Psychological explanation: Why cricket fans can't accept their idols' failure

This irrational reaction of fans – as is the case with a section of fans idolising Sachin Tendulkar (L) and Sourav Ganguly – has been studied as a phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. The path-breaking analysis was performed by American social psychologist Leon Festinger, a faculty member of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Michigan and Stanford. Studying the behaviour of large-scale cult belief systems, Festinger outlined his results in the path-breaking 1956 book ” When Prophecy Fails © Getty Images

In spite of performances and statistics that point in diametrically opposite ways, iconic cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, and to a lesser extent Rahul Dravid, somehow carry the perception created long back in their careers. Arunabha Sengupta discusses existing studies of this peculiar and prevalent psychological trait.



During the Indian Premier League (IPL) group matches we saw a 40-year old Sourav Ganguly, way over the hill and struggling with fitness issues, stumbling through the matches, ending with an average of 17, strike rate of 98, his team finishing at the bottom of the table. He consumed balls at the top of the innings, leaked runs between his legs in the field, and for some reason sent free-stroking, in form batsmen like Steve Smith too late in the day to rescue the games.


Yet, in every discussion forum, we find this performance equated with the last fierce roar of a beloved tiger; the initial euphoria of winning matches was reduced to a trickle with nine losses in a row, but somehow the performances always came through as variously courageous, indomitable, against all odds, and exhibits of exemplary leadership.


The reactions seem frozen in time – as Rajesh Ramaswamy put it – in the balcony of Lord’s, 2002. The more graphic the humiliation, the more ecstatic were the subsequent eulogies.


Results uncorrelated to reactions


This trait is not restricted to Ganguly alone.


With Sachin Tendulkar it works both ways. He averages 42.63 in 12 Tests since 2011 – not low by any means, but a drastic drop from the pinnacles he is known to inhabit. But to his ardent supporters, he still rules the world at the popping crease.


At the other extreme, gems such as his 103 not out against England in Chennai, 214 and 53* versus Australia at Bangalore, couple of VB Series specials and a gamut of other master classes cannot seem to rewrite the perception that he is not a match-winner, clamouring facts and figures notwithstanding.


When we consider Rahul Dravid, fanaticism is perhaps toned down, since the appreciation of his classical batsmanship demands a degree of sophistication. However, he is almost unanimously accepted as the numero uno in difficult conditions, although the numbers reflect that he just about managed to inch his average over 40 in Australia and ended up scoring at 29.71 in South Africa.


Similarly, one section of the populace would attribute every success of MS Dhoni to luck, which can be disproved by putting his captaincy record through basic statistical tests of hypotheses. However, at the other end, he remains the ideal captain for many even after seven consecutive overseas defeats.


It is perhaps extreme in India, especially when it comes to Ganguly and Tendulkar, but not really non-existent elsewhere. Steve Waugh, for example, is widely acknowledged as the crisis man, someone whom you would pick to bat for your life. However, the records show that he averaged 25 in the fourth innings with just two fifties from 31 outings, and scored at 32 in all second innings.


The pattern is similar for each case. A reputation that has been erected in the early days or mid season of one’s career is etched in the psyche of the fan-following, and performance can hardly alter the image after that. In fact, as the IPL debacle of Ganguly shows, when the idol abjectly fails to meet the expectations created by the fumes of fanatical worship, the belief in his esoteric powers is reinforced and grows stronger rather than weaker.


Why belief becomes more fervent when expectations are not met


This curious phenomenon of irrational rationalisation has in fact been studied as a phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.


The path-breaking analysis was performed by American social psychologist Leon Festinger, a faculty member of – among others – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Michigan and Stanford. Studying the behaviour of large scale cult belief systems, Festinger outlined his results in the path breaking 1956 book – When Prophecy Fails.


According to his scientifically accepted findings, he demonstrated:


# A zealous believer undergoes cognitive dissonance if faced with outcomes which are greatly different from what one expects – feelings of surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment.


# In this circumstance, a very natural way to cope with the negative feelings is to become a more fervent believer – provided conditions are favourable for doing so, namely abundant mutual support of similar-minded souls.


The features and the required conditions of the phenomenon are listed below along with their cricket fandom equivalent in parenthesis.


1. The belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to how the believer behaves. (In cricket, this equates with the strength of fanaticism and the way the performance of a cricketing idol or villain is linked to the sense well being of the fan.)


2. The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; he must have made pronouncements or taken actions difficult to undo. In general, the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual’s commitment to the belief. (Boasts and predictions in cricket fan communities are common enough, blind faith/dislike for the icon helping things along. Eg. Tendulkar will play a match-winning innings, or Tendulkar will definitely fail under pressure, or Ganguly, the best captain, will surely win the IPL)


3. The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world, so that events may actually be drastically opposite to the belief. (Axiomatic for the cricket fan who always stands the chance of witnessing his infallible forecasts crashing on the 22 yards)


4. Such undeniable evidence on the contrary occurs and is recognised by the individual. (The fan watches in disbelief as the icon fails to perform according to his expectations. The scoreboard cannot be denied, at least at the beginning.)


5. The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated person could withstand disconfirming evidence.  If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, the belief can be maintained and the believers are likely to attempt to promote this belief or persuade non-members that the assertions are still correct. (The upset fanatic leans on fan clubs in the physical and electronic world, voices support each other, groupthink leads to mysterious justification of the unacceptable failures, and the entire group re-emerges from the disappointment as an even more impassioned, rabid believers and evangelists.)


Hence, when the uninitiated ends up bemused at the reaction of fan/hate clubs which seem to be at diametric discord with the actual results, he can do well to remember that this is a studied and expected occurrence. 


Cricket is a religion here with considerably more than its share of fanatics, and the only way to deal with this is tolerance.


(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)