Research on counterfactual thinking has shown that people’s emotional responses to events are influenced by their thoughts about “what might have been.”
When Less Is More: Counterfactual Thinking and Satisfaction Among Olympic Medalists Victoria Husted Medvec, Scott F. Madey, Thomas Gilovich
Despite my awareness that football fans, including yours truly, often react irrationally to the fortunes of their club, overreacting to both victories and defeats, I found myself totally unable to comprehend the continuing pall of negativity that currently lingers among certain supporters since end of season. Despite our club sensationally snatching 2nd place from the loose, slippery grasp of Tottenham Hotspurs on the very last day of the season and the resulting spontaneous eruption of joy across goonerland, it seems to me there is a large group of fans that cannot let loose of a negative mindset which they adopted since April when our title chances mathematically started slipping away.
Thus for example the following memes repeated adnauseam during the past season persist to this day despite being blatantly false:
- Giroud is useless and ineffectual, a virtual lamppost. Yet he ended the season as our top goal scorer and the only one of our strikers to hit his Expected Goals (xG).
- Wenger condemned the team to failure by signing no outfield players during the summer transfer window. Yet a prominent statistician using his xG model, estimated Arsenal should have scored about 58 goals, the highest in the division, and apart from own goals, ended up scoring 46. (It is noteworthy that of all our expected goal-scorers only our useless French lamppost hit anywhere close to projected numbers.)
- Arsenal was destined to come fourth all over again due to usual failings. Yet the club came 2nd in 2016, 3rd in 2015, and last-time coming 4th was in 2014.
In no sphere of human life, have I seen three years of constant improvement met with so much derision and hand-wringing by those who should be most excited. Despite compelling evidence of constant progress in what is regarded as the most competitive of all the top football leagues in Europe, coming 2nd in 2016 has been met with an underwhelming “meh” by many supposedly knowledgeable Arsenal fans.
I came to this conclusion after listening to three separate podcasters doing their traditional end of season review. In one particular case the moderator asked his colleagues to give a letter grade to the season. The best one of his panelists could assess the club was a C-. His other two panelists ranged between D- and D+. In other words, for coming 2nd, Arsenal was adjudged by this podcast to be closer to an F (Failure) than to an A (Outstanding). Yet the club had surpassed all its traditional top-four rivals (every single one of whom spent shitloads more money on transfers) as well as dramatically overhaul on the final day of the season its North London neighbor, who until their hilarious implosion at Newcastle, had been universally adjudged by the mainstream media as having its finest season in a generation.
For days I struggled to come to terms with what was to me clearly irrational thinking. In such circumstances, when one is unable to explain the inexplicable, self-doubts emerge. At times I wondered if I was an aberration, a hopeless optimist fulfilling the naive Pollyanna caricature that we at Positively Arsenal are often accused. I am happy to report that throwing in the towel and conceding to our nemesis was never an option for me.
It was in the the middle of this disquieting period that by sheer chance I discovered there is a perfectly valid scientific explanation for this negative outlook by many genuine Arsenal fans. Apparently it is completely consistent with a well established psychological phenomenon known as Counterfactual Thinking which is defined as
“the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred; alternatives that are contrary to what actually happened.”
According to wikipedia Counterfactual literally means contrary to the facts. A counterfactual thought occurs when a person modifies a factual prior event and then assesses the consequences of that change. A person may imagine how an outcome could have turned out differently, if the antecedents that led to that event were different. For example, a person may reflect upon how a car accident could have turned out by imagining how some of the factors could have been different, for example, If only I hadn’t been speeding…. These alternatives can be better or worse than the actual situation, and in turn give improved or more disastrous possible outcomes, If only I hadn’t been speeding, my car wouldn’t have been wrecked or If I hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt, I would have been killed.
In light of our failure to win the 2016 title, it is perfectly understandable and predictable that on twitter, blogs and podcasts, the counterfactual is now rampant among both the great and the good, i.e. our lapse was basically due to not signing a world class striker. This collective revision of history completely ignores the fact that there were no quality strikers on the market as exemplified by Manchester United taking the unprecedented risk of taking a £55-£65 million punt on a striker with potential, a gamble which saw them come 5th in the league with no champions league football and the eventual bloodletting and sacking of LVG.
In fact some supporters go further to blame Arsenal’s failure in goal scoring to its doomed attempt to sign Suarez three years ago; they imagine if only the club had plumped for Higuain he would have scored 35 goals for us this year just as he did for Napoli in Serie A. Consistent with counterfactual thinking , such imaginations completely negate the well known fact that Madrid jacked up Higuain’s price at the final stages of the negotiations making him unaffordable to AFC and that Higuain himself was not enthused about coming to England and had a preference for Italy with its well-known Argentinean connections. Moreover being counterfactual, the advocates of this point of view conveniently ignore the eventual reality, that having jerked us over with Higuain, Florentino Perez, Madrid’s president, felt he was obligated to give Arsenal a fair crack of the whip in negotiations for Özil. One wonders, in retrospect, who would they have chosen then; world class Özil or the less celebrated Higuain who often comes off the bench for Argentina.
