Spoons, Crowns and Cheats

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

So the six nations is over, and France have won. Scotland narrowly avoided getting the wooden spoon in the last match.

Undoubtedly, ‘Les Bleus’ will be the happiest with their Grand Slam victory, and you might expect Ireland to be second happiest and Scotland to be second most miserable with their performance – but most likely the Scots will be a lot happier than the Irish.


Well, on 1979 Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky developed “prospect theory” as a means of describing how people make choices in situations which involve risk: in terms of sport, some may argue that choosing a team isn’t really a choice, and more an “accident of geography”. However, I will treat this as a decision individuals make, the risk being obviously a lifetime of supporting a team of donkeys who never won (as an Aberdeen fan, I’m not bitter).

The theory suggests that people measure losses and gains but not absolute wealth: there is a bigger impact of losses than of gains.

So why would the Irish be less happy than the Scots having had a far more successful six nations? Well, the Irish missed out on winning the Triple Crown – they came within three points of winning it. So close but yet so far. Whereas, in contrast, the Scots came within 3 points of tragic defeat and the ignominy of the wooden spoon.

In terms of absolute wealth, the Scots are impoverished compared to the Irish. Yet, in terms of prospect theory, the Scots will be far happier having avoided tragedy rather than narrowly missing glory.

Think of how frustrated you are if you miss a bus by about five seconds, then imagine if you had caught the same bus with seconds to spare: elation and dejection in the slimmest of margins. The same basic psychology is at work: if you just miss out on something or just attain something – be it catching that bus or missing out on that trophy – the closer you were to glory or defeat, the more personally resonant the event becomes. Miss a bus by seconds, and it’s a disaster. Miss it by minutes, and you’ll be less concerned. Conversely, making a bus with seconds to spare can be a breathless triumph, whereas getting to the bus stop with plenty of time to spare is mediocre at best.

Another “curious incident” in this year’s championship occurred in the Scotland game when Phil Godman and Lee Byrne clashed. Godman was sent off: ultimately leading to a dramatic late Welsh victory. Welsh fans were elated, and saw Byrne tripped by Godman. Scots fans were dejected and were suspicious at BBC Wales for a lack of an instant replay, believing the incident to be Byrne’s fault. There were calls for replays to be provided, in slow motion, from the end of the game until the next match. However, these replays did not settle the issue: rather they entrenched each side’s position on whether Lee Byrne was tripped or Phil Godman was a cheat.

As Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, points out:

“Let me give you a very trivial experiment that can illustrate this. So we give people two glasses of beers to try. One is a regular beer, and one is beer with balsamic vinegar, which we call the MIT brew. And people taste both of those, and we say which one do you like more? Which one do you want the full glass of? It turns out that in this condition, the beer with the balsamic vinegar tastes better to most people so most people go for it. That’s just the objective reality. Now what would happen if we introduced preconception? What would happen if we tell people, “This is regular beer. This is beer with balsamic vinegar. Drink it. Drink as much as you want and then tell us which one you want.” What will happen? Will the preconceptions overwhelm the experience? The answer is yes. Under those conditions, it doesn’t matter how much . . . beer people drink. They hate the one with the balsamic vinegar. What’s happening here is when you expect something to be terrible, your mouth is actually tasting it as terrible. Again our expectation changes our physiology. We see something different. You know it’s something that every sports fan always sees, right? It’s always that the referee is against your sports team. And if somebody else is sitting in the room and they are a fan of a different sports team, they are saying the referee is doing the opposite.”

This is unsuprising, as Ariely states in his book, Predictably Irrational, people are bound by their preconceptions. In the case of the Scots as sinned against by the referee; in the case of the Welsh, applauding the ref’s decision.

So there you have it – two theories about two matches from the six nations – let’s hope that the Scots do better next year and the Welsh cheat less… (I jest of course – as if the Welsh could cheat less!)