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Oscar Pistorius’ Disappointment Theory

• February 14, 2013 • 9:45 AM

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Suddenly, viewing this beautiful image is really uncomfortable.

A bad few months for figures once-admired—Lance Armstrong, the Pope, and now Olympian-turned-alleged-murderer Oscar Pistorius—beg explanation by the bizarre field of Disappointment Theory. A 2011 paper studying disappointment among football fans explained it this way:

According to this theory, when individuals develop expectations in the context of uncertain outcomes, they experience disappointment if the actual outcome is worse than the expected outcome. According to van Dijk and Zeelenberg (2002), disappointment is most likely when individuals seek a pleasurable outcome, when they feel it is just that they obtain their outcome, when the failure to obtain the outcome is a surprise, and when the failure is outside their personal control. Van Dijk and van der Pligt (1997) concluded from a series of studies that the more unexpected the outcome, the greater the disappointment, and van Dijk, van der Pligt, and Zeelenberg (1999) also concluded that the more the individual desires the outcome, and the more the individual invests in obtaining the outcome, the greater the disappointment when the outcome does not occur.

Put in civilian terms, the theory is used often in the financial world to judge how people value investments. If you put $10,000 in a mutual fund you’re sure will rise 30%, and it rises 18%, you’re disappointed, even though you made a bunch of money just sitting around looking at Morningstar. Which would be your problem, except that your perception of the value of your mutual fund is probably colored by your disappointment. So maybe you pull your cash out. And maybe everyone does. And then the value of the fund actually does fall, until it’s in line with your (insane, unreasonable) disappointment.

Which brings us to Lance Armstrong’s doping, the Pope’s quitting, and Oscar Pistorius’ much more serious alleged crime: shooting his girlfriend to death in their home.

The news of Pistorius, who inspired the world with his performances as the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics, creates a particularly acute revulsion. Perhaps we’re mildly disappointed when heroes turn out to be flawed or foolish. But when they turn out to be, additionally, treacherous (like Pistorius may be) or duplicitous (Armstrong) or just a letdown to people who trusted him (the resigning Pope, for many), what happens then?

A look at disappointment among baseball fans is instructive—and even uplifting—in its way:

… It’s useful to distinguish between disappointment and discouragement. Discouragement literally means a loss of courage. People feel discouraged when they have reduced expectations for the future and lose resolve or the will to go on. Discouragement is marked by a reduction or cessation of effort to reach a goal.

… Disappointment (surprise + sorrow) is an unpleasant emotion following an unanticipated negative event (I’m sad because I expected my team to win, but they lost the championship), and despair/discouragement (fear + sorrow) is an unpleasant emotion caused by reduced expectations for the future (I’m sad because I’m afraid my team might never win the championship). It is important to note that discouragement can follow a disappointment, but that does not have to happen. Indeed, many sport fans are disappointed, but they do not all become discouraged. Many fans, perhaps because of their dedication to their team, do not give up their expectations and stop supporting their team, despite repeated disappointments.

The argument that appears to be lurking somewhere in that is fundamentally optimistic. It suggests that disappointment is rational but not always accurate—that there remain good reasons to believe in heroes, even when so many turn out to be letdowns. Or monsters.

(Unanswered in the literature: What sort of person decides to specialize in disappointment as a career? Has anyone among our readers ever met a person who introduced him or herself as an “expert in disappointment?” Was that uncomfortable? Liberating?)

Marc Herman

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