As is familiar to those of us who are constantly exposed to Arsenal fans on social media, counterfactual thoughts have been shown to produce negative emotions. But the literature emphasizes that it may produce beneficial effects. On one hand there are downward counterfactuals which are ideas that create a more negative outcome versus upward counterfactuals which are those thoughts that create a more positive outcome.
Hence we have the spectacle of a fairly respected statistical-oriented blogger having initially made the case that Arsene had built a title winning squad, completely contradict himself by early April, describing Arsene as having the most dysfunctional squad in years and proclaiming “Arsenal Need An Overhaul”. A series of miserable blogs followed including a declaration he had decided not to make his annual trip to support the Arsenal.
Contrast this downward outlook with the upward bias of our own Stew Black in his previews over the same period.
April 17 2016 (after the 3-3 draw with West Ham one week earlier):
“The players have to contend with the baying of the psychophysically damaged as they enter the fray and so it is vital that the rest of us, you and I included, make as much noise in their defence and in positive support as we possibly can between now and the fifteenth of May. There might not be a trophy waiting for us, we may be a little spoiled by recent success, but we still have plenty to play for. Let’s see if we can’t cheer the boys over the line.”
April 21, 2016 9 (after the 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace 4-days earlier):
“As far as 2015/16 is concerned, there is still a job to be done, still matches still to be played. Nothing is yet certain, nothing can be taken for granted. I intend to carry on enjoying the season today and for the next few weeks just as much as I enjoyed the charity shield back in August when the whole thing started. Enjoying the spectacle is of course all any of us can hope to do. Nothing I nor any other fan says will have the slightest impact on managerial nor boardroom decisions and that is absolutely how it should be. You wouldn’t have told Shakespeare how to write and you don’t tell Arsène Wenger how to manage. If you are so special that King Lear simply isn’t good enough for you, then stop watching it, leave the theatre and let the rest of us enjoy the show.”
Stew was obviously being upwardly counterfactual in not letting recent negative results damage his conviction that there was much to enjoy as Arsenal tackled the critical final games of the season He also had the psychological reward, which we at PA gladly share, of enjoying the fruits of his optimism as a resolute, fighting Arsenal snatched second place from not only the hands of the Spurs but from the negative miasma that some of our own fans were wishing and willing to engulf the club.
While psychologists may have initially concluded that counterfactual thinking is an indicator of poor coping skills, modern research and studies now indicate that it may be a helpful behavior regulator. Apparently thinking counterfactually is a way for us humans to prepare ourselves mentally to correct for past mistakes and avoid making them in the future. For example if a person has a terrible interview and thinks about how it may have been more successful if they had responded in a more confident manner, they are more likely to respond more confidently in their next interview.
The problem with our blogging and podcasting community is they will never have a chance to do an “interview”. In other words they will never be able to experience the transfer market in the manner of an Arsene Wenger or a Dick Law. Despite having little or no knowledge of the transfer market and targets being pursued by the club, their downward counterfactual that the club will never sign a quality player is increasingly being proven to be wide of the mark:
2012: Santi Cazorla
2013: Mesuit Özil
2014: Alexis Sanchez
2015: Per Cech
No wonder they are relatively quiet when the club can bring forward the transfer of an Elneny six months before it was due or the signing of Xhaka Granit long before the end of May. Apparently I am not alone in this observation. In the Comments section of PA on May 27th Northbank1969 observed:
“I find it quite surprising that there’s not been a big buzz on the Arsenal Blogosphere about Granit being bought early in the TW unlike when Wenger bought Ozil and Sanchez when the Arsenal world exploded.”
In my opinion the lack of excitement is entirely due to the fact that their downward counterfactual has trapped them in a negative feedback loop. They were mentally prepared for “dithering” Wenger to make a big signing in the waning days of the transfer window. Wenger and the club have flipped the script and there is no “interview” scheduled for the end of August. For them an entirely frustrating and boring transfer window looms or a brand new counterfactual must be created. Stay tuned.
In my set up to this blog, I quoted the abstract to a research paper which studied the role of counterfactual thinking on Olympic-level sportsmen and women. As defined, counterfactuals engage in “what might have been.” The authors documented a familiar occasion in which athletes who are objectively better off nonetheless feel worse. In their analysis they found that the emotional reactions of bronze and silver medalists at the 1992 Summer Olympics—both at the conclusion of their events and on the medal stand—indicates that bronze medalists tend to be happier than silver medalists. The authors attribute these results to the fact that the most compelling counterfactual alternative for the silver medalist is winning the gold, whereas for the bronze medalist it is finishing without a medal. I will not bore you with the details of the study. It is available at a cost http://psycnet.apa.org. While I was unable to conduct research into player reactions (whether Arsenal or other) to coming 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th place in the League, the picture of Arsene’s reaction after the winning goal to come 4th on the last day of the 2012 season speaks more than a thousand words.
Talk about that 4th place bronze medal! Ha, Ha, Ha.