Drugs in sport? Why our memory of scandal fades so readily

Recent controversies in sport won’t keep the fans away. Julie Edgley/Flickr

Despite the recent controversy arising from the ACC report into organised crime and drugs in sport, it is unlikely that substantial numbers of fans will stop supporting their sport.

In fact, we are surprisingly poor judges of how a particular event will make us feel into the future. In other words, we rely on how we feel right now to predict how we might feel about something later. Psychologists call it affective forecasting.

We also have a tendency to forget the way that we thought we would feel, and revise our predictions after the fact to suit how we actually feel at that time of remembering. This is all done without us being aware that it is going on, i.e., it happens outside of our reflective capacity.

In the case of how we will feel into the future about current negative events, such as the drugs and organised crime scandal currently enveloping Australian sport, we are actually lucky enough (or not, depending on how you feel about sport) to have a type of psychological immune system that protects our ego, shielding us from thinking that we might be bad decision-makers.

When a something bad happens to us, the psychological immune system comes to our defence, similar to the way that our physical immune system creates a range of defences when we encounter a virus. But, because the psychological immune system is mostly unconscious, we don’t realise that it is doing its job. Which is a good thing - we wouldn’t want to know that we are being tricked into being overly optimistic.

So what happens is that we have a tendency to overpredict how a good or bad event, such as the scandal, will influence our future behaviour. The reality is, that as long as the scandal doesn’t go on for too long, we will very quickly return to the normative state – the way we felt before the scandal happened. If you think about it, just before every season starts there is a scandal of some sort, and yet each year the football codes get larger crowds and more supporters. We eventually return to a level of equilibrium in relation to our feelings about the attitude object; whether negative or positive.

And to top it off, as time goes on, we are poor at remembering how we felt when we first heard about the bad event. So the anger we are feeling right now about the drug use, is unlikely to be long lived, particularly if the whole thing is sorted out quickly. In fact, the mere act of remembering has been shown to have a positive effect on our attitudes toward the object, regardless of whether the original feeling was positive or negative.

So, we might say today that we will never go to another game, but as the season goes on, as our social world returns to its equilibrium, we will tend to go back to the way we were before, and forget how angry we were at the time.

That said, if the scandal continues for a long time, and more and more negative information is revealed into the season, it is likely to change some supporters’ overall emotional norms about the game, and have some effect on people who were perhaps not as wedded to the game as others. But this may have happened in any case - the scandal may have simply sped the process along.

This affective forecasting can also be related to one of the big mistakes made by the Australian government when they started to talk about the carbon tax well before it was made into law – the government let it fester in the public for too long, which meant that the new norm was to feel negative about it. The “feelings” persist about the government (because this is the new norm), but, in general most people don’t feel the same level of negativity about the carbon tax that they did a year ago, simply because (for most people) it has been “absorbed” into our everyday lives.

Although the process of predicting emotions tend to be fairly imprecise, over-predicting how we will feel and misremembering predictions are actually a useful way to bolster our ego, and continue to feel optimistic about our ability to predict the future.

We have to trust how we feel about something now, otherwise we would never get anything done and we would start to think our emotional responses can’t be trusted.

Our ignorance of this tendency helps to keep us motivated, and create a level of optimism so that we avoid what we expect to be awful and aim for what we hope will be good.