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  • 17th Nov 2022

Is it irrational to watch the World Cup?

Throughout the 2022 football World Cup, we’ll be publishing a series of blogs about the intersection of behavioural insights and football. This is the first in the series and looks at the happiness and heartbreak of being a fan.

Over the next few weeks, billions of people will crowd around TV sets, huddle in pubs and pour into stadiums to watch the FIFA World Cup. 

It’s the most popular sporting event in the world, bringing highs and lows to fans hoping that this might finally be their year.

But is it worth watching?

Well, in one study, economists at the UK’s National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) asked football fans to rate their happiness after a match and found that watching your team win brings a lot of joy. If you’re at the stadium, it’s roughly midway between the pleasures of playing sport and having sex. 

On the flip side, seeing your favourite team lose hurts quite a lot – just a little below the unhappiness of being sick in bed. Crucially, for football fans in general, the pain of losing seems at least twice as great as the happiness of winning. This phenomenon is something we’d expect, given what we know about loss aversion and the tendency for losses to loom larger than gains.

On the face of it then, the only fans who’ll go home happy from the World Cup are those who support teams that win at least twice as often as they lose. But there aren’t likely to be many of them. England fans are likely to be disappointed, for example. In the last three World Cups, even including the semi-final run in the last World Cup in 2018, the team have failed to reach this win-to-loss ratio, and while officially being the 5th best team in the world!

In fact, only six teams theoretically brought more joy than pain to their fans at the last World Cup: France, Croatia, Belgium, Brazil, Russia and Uruguay.

So what about everyone else? Are their fans just so used to losing that it doesn’t hurt anymore? There may actually be some truth to this. By matching the happiness data with betting odds, the researchers in the NIESR study above found that losses hurt less when fans expected their team to lose (and unexpected wins felt even better). But aside from the most pessimistic fans, it’s unlikely your expectations are going to be so disconnected from reality that this would work out well for you over time.

BIT offices’ historic performances at the World Cup – spare a thought for our Canadian colleagues. 


BIT Office World Ranking Pld W D L Wins per loss (scores >2 = more pleasure than pain)
France 4 66 34 13 19 1.8
England 5 69 29 21 19 1.5
Mexico 12 57 16 14 27 0.6
USA 14 33 8 6 19 0.4
Australia 39 16 2 4 10 0.2
Canada 43 3 0 0 3 0
Singapore 159 Never qualified  N/A

Only wins per loss greater than 2 theoretically equals more pleasure than pain.

So does this mean that most football fans are behaving irrationally?

Not quite so fast.

First, a couple of caveats. The NIESR researchers weren’t looking at the World Cup. There may be something more specifically enjoyable (or terrible) about the short-lived highs of international tournaments versus routine club games –  for example, making it into the knockout stages or beating the favourites (as Senegal did with France) on the opening day. 

The NIESR study also mentions that massive highs from moments such as seeing your team score may not be accounted for in the data (though based on the peak-end rule we might expect post-match happiness ratings to capture these moments well enough).

More importantly, even if we accept that behaving rationally is the same as ‘making decisions that bring me the most happiness’, any assessment of whether it’s rational to watch football needs to consider far more than just the pain and pleasure of each result. 

For example, most fans would acknowledge that there is joy to be had in the entire experience of the match and that’s confirmed by the research – fans in stadiums were almost as happy soaking up the atmosphere right before a game as they were after a win. 

A more obvious point is that football brings people joy in ways that go well beyond the couple of hours spent watching each game. Fans find identity, build camaraderie and spend time with friends, all of which are important to wellbeing.

And, as great as wellbeing research is for writing an interesting blog post, perhaps we shouldn’t put too much stock in it when we’re dealing with the big issues in life. Some extra data can be useful, but it’ll never give us a perfect view into how our major decisions – whether to have children, change careers, or be a lifelong football fan – will play out.

So, neutrals and football fans alike, enjoy the World Cup if you want to – or don’t if you don’t want to. Some things don’t have to make sense to anyone but ourselves.

Non-governmental organisations have raised various human rights issues related to this year’s World Cup. Human Rights Watch has created further reading on these issues and calls to action.