Sports is serious business. When our team loses, we mope. We don’t finish our micro-brewed beer. Even sex sounds dull.
But when our team wins, our neck hairs stand erect. We leap onto the couch and belt Queen’s “We Are the Champions” in perfect pitch. All seems right in the world.
As the Olympics hit their stride this week, the athletes’ victories and defeats are bound to play out in the minds and bodies of avid fans.
Recent research suggests that hard-core sports fans experience both physiological and psychological changes depending on whether their favored teams win or lose.
A study conducted by Georgia State University psychology professor James Dabbs and colleagues measured testosterone in fans from Brazil and Italy who were watching their respective teams in the 1994 World Cup soccer tournament. Dabbs found a 28% increase in Brazilian fans’ testosterone (measured in their saliva) after watching their team win compared to a 27% decrease among fans of the Italians, who lost. In fact, some of the Italians were reportedly so disheartened they had to be pursued into the parking lot after the game to collect samples.
“People identify with their sports teams to the extent that their testosterone changes, as if they were involved in the sports themselves,” says Dabbs, known around the American Psychological Assn. as Mr. Testosterone. “These changes are probably there for a few hours and maybe until the next day. Testosterone is related to increased combativeness and dominance and sometimes aggressiveness. And it may increase your sexual appetite.”
Other research has focused on the effects of a favored team’s win or loss on the dogged fan’s psyche.
Psychologist Edward R. Hirt at Indiana University found that sports fans’ moods and self-esteem after a victory are significantly elevated, a phenomenon called Basking In Reflected Glory (or BIRGing), a term coined by University of Arizona psychology professor Robert Cialdini. (Unlike zealous fans, fair-weather fans have perfected the art of Cutting Off Reflected Failure, or CORFing. When their team loses, they distance themselves as an “image protection tactic.”)
In two studies of undergrads who were dedicated basketball fans, Hirt and colleagues found that after watching their team win, students reported feeling they would have more success at winning a date with an exceptionally attractive member of the opposite sex.
Interestingly, BIRGers felt so outlandishly positive and desirable following their team’s victory that when rating their success in asking an unattractive person out on a date, they gave themselves Fs. “My suspicions were that they thought so highly of themselves that it was, ‘Oh, they won’t go out with me because they will be intimidated by how suave and debonair I am. I am out of their league.’ It is the whole idea that ‘I am a winner, too.’ ”
And everyone knows losers don’t date winners.
BIRGers also predicted they would perform well in a game of darts, in unscrambling anagrams and in attaining a high number when throwing dice. (The actual performances of these tasks, however, did not improve after watching a team win.) The more rabid the fans, Hirt says, the more highly they rated themselves after a victory. After a loss, they ranked themselves as virtual flops in all things.
“Real fans do not disassociate themselves from their teams when they lose,” says Hirt, who is a maniacal Cincinnati Reds fan and whose wife, he asserts, is an intolerable Notre Dame fan. “There is a real phenomenon of fans lamenting their team’s losses, and you do find it affects your beliefs about your own efficacy to do things. You do feel that there is something wrong with you, and it is generalized to all activities.”
For the die-hard fans, dedication to a particular team constitutes an integral part of self-identity. The team is a personal extension of the self and any threat to the team is perceived as a threat to the self. The team wins, you win.
Cialdini, who found that at seven universities students were more likely to wear clothing with the college insignia on it after a win, agrees. He offers this explanation for the steady rise in attendance figures for major sports events and for our need to project ourselves onto the playing field without ever making a pass, a basket or throwing a block.
“In modern life, we don’t have the same sort of contests that we had against rivals in our evolutionary past,” he says. “The time at which most of our behavior patterns evolved, thousands of years ago, we existed in small tribal societies. When our group won it said something about our superiority.
“So we use our football teams, hockey teams and our Olympic athletes as representatives of us, our cultures, our groups. And when they win, we win.”