Amy Summerville Ph.D.

Multiple Choice

Feeling Mad About March?

Psychological science explains your emotional reactions to sports

Posted Mar 28, 2019

Counterfactual thinking is among the most potent psychological forces that many people haven’t even heard of.  These thoughts about “what might have been” compare reality to some imagined alternative outcome. About ¼ of the comparisons people make in daily life are counterfactuals, according to our research. When attention turns to sports (like the March Madness NCAA basketball tournament), though, these thoughts play a particularly important role.

The thrill of an upset

One of the foundational ideas of counterfactual thinking is that these thoughts occur when it’s particularly easy to imagine an alternative outcome. It’s hard to imagine avoiding a traffic jam on your usual commute, but easy to imagine that you might not have taken an unusual “shortcut” that wasn’t, for instance. In other words, unexpected events prompt us to compare reality to what we expected, and these comparisons can produce heightened emotional reactions. When an upset occurs (like 12 seeded Murray State toppling 5 seeded Marquette), it’s easy to imagine that the outcome might have gone differently, and so these wins are especially exciting.

The agony of (close) defeats

Just as it’s easy to mentally “undo” an unexpected event, it’s also easier to imagine how a close outcome might have gone differently. For instance, researchers found that students who got an 89 and missed an A by 1 point can more easily imagine what they might have done to earn a higher grade than students who earned an 87-- and, as a result, students who earned an 89 actually feel worse about their performance, even though they actually did better. Because it’s so easy to imagine how your team might have made just one more basket and won the game, it feels worse to lose after a close game than a blowout.

The nail-biting feeling at halftime of a close game

Ryan McGuire/Gratisography
Source: Ryan McGuire/Gratisography

Surprisingly, though, research has found the same process of having more counterfactuals about a close loss can also mean that fans of the team in the lead at halftime may feel worse than their opponents.  When an event is still ongoing, being down by a little makes it easy to imagine how the team might still get there-- and being up by a little makes it all too easy to imagine how the game could still end in a loss.

Why the last shot is so game-defining

The shot at the buzzer can make a player a hero when it results in a win, but a pariah if it doesn’t. However, the player who missed the last field goal is really no more responsible for the loss than any other player who missed a 2-point shot during the game -- they all had the same impact on the score.  However, researchers have found that it’s easier to imagine the last event in a sequence being different than an early event in a chain of events and that the final event is therefore seen as having a bigger role in causing the outcome. This means that when imagining how the game could have turned out differently, it’s easier to imagine last shot going differently and producing a different outcome (what if that last shot by UCF had rolled in instead of out?) than to mentally replay the game if the very first missed shot had gone in, since every subsequent possession would have been affected.

In short, counterfactual thoughts are an under-appreciated part of what makes March so maddening-- and so exhilarating!


Kahneman, D., & Miller, D. T. (1986). Norm theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives. Psychological review, 93(2), 136--153. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.93.2.136

Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. (1997). When doing better means feeling worse: The effects of categorical cutoff points on counterfactual thinking and satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(6), 1284-1296. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.72.6.1284

McMullen, M. N., & Markman, K. D. (2002). Affective impact of close counterfactuals: Implications of possible futures for possible pasts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(1), 64-70. doi: 10.1006/jesp.2001.1482

Byrne, R. M., Segura, S., Culhane, R., Tasso, A., & Berrocal, P. (2000). The temporality effect in counterfactual thinking about what might have been. Memory & Cognition, 28(2), 264-281. doi: 10.3758/BF03213805

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