The psychology of uncertainty - what is it that makes sport unique?

Professor Simon Chadwick

Posted: July 20, 2014

Human beings in general do not like uncertainty, in fact many of us are racked by a daily fear of it. From simple everyday issues like getting to work on time or worrying about whether we forgotten to lock the front door, through to more serious matters such as job security and health, most of us would prefer to know what is going on. Such are our issues with uncertainty, that experimental studies show how people react when faced with it. For an insight into peoples’ relationship with uncertainty, the Proactive Change website makes for interesting reading:

It seems odd then that, when it comes to sport, most of us crave uncertainty. Indeed, as many people continue to proclaim that the recent World Cup in Brazil as possibly being the best ever, it is worth considering that this is probably because the tournament’s outcome was so uncertain. Admittedly, ultimate German victory was hardly a shock, but the performances of Columbia, the United States and Algeria was not what we expected, nor was the early demise of Spain and Italy. There really is something about uncertainty that appeals to many people, inducing us to shout, cheer, gather together in large groups and drink alcohol, and pay large amounts of money to travel the world following ‘our’ teams.

Uncertainty of outcome is fundamental to sport, it is one of the things that gives it an appeal that is arguably unsurpassed by another other form of human activity. Some people have suggested to me that music and film have the same qualities, although I would disagree. Below, I discuss this in the context of Quentin Tarratino’s Pulp Fiction. Other people have argued that gambling is similar to sport; again, I would disagree: you do not need an opposition – the essence of gambling is not really about competing with someone else; there is no particular need for collective consumption (i.e. you can gamble alone, you do not need people around you cheering or shouting etc.); it is not part of your regional or national identity and so forth.

Why, then, is there is such a contradiction in human behaviour – why do we so voraciously seek to avoid uncertainty in one part of our life while voraciously seeking to embrace it in another part? Perhaps we need to think in terms of vicarious uncertainty: whilst losing one’s job is likely to have real and potentially dire consequences for most of us (and so is the kind of personal uncertainty we do not like), so uncertainty in sport is not necessarily going to affect us in the same way. As such, supporting a team or athlete can bring us the euphoria and desperation that uncertainty may induce, but in the end we can simply walk away from the stadium or the TV screen safe in the knowledge that, fundamentally, our lives our unlikely to be radically affected.

Given my preoccupation with uncertainty, I wrote the piece below for The Conversation during the early part of 2014:

There is a scene during the film Pulp Fiction in which Vincent Vega recounts his experiences of eating at McDonalds in France to his fellow partner in crime, Jules Winnfield. Vega revels in telling an enthralled Winnfield that a ‘Quarter-Pounder with Cheese’ is known there as a ‘Royale with Cheese’. Winnfield is rather less impressed though upon finding out from Vega that a ‘Big Mac’ in France is simply referred to as ‘Le Big Mac’.

And therein lay a fundamental message about the 21st century delivery and consumption of many products: homogeneity, consistency, standardization. Walk into a McDonalds (or, for that matter, a Starbucks, KFC or Burger King) anywhere in the world, and you know what you are going to get, even though the product name might be slightly different. While critics inevitably denounce the sanitization of consumption, for some people it is a safe and trustworthy way of consuming a product.

In several sports, we are heading towards the ‘business end’ of the year as leagues and competitions head towards their close, trophies are won, and promotions and relegations are decided. For most sports fans, this is an incredible time of year, laced with either anticipation and excitement or fear and loathing, or possibly a combination of both.

A late goal conceded or a point dropped can have massive implications for ‘our’ teams, sending them to a Final or condemning them to the ignominy of relegation and a year of suffering. Alternatively, a lucky deflection off the post or an opponent’s player being sent-off can send us into ecstasy, possibly even into a state of orgasmic delight.

This is the antithesis of consumers’ trips to McDonalds: there is no certainty in sport at this time of year, teams and clubs are fighting for their futures. There is no standardisation, every game is different, sometimes starkly so; there is no homogeneity – as TV coverage on the final day of a season switches from one game to another it is always clear that every contest is completely different. And, whether through beautiful play or sheer brute force, teams are ruthlessly intent on sealing a championship or avoiding defeat;

And that is why sport can be so incredible to fans, so painful for diehards, so attractive to commercial partners and so compelling for the media.

Yet our relationship with sport raises some interesting issues about the way in which people consume products. We might live in a Big Mac world where we seek certainty and security, but in sport seemingly we do not. While some products might make us unhappy, few products are likely to make us cry in the same way some people do when they consume sport; and consider anger and aggression – when buying bread or opening a bank account, few of us will perceive the need to shout or even to fight (either with the person at the till or with other customers). Yet in sport, sometimes some of people do.

It would therefore appear that the kind of uncertainty in sport that many of us are currently being exposed to has an awful lot to answer for, leading us to think and behave in unusual, sometimes seemingly irrational ways.

Research in both sport economics and sport marketing strongly emphasises the importance of equal competition, which enables the uncertain outcome associated with sporting contests to be optimised. From this uncertain outcome to a sporting contest comes the drama, the emotion, the joy, the tension.

Conventional wisdom is that uncertainty is necessary for sport to exist, that it is vital to the its health, and that fans crave uncertainty. Indeed, research findings support such an observation: fans prefer not to know the result of a game: it is what motivates them to watch sport, attend matches and engage with teams. This is why a season’s end is such an evocative time of year in any sporting calendar.

Contrary to this view however, there is a counter argument in the research: in spite of the tension and expectation now gripping the world’s sporting communities, some analysts argue that fans do not actually like uncertainty, nor do they want an uncertain outcome to games involving the teams they support.

This implies that those preoccupied with uncertainty and matters of competitive balance might well be somewhat fanciful in their concern for equality within sporting competitions. Indeed, closer inspection of the evidence reveals a subtle distinction between fans who simply do not want uncertainty (they want ‘their’ team to win every time), and fans who seek uncertainty of outcome, and the excitement and tension this brings – but only so long as ‘their’ team wins in the end.

Clearly, there is a social, cultural and political context to such behaviour: sports fans are not necessarily rational in the way some researchers portray them as being. Instead, when ‘their’ team wins, this says something about them, the town they are from, or their home region and what it stands for. ‘Their’ team might stand for old-fashioned values, or for the emergence of a new era in a sport. A team may also represent a particular set of political values, a win for the team thus constituting something akin to a public proclamation of ideology.

Uncertainty is therefore not simply a sporting issue, nor for that matter an economic one. Our relationship with it is more deeply embedded than that, drawing from and impacting upon our self-identify. In turn, this is bound-up in issues of birth-right, lifestyle, heritage, family ties and more. The passing of a friend might lead us to bow our heads in respect, but uncertainty of outcome and a last minute goal can reduce the toughest of human-beings to tears.

The first time I watched Pulp Fiction the outcome to it was uncertain, the film’s plot having twisted and turned like a Football League Championship promotion decider. On second watching, Pulp Fiction was still great: brilliant performances and a tight script, but this time entirely predictable.

Yet the last few games of any season always bring the kind of tension and drama that Tarantino and his crew could only bring us once. Given that we are now well into April and season’s end is nigh, sports fans would do well to reflect upon and possibly reappraise their relationship with uncertainty. Do you want your sport standardised and pre-packaged, or are you willing to accept the pain when it is your team that gets relegated?






About Professor Simon Chadwick

Professor Simon Chadwick set-up and edits The Scorecard. He is Director of CIBS (Centre for the International Business of Sport) at Coventry University, where he works as Professor of Sport Business Strategy and Marketing.  Simon tweets via Prof_Chadwick