It’s natural to feel happy when things go your way, and frustrated when they do not. The emotion of disappointment is only rarely investigated, despite the fact that we know it’s a major factor in contributing to our feelings of well-being. Disappointment is ranked as the third most commonly experienced emotion, following love and regret.
Sports fans are one example of people who must cope with disappointment on a regular basis. In any competitive sport, someone will win and someone will lose. True fans tie their emotions into the fate of the teams that are nearest and dearest to their hearts. It stands to reason that we’d all prefer to maximize our positive emotions by identifying with winning teams and dis-identifying with losing teams. Fickle fans do just that. They engage in behaviors known as “BIRGing” and “CORFing.” When you BIRG, you “bask in reflected glory” and take pride in your team’s victory. When you CORF, you “cut off reflected failure” and distance yourself from the team. You won’t even wear items of clothing with the team’s logo as a symbol of your rejection.
Some sports fans notoriously hang in with their team no matter what. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, have not won a championship game since 1967, yet they continue to play at home to sold-out arenas. The fans may engage in protests, such as wearing bags over their heads, but they keep coming nevertheless. How do they manage to cope with the drubbing that their emotions take when faced with the constant crush of defeat?
According to what is known as "Disappointment Theory," we experience disappointment when a situation that has an uncertain outcome ends up producing a result that is worse than we had expected. We’re most likely to be disappointed when we were seeking a positive outcome, when we felt that we deserve this positive outcome, when the failure to achieve that outcome is a surprise, and when the failure is outside of our personal control. Disappointment, then, involves these five elements:
- A situation in which the outcome is uncertain
- We are hoping for a positive outcome
- We feel we deserve the positive outcome
- We’re surprised that we didn’t achieve the outcome
- We couldn’t control the outcome by our personal actions
In a study of Cleveland Browns fans carried out in the 2008 season, John Carroll University psychologists David Rainey, John Yost, and Janet Larsen (2011) tracked disappointment among fans who had followed the team for an average of 29 years. By the start of the season, Browns fans had experienced a drought of 44 years without winning the NFL championship. After a number of losing seasons, including a temporary move of the team to Baltimore, the Browns had nearly made the playoffs in the previous season. The hopes for the 2008 season, then, were high.
Early in the fall of 2008, Rainey and his colleagues asked members of their campus community to fill out surveys to assess their identification with the team as well as their expectations for the season. At the end of the season, the researchers asked the fans to report on how invested the fans were in the team (such as how much they spent on team clothes and trinkets) as well as their disappointment in the outcome of another disappointing season. On a scale of 4-20, the average fan disappointment was 17.5. The more disappointed fans were the ones who strongly identified with the team, who attended more home games, and—relevant to disappointment theory—expected more wins at the beginning of the season. If you want to avoid disappointment with your favorite team, you’re better off either not expecting too much out of them or finding other ways to define your identity. Interestingly, in an earlier study of baseball fans, Rainey and his colleagues (2009) found that older fans were less subject to the disappointment effect. The longer you’ve experienced a winning drought, the better able you are to manage your expectations and take your team’s losses in stride.
Disappointment spreads beyond feelings of sadness to poorer decision-making
. Economists find, for example, that people experiencing the emotion of disappointment were more likely to be prone to the so-called “endowment effect.” According to the endowment effect, people are more likely to want to demand more money to sell an item they already have than they are to spend in order to acquire the very same item. The more we think about giving up an item we already own, the more value it acquires in our minds. However, when people are in a sad mood, they are less likely to show the endowment effect. In an experiment conducted by Luis Martinez, Marcel Zeelenberg, and John Rijsman (2011), participants assigned values to how much they were willing to accept in selling a mug they already were told they owned compared how much they were willing to pay to buy the same mug. Prior to making these decisions, the experimenters induced the emotion of either regret, disappointment, or neither by having participants write about their own recent experiences in those categories.
