It’s natural to feel happy when things go your way, and to feel frustrated when they don't. The emotion of disappointment, however, has only rarely been investigated, despite the fact that we know it’s a major contributor to our feelings of well-being. Disappointment is ranked as the third-most-commonly experienced emotion, after love and regret.
Sports fans represent one example of a group 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—and 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 a local team; you won’t even wear items of clothing with its logo.
Some sports fans notoriously hang in with their team no matter what. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, have not won a championship since 1967, yet continue to play at home to capacity crowds. The fans may wear bags over their heads, but they keep coming. How do they manage to cope with the drubbing that their emotions take from the constant crush of disappointment?
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. Disappointment, in this theory, involves five elements:
In a study of Cleveland Browns fans carried out during 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 move of the city's original team to Baltimore (an expansion team took its place), the Browns had nearly made the playoffs in the previous season. 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 they felt in the team (such as how much they had spent on team clothes and memorabilia) as well as their disappointment in the outcome of what turned out to be 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, attended more home games, and—especially relevant to disappointment theory—expected more wins at the beginning of the season.
If you want to avoid disappointment from your favorite team, you’re better off either not expecting too much 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, it appears, 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 are more likely to be prone to the so-called “endowment effect," in which they are more likely to want to demand more money to sell an item they already have than they would be willing 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 to sell 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 regret, disappointment, or neither by having participants write about their own recent experiences in those categories (or not).
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, because 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 it when we’re in a bad mood. As it turned out, the participants in the study conducted by Martinez and his colleagues 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 poorer than they expected. 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 bred 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 responses 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:
Ultimately, achieving your goals is the best way to avoid disappointment. However, when those goals remain out of reach, these steps will help you manage your feelings effectively.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012