Sport, drugs, organised crime and memories of scandals past


Despite the current “hoo-ha” arising from the ACC report into organised crime and drugs in sport, it is unlikely that lots of fans will stop supporting their sport.

We are surprisingly poor judges of how a particular event will make us feel into the future. In other words, we rely on how we feel right now to predict how we might feel about something later. Psychologists call it affective forecasting.

We also tend to “misremember” the way that we thought we would feel, revising our predictions after the fact to suit how we actually feel at that time, and this is all done without us knowing it is going on.

In the case of how we will feel into the future about current negative events, such as the drugs and organised crime scandal currently enveloping Australian sport, we are actually lucky enough (or not, depending on how you feel about sport) to have a form of psychological immune systems to protect our egos.

When a something bad happens to us, the psychological immune system comes to our defence, similar to the way that our physical immune system creates all sorts of defences when we encounter a virus. But, because the psychological immune system is mostly unconscious, we don’t realise that it is doing its job. Which is a good thing – we wouldn’t want to know that we are being tricked into being overly optimistic.

So what happens is that we have a tendency to overpredict how a good or bad event, such as the scandal, will influence our future behaviour. The reality is, that as long as the scandal doesn’t go on for too long, we will very quickly return to the normative state – the way we felt before the scandal happened. If you think about it, just before every season starts there is a scandal of some sort, and yet the football codes get larger and larger crowds and more and more supporters. We eventually return to our normative attitudes; whether negative or positive.

And to top it off, as time goes on, we are really poor at remembering how we felt when we first heard about the bad event. So the anger we are feeling right now about the drug use, is unlikely to be long lived, particularly if the whole thing is sorted out quickly. We might say today that we will never go to another game, but as the season goes on, as our social world returns to its equilibrium, we will tend to go back to the way we were before, and we will forget how angry we were at the time.

That said, if the scandal continues for a long time, and more and more negative information is revealed into the season, it is likely to change some supporters’ overall emotional norms about the game, and have some effect on people who were perhaps not as wedded to the game as others.

This can also be related to one of the big mistakes made by the Australian government when they started to talk about the carbon tax well before it was made into law – the government let it fester in the public for too long, which meant that the new norm was to feel negative about it. The “feelings” persist about the government (because this is the new norm), but, in general most people don’t feel the same level of negativity about the carbon tax that they did a year ago.

Although the process of predicting emotions tend to be fairly imprecise, overpredicting how we will feel and misremembering predictions are actually a useful way to bolster our ego, and continue to feel optimistic about our ability to predict the future. We have to trust how we feel about something now, otherwise we would never get anything done, because we would start to think that our emotional responses can’t be trusted. Our ignorance of this tendency helps to keep us motivated, and create a level of optimism so that we avoid what we expect to be awful and aim for what we hope will be good.

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