I’ve been trying to write this blog entry for a good eight months now, but every attempt I’ve made has ended with me facing a logical brick wall, with no clue as how to circumvent it or climb over it.
Perhaps I’ve been blinded by science, but if I can’t find some sort of scientific study that backs up what I’m writing, I begin to doubt the veracity of what I’m saying. And so I reluctantly let the unfinished blog fall into the sediment of the drafts folder, and go about trying to think of a different tack.
Perhaps it would help to outline my theory? I suspect that Scottish football fans, and in particular Rangers fans, are overly negative. In fact, they’re so negative that it’s beginning to affect the very fabric of the football in the country. But can I prove that?
During my research, I haven’t been able to find any evidence that Scots are any more pessimistic than any other peoples. Typing ‘Scots Happiness’ into Google returns several news articles on UK-wide polls suggesting that Scots are generally happier with their lot than any other region of the country. This took the wind from my sails a little.
Shortly afterwards, I was browsing a message board dedicated to my favourite band, looking for information about their new album, due to be released later in the years. In a thread dedicated to the new LP, I was struck by how many people seemed to be forming negative views and predictions of what the record would be like, based on the limited news they’d heard. This was interesting; it’s not just Scottish football fans that like to moan about things; music fans from all over the world do the same. So what exactly was going on?
Up until my mid twenties, I was convinced my calling lay in the arts, as a novelist or a photographer or a musician or a film-maker. Since then, I’ve fostered a career in finance while picking up a qualification in Architectural technology with the result being my outlook has become more science based. I have very black and white views about science and the arts; the former is about answers and objectivity and closed answers; the latter is the opposite. I’ve never been particularly artistically talented, and the notion of a ‘correct’ answer appealed, so maybe science was the field for me?
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Science requires subjectivity, lateral thinking, imagination and leaps of faith as much as the arts do. I discovered that when I first started delving into statistics. The notion of using numbers to illustrate patterns in life fascinated me (see craving for correct answers above), but I soon learned that to convert raw data to information we must first process it. And that’s where bias creeps in.
We all process data in different ways, depending on our character, outlook, experience and personal agenda. In a recent training course on risk management, the instructor illustrated this using the example of an officer carrying out a survey on an idea they’ve had. 60% of respondents think it’s a good idea. ‘Excellent’, they think, ‘that’s nearly 2/3rds’. However, a colleague suggests an alternate proposal. A survey is carried out, and 60% of people also think it’s a good idea. The first officer doesn’t like the idea, and dismisses it because ‘60% is little more than a half’. A different example of disingenuous interpretation of data can heard on BBC’s Match of the Day programme on a regular basis; Team A is said to have gone 28 years without beating Team B. However, the two teams have only been in the same division for 2 of those years.
Statistics are being used increasingly often by football teams in the UK to measure player and team performances. Some fans will create their own data and interpretations (soccermetrics), but by and large I think most supporters are suspicious of such metrics. I think football fans base their opinions of their team’s performance on very subjective, instinctive readings on what they see, and this is where bias comes back in. For instance, Ross Perry had the second best goals conceded per games started of all our defenders last season, yet if you tell people that, they stare at you like you’ve suddenly grown a unicorn horn in the middle of your forehead. Of course, it can be argued that soccermetrics aren’t as effective as sabermetrics (because football is more organically organised than baseball I suppose), and they don’t quite tell the whole story. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting contrast.
I used to pride myself on having an excellent memory. Not quite photographic/eidetic, if such things truly exist, but I felt I had a decent recall of my time on Earth. It’s only when reading old blogs and journals that it’s become apparent to me that there are huge swathes of my past that I had simply forgotten. The struggles and frustration I experienced climbing the stairs in work when I had my knee injury, for instance. If I hadn’t recovered that memory, I would have had nothing to compare my new almost unencumbered locomotion against. My lot has improved, but my brain had chosen not to record that pleasurable progress.
Our memories, experiences and opinions are affected by personal bias. Perhaps football fans are doomed to something similar, a psychological phenomenon known as negativity bias. An article in the New York Times quotes Stanford University Professor of Communication Clifford Nass:
“Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, he said. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.”
There are many message boards dedicated to discussing events at Rangers (and let’s face it, it’s not been a quiet couple of years), with thousands of threads. It’s my perception (biased or otherwise) that many of these threads end up devolving into arguments between those that feel the club is operating as well as can be expected, and those that firmly believe nigh on everything the club does is wrong in some way.
Is a certain amount of negativity a problem? Probably not. If Professor Nass is correct, then it’s almost unavoidable. But left unchecked, I feel there’s a very good possibility it can start to do some real damage, particularly among football fans. I firmly believe that the current discontent among Rangers support is due to negativity bias, and that it had at least a partial effect on the team’s performances last season.
That sounds ridiculous, I know. But I’ve explained in a previous blog how the home form last season seemed to tail off the longer the season went on, while the away form improved. Is that because our players felt less uncomfortable playing away from Ibrox, where the atmosphere seemed to range from a little flat, to oppressive towards the home team?
You might counter that the fans were uninspired by the football on show. That’s probably true, but it takes us back to perception again. Despite developing my current religious/addictive relationship with my club in the late 80s, I’ve never been a season ticket holder, nor have I attended many games. While that was initially due to financial reasons, I still only go along to a handful of matches a season, chiefly because I begrudge paying between £15 and £25 to watch Scottish football. While I’m trying to avoid negativity towards our national game, the game throughout Europe has become massively over-priced. And let’s be frank, most games of football…well, they’re mainly filler, aren’t they? Highlights are few and far between, and ninety minutes can be easily edited down to five minute packages for Match of the Day or Sportscene.
I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised by the 2013-14 season, but I don’t think the quality of football will be markedly better than it was last season, or how it was under Smith, le Guen or McLeish. And even I find myself romanticising the Advocaat days, when the truth is I only tended to see the highlights of those games as well.
What I do think we can do as a support is give the club something to build on. Yes, we have the right to feel aggrieved if we perceive that our financial stake is not being managed correctly, but at the same time the relationship between a football team and its fans is based on more than just money. If we announce a new fitness coach, let’s not find a spurious negative. If we launch a new kit, let’s not complain about the standard of the photoshoot. If our midfielder plays a pass backwards, let’s not immediately tut and sigh as one. If our young midfielder overhits a cross, let’s try not to heckle him. We’re not going to play like Borussia Dortmund in the lower levels of the Scottish game, but let’s not be so hard on ourselves. Think positively.