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Friday, 4 May 2012

How should we feel about the 'feelgood factor' at the London Olympics?

Just because you feel good

Doesn't make you right

Just because you feel good

Still want you here tonight.

Skunk Anansie, Hedonism

Prime Minister David Cameron thinks that the Olympics will create a legacy for the whole of the UK and not just London.  But, true to his earlier statements about importance of feelings and what-not, he warns that some of this legacy will be “hard to touch”.

The concept of 'hard to touch' is a strange one in an era of evidence-based policy, in which, in the words of one civil servant (presumably in thrall to the early philosophy of Wittgenstein), 'if I can't measure it, it don't exist'.  As you know, Wittgenstein abandoned his early ideas and adopted a broader view, and perhaps Mr Cameron has also been persuaded to take a more inclusive conception of reality.  Or maybe he is just worried that the only legacies of London 2012 will be immaterial.

Cameron's touchy-feeling tones when discussing the Olympics are not without precedent.  Consider this neat piece of verbal gymnastics from New Labour's Game Plan policy document, when it suggests that whilst the quantity of medals won at the Olympics is of great importance, one must not neglect the “quality” of a victory:
“‘Quality’ can be taken to be the extent to which victory produces the feelgood factor and national pride (as these are the main public benefits of high performance sport). If it is accepted that the more popular the sport, the greater the amount of feelgood which follows, then “quality” medals are those obtained in the most popular sports.”

So, according to Game Plan, the feelgood factor is a quality that can be created and changed in amount over time, and although it is admitted that it is “difficult to quantify”, there seems little room for doubting that it can have a powerful causal effect.

So what is the feelgood factor, then?  In case you thought it was something to do with happiness, or satisfaction, or well-being, or other philosophical fluff, the authors of Game Plan tell us it can all be explained with hard science:
“The biological explanation for the feelgood sensation is due to the release of endorphin in the brain. Endorphin has been called the ‘happy hormone’ and is released for different reasons, mainly physical, but also from laughter and joy, experienced by, for example, your team winning a match. Endorphin helps to reduce pain and has even been found to enhance treatment of many illnesses and diseases.”

Remember that this piece of pseudo-scientific woowoo comes from a government document; a document that is primarily concerned with justifying the future of sport in the UK, and the billions of pounds it says are needed to ensure it.

The feelgood factor has been repeatedly cited by governments and other agencies as one of the arguments for investment in elite sport in general, and the London Olympics.  In Game Plan, for example, it is listed as the first of three 'virtuous outcomes' of elite sporting success (the others are economic benefits and increased grass-roots participation).

If the Game Plan account is to be accepted, the feelgood factor really means 'improved mood'.  Perhaps you think that is a rather feeble justification for close-to £10,000,000,000,000 expenditure from London alone.

The weediness of the feelgood defence for investment in elite sport is partly due to the fact that we can easily think of more economical alternatives for generating good feelings and lifting our mood, from old episodes of Dad’s Army to Christmas with family and friends, to a smile from a secret crush.

There is a second, more fatal difficulty with the feelgood defence.  Improved mood following nice experiences is almost always short-lived.  Humans are adaptive creatures (like all creatures, in fact), and we readily adapt to changing environments.  So improved mood or satisfaction eventually results in a ‘hedonic treadmill’ by which the elevated state will not continue, even if the circumstances that promote it are maintained.

In other words, the good mood that we hope will come with the Olympic success will be short-lived, and will certainly last a lot less time than it will take to pay off the debt from the Games.

And let’s not forget that moods – like interest rates and skirt lengths – can go up as well as down.  John Steele, former CEO of UK Sport, spoke of the “the euphoria of a full Lord’s Cricket Ground … when a single Ashes test was won”.  But by the same logic, any of England’s subsequent defeats would seem destined to result in national despair.  What will happen to the feelgood factor if any of our Olympic hopefuls under-performs or is injured?

If success in elite sport (let alone second-hand, spectated success) has a potent positive effect on our mood, presumably failure has the opposite.  And if this is true, then this is a real cause for concern, as the nature of sports competition is that most players lose in the long-run.

These are not new arguments, nor particularly scholarly.  I am sure there are those among the governments and their policy makers who know that the public has been offered some pathetically weak rationale for their investment in the Games.  Personally, I’d prefer an honest explanation like, ‘Hey, it’s the Olympics.  We beat the French!’  I’d even take, ‘Look, I was a bit of a spotty geek at school; if we get the Olympics, I get to hang out with Jessica Ennis and Victoria Pendleton!'  I just wish they didn’t treat us like fools.  It doesn't feel good at all.

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