Allen R. McConnell

Allen R McConnell Ph.D.

The Social Self

Why the New College Playoff System Won't Make Fans Happy

Football fans' motivated biases will lead to dissatisfaction with the new system

Posted Oct 28, 2014

As college football enters a new era tonight, unveiling a first-ever playoff system chosen by an all-human selection committee, fans from across the United States feel vindicated that many past injustices in college football have been fixed. Finally, there is a playoff to determine the national champion. At last, computer rankings have been vanquished and human judgment will reign supreme.

Of course, at the end of this evening and at the end of the football season, people will be just as unhappy about the new state of affairs -- not because a playoff system governed by human beings is inherently problematic (though arguably, it might be), but because in the end, motivated reasoning will rule the day just like it has during all of the previous seasons of "fan suffering" and "team injustice."

Motivation is inherent in college sports

College football is big business, which is fueled by the passion (and dollars) of its fans. For example, in 2013, each of the top 50 college athletic programs in the US generated over $50M in revenue (though admittedly, many of them did not make a profit), ranging from tickets to alumni donations to media rights (USA Today, 2014). Television is a huge driver of the financial success of college athletics, with CBS recently entering into a 14-year, $11B deal to televise the NCAA men's basketball tournament, and the major athletic conferences receiving over $300M for their participation in college football bowl games (Forbes, 2014). With the financial success of the men's college basketball tournament, it's no wonder that ESPN was willing to reportedly spend over $5B to televise the college football playoffs for the next 12 years (Wall Street Journal, 2012).

Tonight, the College Football Playoff Committee will unveil its top 25, and at the end of this year's college football season, the top four teams will advance to the first-ever college football playoff system. Until tonight, all college football fans can celebrate the brilliance and improvement this system promises.

Yet in the end, most people will be unhappy with this new system because of the same motivated biases that drove their discontent with previous approaches to determine the best team in college football. Right now, before the release of these rankings, everyone can feel good about the new system and its promise. However, as the rest of the season unfolds, most people will grow increasingly discontented with the system, not because of any inherent unfairness in it, but because fans are motivated to have their preferred teams exalted -- yet in the end, only four schools can make the playoffs. When fans teams fail to make the playoffs, motivated reasoning will lead people to decry the unfair system rather than to admit that their #5 ranked team just simply wasn't good enough!

Motivated reasoning and the sports fan

One thing that is striking about people's reasoning is how subject it is to motivated biases. To be clear, on one level, we all "get it" that highly motivated people believe what they want to believe. For example, the friend in the dysfunctional marriage wants to believe that a spouse is a good person despite everyone else seeing that the opposite is true. Similarly, politicians look at the same data as evidence for completely opposing public policies. And when it comes to college sports allegiances, strongly held beliefs about the goodness of one's team lead to similar distortions.

When people are motivated to believe something, they view ambiguous evidence in line with their preferred beliefs. For example, people told that extraversion is a desirable personality characteristic for success find it easier to generate memories of their outgoing behaviors, while those informed that introversion is a important quality find it easier to recall non-outgoing events in their lives (Sanitioso et al., 1990).

These motivated biases can happen without anyone's intention or awareness, affecting the actual visual experiences people see! For example, research by Balcetis and Dunning (2006) shows that people's wishes influence how they see an ambiguous figure (that could either be interpreted as the letter B or as the number 13). They found that people were more likely "to see" a letter or a number based on what outcome they favored. So, when two football fans either see "defensive pass interference" or "a great defensive play in breaking up the pass" on an incomplete pass, they often actually see things differently!

As a result of these sorts of motivational biases, football fans whose teams are not in "the top four" will feel wronged, remember past games and outcomes that clearly support their interpretation that their school is a top 4 football team, and they will have literally seen games differently because of their allegiances.

Ironically, watching TV programs or listening to satellite radio talk shows where sports pundits discuss the pros and cons of the committee's selection will not serve to satisfy fans, but instead, will serve to make them even more convinced that the selection committee and related processes are unfair. For example, research by Lord, Ross, and Lepper (1979) showed that exposing people with partisan views (e.g., being strongly pro capital punishment or strongly against capital punishment) to reasonable arguments from both sides of the fence end up being even more convinced of their initial rightness in the end rather than arriving at more moderated views. In short, trying to convince motivated people that there is grayness in the world encourages them to dig down and hold their original opinions with even more vigor.

Finally, the last implication of people's motivated biases will not just be seeing the world differently and in line with their inherent rightness of their teams and being unconvinced of others' divergent opinions -- in the end, they will ultimately blame the messenger when their preferred team fails to make the playoffs.

In research on the hostile media phenomenon, it has been shown that partisans who view media coverage that presents mixed information (i.e., some details in support of their side, some details in support of another side) conclude that the media itself is biased against them (Vallone et al., 1985). When hearing communicators who provide divergent views of the objective merits of both sides of an issue, people often "blame the messenger" in the service of defending their own strongly-held beliefs rather than question the veracity of their own preferences. Thus, talk show pundits who disagree with sports fans are "idiots" and selection committees who do not place their football teams in the Top 4 have biases in favor of a particular conference or some unfair criteria.


One can argue whether the introduction of an all-human selection committee is a good or bad development for picking a national champion. Ironically, computers are programmed by people using the algorithms that people design -- it's not like a Hal 9000 is picking teams willy-nilly -- and thus, any concerns about "the role of computers" are still concerns about people and their formulas, not machines. The ability of people to "hate the role of computers" in team selections is, almost in itself, a demonstration of the hostile media effect! One can also argue whether four teams are enough. The men's NCAA basketball tournament probably gets less flak for its process in that 68 teams are invited to play in the tournament, reducing the sense that a team worthy of being the best in the country was somehow shut out of the opportunity to prove it.

So, in the end, people will ultimately be dissatisfied with the current, "new and improved" approach once people's motivated biases have the opportunity to color their perceptions. At the end of the season, there will be four fan bases that will find the new system to be a great improvement, while several others will decry all of the injustices that, ironically, exist first and foremost in their own minds. Let the games begin!


Balcetis, E., & Dunning, D. (2006). See what you want to see: Motivational influences on visual perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 612-625.

Forbes (2014). The most valuable conferences in college sports 2014. Retrieved from

Lord, C. G., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 2098-2109.

Sanitioso, R. Kunda, Z., & Fong, G. T. (1990). Motivated recruitment of autobiographical memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 229-241.

USA Today (2014). NCAA finances. Retrieved from

Vallone, V. P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: Biased perception and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577-585.

The Wall Street Journal (2012). ESPN strikes deal for college football playoff. Retrieved from