Resume Reading — The Unique Neurology of the Sports Fan’s Brain

Close

The Unique Neurology of the Sports Fan’s Brain

Why we get off on the game—and are better off for it.

Sports fans aren’t typically in the mood for academic research in the minutes before a big game. But Paul Bernhardt, an aspiring…By Brian J. Barth

Sports fans aren’t typically in the mood for academic research in the minutes before a big game. But Paul Bernhardt, an aspiring young behavioral scientist at Georgia State University, was determined. Armed with a bag of sterile vials, Bernhardt inched through the crowd at Atlanta’s Omni arena, politely asking anyone decked out in either University of Georgia or Georgia Tech basketball garb—the teams that were set to battle that evening—for a bit of saliva.

The year was 1991. Fans of the Bulldogs and the Yellow Jackets, the state’s two most renowned collegiate sports institutions, had been hating each other’s guts since 1893, a rivalry affectionately known as COFH: Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. (Yes, sports rivalries can have names; COFH is historically significant enough to have a 5,000-plus word entry in Wikipedia with 50 citations.) Bernhardt wasn’t there to celebrate a century of feuding, however; he was hoping to break new ground on the scientific understanding of such fandemonium—“highly identified” fans would be the proper psychology term—to explain why being a sports nut, bitter hatred and all, feels soooo gooooood.

clean old-fashioned hate: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets bond over their shared hatred of the University of Georgia Bulldogs. Scott Cunningham / Stringer / Getty Images

The fact that athletes experience a tidal rush of testosterone, a hormone associated not just with male sexuality but with self-esteem, upon winning a big game was well established. But there was a hypothesis floating around among social psychologists at the time that fans ride a similar hormonal high. Bernhardt just needed a little spit, which offers a reliable approximation of the body’s biochemistry at any given moment, to find out.

“I’m sure people thought I was wacko, but it’s easier to get people to give you little spit than a little blood,” says Bernhardt, now a professor of psychology at Frostburg State University. “The woman I was dating at the time, who was with me, was so traumatized she buried her head in the book she’d brought.”

Highly identified sports fans have an above average sense of meaning in life.

The game was extremely close, with UGA squeaking out a win at the buzzer. In the post-game chaos only eight fans, four Dawgs and four Jackets, returned their bottles—but the results were compelling. Testosterone levels typically peak shortly after waking each day, then drop about 35 percent by bedtime. When he got back to the lab Bernhardt discovered that the testosterone levels of the four jubilant winners were 20 percent higher as they exited into the late-night melee outside the Omni than when they entered. Players are known to experience roughly the same increase. (The Georgia Tech fans, meanwhile, had a 20 percent drop, though Bernhardt places less importance on that finding, as testosterone levels typically decline at that hour anyway.)

Soon after, he and his colleagues carried out another test with a larger, more statistically significant pool of subjects: 26 soccer fans watching a Brazil-Italy World Cup game in Atlanta, half at a Brazilian sports bar and half at an Italian bar. Again, a 20 percent increase in testosterone was observed among fans of the winning team, the Brazilians (along with a corresponding 20 percent drop for the Italians). “Statistically, the correlation is very strong,” says Bernhardt. “The importance of [the experiment] was to show that testosterone isn’t just about a body getting pumped up; it’s not, for want of a better term, about being burly. It is about a sense of status, of seizing the moment.” Testosterone is produced during moments of intense competition, even if the experience is purely psychological. “The fans are having a vicarious experience of the competition, as well as the experience of status gain that comes with that,” he says. Similar studies since then have confirmed this relationship, while others suggest that the entire panoply of neurochemicals associated with athleticism, from dopamine to adrenaline to oxytocin, are triggered to a similar degree in both the players and fans during a game.

Thus it seems that fans can share much of an athlete’s thrill, without all the talent, training, and exertion.


Bernhardt may have opened the door on an important physiological dimension of fan behavior, but a broad conceptual framework explaining the human compulsion to watch other people play games—a condition that affects approximately 60 percent of Americans—was already coming into focus.1 In 1976, psychologist Robert Cialdini led a series of studies in which students of seven major football schools were gathered into lecture halls on a Monday following a big game. At schools where the team won, the percentage of students wearing team colors and apparel was far greater than at the losing schools. While the average sports fan might say, duh, of course they were, Cialdini’s experiment was intended to provide empirical evidence in support of a concept he called Basking In Reflected Glory: “publicly announcing one’s association with successful others even though [one] ... has done nothing to bring about the other’s success.”

BIRGing, as it is now known in psychology-speak, is a subconscious strategy to maintain a positive self-image. “I was absolutely BIRGing with joy after the Dawgs kicked their Yellow Jacket asses,” one’s subconscious mind might say, if only it could speak.

But what of the losers? It turns out they have clever strategies for feeling good, too. The first stage of coping with a loss is often CORFing—Cutting Off Reflected Failure. Here Cialdini’s research revealed that pronoun choice was highly subjective. BIRGers will say, “We crushed them,” while CORFers invariably distance themselves from the failure: “They blew it.” Losers may then continue with a suite of mnemonically-termed coping mechanisms, including: BIRFing—Basking In Reflected Failure, the underdog mentality; CORSing— Cutting Off Reflected Success, as in the nostalgic fan who rejects success gained through deceit (i.e. doping) and opines for the more pure glory of times past; and COFFing—Cutting Off Future Failure, a strategy of not getting too excited when a team with a historically poor record starts to do well (lest their success prove to be short-lived).

Am I Ugly?