In general, according to what economists call the “emotion congruency model” (ECM), people in a bad mood are more likely to assign a low value to the worth of an object. We project our own negative emotions onto the objects we possess. As a result, when we’re in a sad mood, we should be less likely to exhibit the endowment effect. We’re willing to sell our possessions at a lower price when we’re feeling down. The more we regard the item as a reflection of our identity (such as an item with a team insignia), the more likely it is we’ll devalue the item when we’re in a bad mood. As it turned out, the participants in the study conducted by Martinez and his collaborators assigned lower values to items they had in their possession when experiencing the emotion of disappointment.
Further research using EEG recordings of participants subjected to disappointment in an experimental setting suggests that people differ in their neural responses when things don’t go their way. In research conducted by Swiss psychologist Hélène Tzieropoulos and colleagues (2011), participants experienced experimentally-induced disappointment in the “Trust Game,” an investment simulation game. In the conditions intended to induce disappointment, participants received an outcome from a virtual “investor” that was much less than they expected to receive. Everyone who was let down by their investors experienced disappointment. However, some people were particularly sensitive to disappointment, causing them to lose experimental “money.” Disappointment breeded more pessimism among participants low in disappointment tolerance. The more let down they felt, the more they expected to be let down in the future. What’s more, the pattern of responding they showed on their EEG’s suggested that they also tended to make their decisions impulsively, particularly after suffering a setback. Those least tolerant of disappointment needed only a small disappointment to bias their subsequent decisions and, ultimately, to suffer a lower payout.
What can we learn from these studies of disappointment? Here are six strategies to help you manage your feelings more successfully when your life’s outcomes fail to live up to your expectations:
- Try a bit of “retroactive pessimism” Social psychologists have identified what they call a “hindsight bias” in which you can limit their disappointment by revising the high expectations you once had for winning. Tell yourself you didn’t really expect to win, and as time goes by, the new memory will replace the painful, original memory.
- Increase your disappointment tolerance. There’s no reason that people low in disappointment tolerance have to remain that way forever. Don’t let disappointment breed pessimism because if you do, you’re likely to set yourself up for even more disappointment in the future.
- Don’t let disappointment skew your economic decisions. When you’re feeling disappointed, you’re more likely to sell at a loss. So if your favorite sports team lost the championship, don’t rush to dump your treasure chest full of memorabilia onto eBay.
- Assess your role in personal disappointments. Though you can’t control the outcome of a playoff game (despite your superstitious beliefs), you can control many of the outcomes in your personal life. If your expectations in love and work chronically fail to materialize, make an honest appraisal of what you may need to change in yourself.
- Control your identification with a losing cause. The sports fans who feel the most let down are the ones who identify most strongly with their teams. There’s nothing wrong with being loyal, but if it impairs your daily happiness, you need to find other ways to boost your spirits such as strategy #6.
- Use humor to boost your emotions. Loyal sports fans who retain their loyalty despite years of punishing outcomes almost seem to relish their identification with the underdog. If lowering your identification with your hometown heroes isn’t an option, try joining the ranks of your fellow sufferers who find solace in self-deprecating humor. Laughter is truly one of the best coping strategies and by allowing you to retain your optimism, can offset the consequences of faulty pessimism-based decisions.
Ultimately, achieving your goals is the best way to avoid disappointment. However, when those goals remain out of reach, these six steps will help you manage your feelings effectively.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012
Martinez, L. F., Zeelenberg, M., & Rijsman, J. B. (2011). Regret, disappointment and the endowment effect. Journal of Economic Psychology, 32(6), 962-968. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2011.08.006
Rainey, D. W., Larsen, J., & Yost, J. H. (2009). Disappointment theory and disappointment among baseball fans. Journal of Sport Behavior, 32(3), 339-356.Rainey, D. W., Yost, J. H., & Larsen, J. (2011). Disappointment theory and disappointment among football fans. Journal of Sport Behavior, 34(2), 175-187.
Tzieropoulos, H., de Peralta, R., Bossaerts, P., & Gonzalez Andino, S. L. (2011). The impact of disappointment in decision making: Iter‑individual differences and electrical neuroimaging. Frontiers In Human Neuroscience,4doi:10.3389/fnhum.2010.00235