Some stick figures with a questionable understanding of soccer, standing on a soccer pitch. They’re saying things like “Aha, the ball!” and “Wow, so sport!”
Hi there,

Tally ho, fellow sports fans! How about that World Cup, eh? I, for one, have definitely been watching this major athletic event. I even have a team for which I am rooting, and let me tell you, when they kick the ball super hard into the net? You better watch out, so unbridled is my enthusiasm. 

Okay, you got me. So maybe I am not personally the most sporty person in the universe, and I have not been paying the closest attention to the World Cup. But it’s precisely because I am so distant from the world of sports that I find it so fascinating. Spectator sports have an unequaled power to unite and divide people, to rile us up or send us crashing down. 

So in today’s newsletter, we’re taking a dive (see what I did there?) into the behavioral science behind spectator sports. Why do we go so wild for a bunch of strangers kicking a ball around? Are there benefits to being a sports fan? Why am I, a non-fan, nonetheless willing to take a bullet for Canadian soccer all-star Christine Sinclair? All this and more, below.  

Until next time,
Katie and the extremely athletic team @ TDL

Thanks to Sarah Chudleigh for her help researching and writing this newsletter. The rest of the TDL team would like you to know that they are more knowledgeable about soccer than I am.

📧 Want to know why human get so excited when sports ball go vroom? Sign up for the TDL newsletter here and all your questions will be answered.
Today’s topics 👀
⚽ Why spectator sports are more than just a game
✈️ Going the extra mile
🧠 Sports and cognitive bias
⚽ Why spectator sports are more than just a game

They make us feel part of something bigger. Watching a game is one of the easiest ways to strengthen social bonds and connect to the wider culture. A sense of belongingness and group identity aren’t just warm feelings — they’re a basic human need.  

They bring collective joy. We feel our emotions — the epic highs and lowsmore strongly when we experience them with others. Watching sports with others can increase the joy we would otherwise feel watching solo.

They boost our emotions. Even though it comes with stress, watching a game increases our dopamine levels, warding off depressive feelings. Being a regular spectator has been shown to reduce our likelihood of anxiety and depression.

They enhance our self-esteem. In the days following their team’s win, fans report higher levels of self-esteem, a phenomenon known as “basking in reflected glory.” Our perceived association with the winners earns us a feel-good glow that lasts well after the game ends.

FIELD NOTES: Going the Extra Mile
Qatar has welcomed up to 88,000 air passengers a day throughout the 2022 World Cup. If you’ve ever flown, it might feel like delays are inevitable. But behavioral science can help mitigate that. Learn about how TDL helped one major European airline keep cleaning times between flights short, without hurting the customer experience. Read the case study on our website.
An airplane flying across a blue sky.
🧠 Sports and cognitive bias

“Hot streaks” might actually be a thing. As the name would suggest, the “hot-hand fallacy” was once dismissed as the irrational belief that players who were “on a roll” would continue to perform well. But more recent investigations suggest there may be something to this supposed fallacy: several studies suggest that players can “heat up” after a lucky bout, and continue to perform better than statistically probable.

Where are all the straight shooters? Statistically speaking, your best chance of scoring a goal in soccer is to shoot straight at the center of the net. However, most players target the left or right of the net when aiming to score. Behavioral scientist Mindy Hernandez hypothesizes that players do this because they perceive a failed straight shot as a greater failure than missing a side shot.

Favoritism skews our bets. The 2022 World Cup is the most bet-on match of all time, with an estimated $160 billion wagered worldwide. But rooting for our favorites can bias our perception of the odds, due to our “own-team bias.” We tend to bet for our team even when the odds are stacked against them.

For coaches, biases can be helpful. A 2018 study found that soccer coaches who exhibit overconfidence in their teams are rewarded with better player performance. These findings are in line with the well-documented Pygmalion Effect, our tendency to perform in line with authority figures’ expectations of us. 

A graph labeled “Diving behavior and referee proximity in soccer.” There are three bars: “Close,” “Near,” and “Far.” The graph shows that refs give around 0.5 rewards per “Close” fall, 0.4 for “Near,” and less than 0.2 for “Far.”
We couldn’t write a newsletter about decision-making in sports without addressing the most controversial decisions of all: how referees respond to dives. Research shows that refs are more likely to award free kicks to players who fall in close proximity to them. (Source)
The Bandwagon Effect
Have your sports-averse friends all been following the World Cup? Did your once apathetic coworker recently go out and buy a Morocco jersey? Did your favorite decision sciences consultancy write a whole newsletter about a sporting event for the first time ever? 👀 There’s nothing humans love more than fitting in and joining up with a winning group. Learn about all the other ways we succumb to the bandwagon effect.
Opportunities in Behavioral Science
TDL is hiring! We’re hiring for a number of positions, both remote and based in our Montreal office. Some open roles include: 

  • • Associate Project Leader
  • • UX Designer
  • • Senior UX Designer
  • • Research Analyst

Find out more by visiting our careers portal.

Want to have your voice heard? We'd love to hear from you. Reply to this email to share your thoughts, feedback, and questions with the TDL team.

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