Want to have fun watching March Madness? Then don’t bet on it.

March 18, 2011, 8:09 PM UTC


So you filled out your bracket, forked over a 10-spot, and you’re already knee-deep in the Madness, checking the office pool standings and refreshing SI.com? There goes your chance at a stress-free March.

According to Stephen Nowlis, professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis, research suggests that when you make predictions about the outcome of something like a basketball game, you end up enjoying the event less than you would have otherwise.

The findings may say more about human nature than gambling. “There is a long line of research that shows people aren’t always accurate predictors of what will make them happy,” says Nowlis. “So you think, ‘Oh, hey, there’s a March Madness pool, all the people at work are doing it, if I join it’ll make the games more exciting,’ but then it doesn’t. It ruins it for many people.”

Nowlis says the idea for the research, which included four studies and had subjects gamble on everything from sports to Wheel of Fortune, started from an office pool on who would win Survivor. “I got more stressed out and couldn’t enjoy watching Survivor anymore,” he recalls. “Somebody was searching for spoilers online ahead of time, people stressed about it — I mean the whole thing became a mess.”

It’s basic psychology, he says: lay down a bet for a team to win, and you’ll feel jittery and anxious as you watch. We are our own worst enemies.

Gambling sports fans may not all agree. Or perhaps they’re reluctant to see the truth. An accountant at a Massachusetts power plant who has run both March Madness and NFL “Sunday pick ‘em” pools for nearly 15 years says that if anything, betting enhances the fun. “I don’t even like college basketball, but filling out a bracket can turn a team you totally don’t care about into one you have strong feelings for,” he says. “Now, you could say it kills productivity; I’d pretty well agree with that. But in terms of fun, being in a pool brings people together.” His football pool has grown so large that the payout each year is close to $4,000.

James Zack is also skeptical about Nowlis’ findings. Zack, a Vanderbilt University senior headed to law school, runs a web site called Ivy League Friday that offers picks, over/under stats, and detailed advice for college basketball betting. The title refers to a sort of gambling niche — the only college hoops games on Fridays are typically between the Ivies. When you bet, says Zack, “if it’s a game where you would otherwise have no rooting interest, you are essentially buying a team for the duration of the game.”

A psychology major, he also believes there’s positive reinforcement to be had when your prediction proves correct. “It’s rewarding to feel like you know two teams well enough that you could predict the outcome,” he explains. “This is mainly why I spend so much time coming up with statistics and formulas for the picks.” Of course, he admits there’s also the typical gambler’s high: “Having a bet on a game is like having a hand of blackjack, but instead of a 30-second rush, you get it for two hours.”

Nowlis comes back with the voice of reason. Of course there’s no negative in cases where your bet pays off, but think of the fallout from a March Madness pool: “At the end of the pool, someone wins, but all the other people feel bad,” says Nowlis. “Then they get down on themselves for making stupid picks.”

But don’t worry too much. What’s $10, right? Just try not to be too miserable when a #1 seed loses this weekend and busts your bracket.

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