainty the more compelling competitive contests become. At one level, our DNA screams at us that we must compete to survive; though at another level our brains are telling us that we need to minimise the potential of an adverse outcome.

As we consequently jostle with this conundrum, of course it therefore helps if we have a juicy stat or two sat in our mental rolodex that we can refer to, to help ease our anxieties.

About Professor Simon Chadwick

Simon is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University in Manchester (UK), where he is also a Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Founding Co-Director of the China Soccer Observatory and a Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham (UK). He has worked in football across the world, for various organisations including companies, federations, and governments. He tweets via @Prof_Chadwick