Certainly my face isn’t for everyone. My bulbous nose drifts to the right, and my chin is a bit weak, although it’s skillfully hidden behind a goatee. It’s more difficult to hide the bags under my eyes or the fact...READ MORE

These ups and downs of fandom help keep us plugged into the game, part of the perverse bliss of sports that psychologists refer to as “eustress,” a type of beneficial stress that is flavored with a touch of ecstasy. So while BIRGing and CORFing may seem like the silly, predictable machinations of the average sports fan, they underscore a shared sense of identity.

Daniel Wann, a social psychologist at Murray State University, has spent the last 30 years elaborating on Cialdini’s theory that identification with sports teams is, at the very least, a means to boost self esteem—if not an opportunity to enhance overall mental health, he adds. Wann and his colleagues have carried out more than 20 studies in which diverse groups of sports fans, including high school students, college students, senior citizens, Australians, female fans, hockey fans, NASCAR fans, and others, were evaluated in regards to various measures by which psychologists gauge well-being—such as a sense of self-worth, frequency of positive emotions, feeling connected with others, belief in the trustworthiness of others, sense of vigor and energy, and so on. In virtually every single study, the degree of fan identification—that is, how devoted and enthusiastic a fan is—shows a positive statistical correlation with one or more of these factors. Wann’s Team Identification-Social Psychological Health Model, first published in 2006, describes nearly two dozen “well-being benefits” that he says are commonly associated with sports fans.

Sports are a potentially constructive outlet for the tribalist tendencies of modern humans.

Using mediation analysis, a statistician’s approach to differentiating causality and correlation, he’s found that sometimes the well-being benefits flow directly from fandom—a sense of belonging, for example— while other times there is a “mediating” factor—I’m more trusting of others because I have a strong sense of belonging in regards to my team. In all cases there was a causal connection between fandom and well-being, but sometimes the link was indirect. Similar phenomenon can be observed in other instances of strong identification with a group, whether a gang or a church congregation, though few cultural institutions today have as many die-hard adherents.

And the rules don’t apply as well to casual fans, Wann cautions. “This effect is most prominent among those who are most intense. In order to really reap the well-being benefits of fan identification, it needs to be a central part of your overall social identity.” The biochemical aspects of fandom only serve to reinforce those good feelings.

His most recent study, which is pending publication, found that highly identified sports fans have an above average sense of meaning in life. This was one of those cases where A leads to B, but as a result of C, the mediating factor: “We found that identification wasn’t necessarily leading directly to meaning, but rather it was going through belonging,” says Wann. “So identification leads to belonging, which in turn leads to a sense of meaning.”

Wann believes there is one very simple reason fans are so deeply fulfilled, which has nothing to do with sports itself. It’s not about winning or losing, he suggests; it’s about the human bonds we form in the process. “If you identify with the local team, that’s going to give you connections to others around you, and those connections will give you a sense that there is meaning in life. For example, if you are a Kansas Jayhawks fan”— which Wann, a University of Kansas alumnus, is—“and you happen to live in Lawrence, Kansas, and you’re out in the streets with your Jayhawks shirt on and your hat and your bumper sticker and all that, it’s really kind of hard to feel lonely. You have so many friends, so to speak, that you’ll feel connected to. You might not even know their names, but you feel as though you are unified with so many other people in the community.”


Affiliation with sports teams, it seems, is a contemporary form of tribalism. “Our sports heroes are our warriors,” Cialdini once remarked. And tribal affiliation, along with satisfying our need for a sense of belonging, produces another social pleasure that’s not so warm and fuzzy: the good vibes of walloping your opponent. It’s what Germans call schadenfreude, literally “harm-joy,” the pleasure derived from others’ misfortune.

Mina Cikara, director of the Harvard Intergroup Neuroscience Lab, says that while ingroup-outgroup dynamics stemming from this infallible aspect of human nature may lie at the roots of racism, religious intolerance, and war, she sees sports as a potentially constructive outlet for the tribalist tendencies of modern humans—we get much of the pleasure with little of the harm. Using fMRI imaging, Cikara observed the brain activity of 18 diehard Red Sox and Yankees fans (who have been mortal enemies ever since the Red Sox dealt Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920) while subjecting them to video clips from ESPN’s Gamecast. Upon witnessing their favored team score or strike out an opposing player, a flurry of activity is seen in the ventral striatum, a region of the brain associated with reward-based decision-making, as well as addiction.

“The dopamine is saying, ‘hey, hey, that was good, let’s make sure to do that again,’ ” says Cikara. The effect was observed not just with clips where the Red Sox and Yankees played against each other, but also in another set of clips where each team faced off against the Orioles. When Yankees fans saw the Red Sox perform poorly against the Orioles, which had no direct bearing on their team’s success, they were rewarded with a hit of dopamine just the same: pure schadenfreude.

Cikara studies schadenfreude in the political realm as well, but says that sports fans make good guinea pigs because they’re willing to self-report feeling pleasure in response to the misfortune of others. Her work is aimed at finding strategies to head off the worst outcomes of the ‘us versus them’ mentality. With the intensely polarizing social dynamics found in so many other cultural contexts, where putting down the ‘other’ often leads to grave consequences, sports may be an important relief valve.

“There is a script of being a good fan which means talking shit to the other fans,” says Cikara. “That allows for the enactment of some of these tribal behaviors in a space where it is acceptable and anticipated. Sports is a place where we as a society have decided that it’s OK to say nasty things and root for the downfall of another.” And that is perhaps more gratifying than we realize.


Brian J. Barth is a Toronto-based writer focused on culture, science, and the environment.


References

1. Jones, J.M. As industry grows, percentage of U.S. sports fans steady. Gallup.com (2015).

Get the Nautilus newsletter

The newest and most popular articles delivered right to your inbox!


Join the Discussion