Wishful Thinking: The great expectations of Whitecaps supporters
Many moons ago, the band, China Crisis sang a couple of lines: “And if I wish to comfort the fall, it’s just wishful thinking”.
This song came to mind as I read a recent article on MLSSoccer.com by Joseph Lowery entitled: “Why are some of MLS’s most prominent clubs struggling?”. It began with the paragraph: “Every new season brings fresh-and often irrational-hope. Some clubs think they’ll be even better than they were last year. Others think they’ll climb out of the bottom of their conference.”
Isn’t this the essence of we supporters of the Whitecaps? (and, I suppose, all supporters for that matter). That is, every year we are sure that we have added some great pieces that will surely push us to that next level. And yet year after year, the Whitecaps reveal themselves to be middling at best and usually just disappointing. Sorry folks, the standings since 2011 don’t lie.
Sites like this one offer up much discussion of what the club is doing right or wrong from week to week. However, today I want to focus instead on us, the fans. Why do we have irrational hope as referenced above? What is it that makes us eternally engage in wishful thinking?
Over the years I’ve been surprised by the optimism of the folks who send in pre-game score predictions to The Third Sub (and formerly 86Forever). One would think that the Caps were at the top of the table to fit with these predictions. Just to give you the idea, I looked back at the first few games this year and the results are: RSL (a loss), with 17 writers predicting a win and one writer predicting a draw. San Jose (a loss), with eight writers predicting a win, three a loss, and five a draw. Minnesota (a tie), with 10 predicting a win, two a loss, and four a draw. Dallas (a tie), with 14 predicting a win and two a loss. You get the picture.
Well, it turns out that irrational hope is not just a thing with supporters, it is an essentially human trait too. It is what we do. We are good at it.
Social scientists have identified that our motivational states (think our wishes and preferences) influence our ability to process information. In turn, we are often unaware of these impacts on our thinking. Our biases are outside of our awareness.
Thus, we want the ‘Caps to win, so we toss aside our rational view of the evidence which runs counter to our wishes. We mix up desirability with probability. Ill-informed preconceptions colour our ability to analyze the product on the field. So, for your own economic sake, never bet on the home team!
It is of course one thing to have optimism for the club you support, but to truly believe that your club is better than it really is. Well, that is just wishful thinking.
The reality is that during the MLS era, the Whitecaps have never been a top tier club and our players, with a few exceptions, just aren’t elite level players. We employ managers with virtually no experience. We stick to tactics which don’t fit our players. It is what we do. We are good at it.
People often ignore or belittle what contradicts their assumptions. This is known as “confirmation bias”. Social scientists have found that we don’t seek to question our beliefs, rather we look to confirm them. Thus, we become over confident in our beliefs.
Incidents in our experience which are vivid or recent are more likely to be recalled with ease and therefore are more likely to be given weight in judgment. This is known as the “availability heuristic”. This gives us systemic biases and leads us to believe too strongly what we already “know”. We don’t like to question our basic assumptions.
Once people accept a theory (e.g., the ‘Caps are a good team or just about a good team; or our midfield is better now so surely this will result in more goals) and we use that theory as a tool in our thinking, it becomes difficult to notice flaws in that theory. This is known as “theory-induced blindness”. Our theory is given the benefit of the doubt and we trust the folks who also accept that theory. Contrary facts are often overlooked or simply disregarded. Once we adopt this view, it becomes difficult to see things any other way.
Our stereotyped view of our club allows us to reach conclusions based on limited evidence. This is known as “WYSIATI” or “what you see is all there is”. WYSIATI gets us to focus on the existing positive team evidence and ignore the absent negative evidence. This allows us to fit things nicely into positive patterns.
Consistency of information then works better than the lack of completeness of the information. We fail to allow that key elements of information important to our judgment are missing. What we see is all there is. Thus, we fans work with partial evidence only. We become comforted that our world view makes sense and it is based on a seemingly sound foundation (which is really just a house of cards).
Social scientists have also shown us experimentally that people are more likely to believe things that they want to believe. Surprisingly, we don’t realize that inference is biased by our goals. Wishful thinking indeed.
One way people resolve conflicts between beliefs and desires is to use biased reasoning in a way that makes beliefs about facts line up with heartfelt desires. Also, research shows that once our opinions are formed, they are slow to change in response to new evidence. Accepting discomforting or disconcerting facts is difficult.
So what does all this mean? Well it means that we supporters are a little bit ridiculous. But so what? We still have fun cheering for our home team. We should take note though that we come by our wishful thinking honestly. We are simply reflecting what all people do. But don’t be surprised when that fall isn’t comforted.