The Psychology of Sports Fandom

Sports are weird. So are the people who watch them, provide commentary for them, and even vehemently avow their indifference to them.

I’m entirely a part of this problem, too. After being roped into joining a fantasy football league in 2012 (when I knew nothing about the NFL), I basically started to care about football to justify the amount of time I spent on it. After the Seattle Seahawks’ defense dominated the Arizona Cardinals and saved my fantasy team that week, I felt like I owed them my allegiance. I’ve been a Seattle fan ever since.

It’s rather telling that, if they met me, some people would probably like me more just because of that fact, and that a lot of people would probably like me a lot less.

Sport fandom is weird like that. It gets in your head, messes with your perceptions, and causes all kinds of biases. It can be fantastic, it can be painful, and it can be downright bizarre. Psychologically speaking, it’s a surprisingly complex phenomenon. And despite the stress it can cause, it’s incredibly beneficial.

Even before delving into the more abstract side of things, though, it’s important to note the physiological effects of watching a sport. For instance, male sports fans show increased testosterone levels when their team wins a game and decreased levels after a loss, and fans often experience significantly higher blood pressure and heart rate, particularly in stressful or hotly contested games. This can have serious consequences, as when the cardiac death rate in Los Angeles jumped by 15 percent for men and 27 percent for women after the LA Rams lost the Super Bowl in 1980.

That’s…kind of terrifying, actually, considering how many stressful football games I’ve watched in the past few years. Still, those effects are relatively obvious, at least insomuch as you can see how fans react and make some pretty solid inferences about their testosterone levels, blood pressure, and heart rates.

Currently, I’m more interested in the purely psychological effects — y’know, the ones that aren’t always so visible. Let me tell you, though, they’re certainly just as interesting.

Much of the psychological research on sports fandom is rooted in social identity theory, founded on the principle that the groups to which we belong have a nontrivial impact on our self-concepts (that is, the way we view ourselves). Our social identity can encompass all forms of group membership, including our occupation, our nationality, and yes, even our favourite sports teams.

Crucially, though, social identity theory acknowledges that some group memberships are more integral to a person’s self-concept than others. For example, an individual might be intensely patriotic, in which case their nationality plays an integral role in their self-concept, or they may consider their nationality to be only a small aspect of who they are.

The same is true for sports fans: different people identify themselves as fans of a particular team with different degrees of strength. These differences can be caused by a wide array of factors, such as an individual’s personality and whether or not their close friends and family share their identification.

This last point highlights a key idea of the theory: group memberships can often overlap and interconnect, so that an individual might be motivated to seek out membership in a particular group so as to achieve a higher level of integration and acceptance in another group about which they care deeply.

Causal factors notwithstanding, the practical upshot of these differences is that we can’t always simply refer to “sports fans” as if they’re one, homogeneous group of individuals, each of whom cares equally about their respective teams. The degree to which a fan identifies with their particular team will directly influence their psychology and behaviour, as shown by the concepts of BIRGing and CORFing.

No, seriously, those are real terms. I’m not just making up gibberish syllables to pretend I know what I’m talking about. To “BIRG” is to bask in reflected glory” or associate oneself more strongly, overtly, and/or directly with a successful individual or group. To “CORF” or “cast off reflected failure” is to do the opposite, severing one’s ties with an individual or group that is no longer successful.

These two phenomena can manifest in a number of different ways for sports fans, from a simple unconscious choice of pronouns (e.g. “We won a really hard-fought game today” vs. “They just fell apart at the end and lost”) to a behaviour known as “blasting,” in which fans will deflect failure by aggressively criticizing a competing group (e.g. “We may have lost, but the other team was full of worthless, cheating, disgraceful scumbags”).

The concepts of BIRGing and CORFing are deeply connected to “fair-weather” or “bandwagon” fans, who only cheer for a particular team because of their success. To be precise, research has shown that the tendency of a fan to engage in BIRGing or CORFing is correlated with the degree to which they identify with their team. Die-hard fans are significantly more likely to BIRG and less likely to CORF than their bandwagon counterparts.

This isn’t all that surprising in and of itself. Bandwagon fans tend to identify with a team purely for the self-esteem boost of being associated with something successful. If that success wavers or disappears — taking the self-esteem boost with it — bandwagoners have no motivation to stick with the team. Since their level of investment (e.g. merchandise, jerseys, etc.) is often negligible and they usually aren’t following the team to fit in with friends or family, this is a relatively simple and painless process.

Die-hard fans don’t have that convenient backdoor escape route. Their fandom is an important aspect of their identity, one in which they’ve invested a lot of time and money. Plus, at least for loyal fans, the benefits of fandom are not exclusively tied to the success of their team.

Again, it ties back to social identity theory. One of the primary benefits of cheering for a particular team is the sense of community and belonging created by affiliating oneself with a recognizable group. The commonality provided by a very visible and widespread network of individuals, all coming together in support of shared goals and interests, is highly beneficial.

This sense of community, above all else, validates the individual’s beliefs and attitudes by showing that other people care about the same things they do. It provides fans with a safe space to share their enthusiasm or disappointment with sympathetic peers, as well as allowing fans the freedom to get excited and energized about something in a typically harmless form of escapism.

Research has shown that this community of fans can function as a buffer against feelings of depression and alienation while promoting a sense of self-worth, similar to the effects of a supportive family.

Unsurprisingly, the influence is much more noticeable when an individual is surrounded by members of the group, as in the case of Seahawks fans actually living in Seattle, but the effect is ubiquitous. Even checking score updates on your phone — an action that is relatively isolated and independent — can serve as a reminder that you are not alone in your dedication.

Of course, any assessment of sports fandom and its psychological effects would be incomplete if it did not address the interactions between groups. Sports teams, after all, are designed to compete with each other. How does this carry over to the fans?

For this, we need to consider another psychological concept: realistic conflict theory. According to this theory, groups are naturally driven to conflict when competing for limited resources or vying for incompatible goals. Thus, when every team in the NFL is hoping to win the Super Bowl and only one team can win it each year, there is inevitably going to be conflict.

This leads to some interesting within-group and intergroup behaviour, as demonstrated by Muzafer Sherif’s classic Robbers Cave study. The participants, a group of 11-year-old boys who thought they were simply attending a summer camp, were arbitrarily divided into two teams, who were later made to compete with each other in a variety of events in which the winning team would receive rewards. Hence, conflict.

Later, members of the two teams were surveyed on their attitudes both toward their own team and the other team. Unsurprisingly, the boys strongly associated members of their own team with positive characteristics like honesty, bravery, and loyalty, while members of the other team were thought to be conniving, deceitful, and immoral.

These results support the earlier findings of Henri Tajfel, who determined that members of competing groups would significantly and consistently favour their ingroup (the group to which they belong) at the expense of the outgroup, even when the process of group assignment was completely arbitrary.

The result of all of this is that dedicated sports fans will not be dissuaded or dismayed by the presence of one or more competing groups. Rather, the mere existence of these groups will incite nontrivial levels of discrimination from other groups — at least manifesting in the attitudes of the fans, and occasionally their actions as well.

Critically, the existence of an outgroup will also strengthen the cohesion of the ingroup, even (or especially) when faced with perceived persecution. This sort of mentality is precisely why die-hard fans of teams will often double down on their support when the team faces criticism.

This can lead to all sorts of cognitive biases and moral compromises, wherein a fan will defend the actions of a favourite player or team because they see said player or team as an extension of themselves. When faced with condemnation, loyal fans — who, again, don’t have the luxury of simply abandoning ship like bandwagoners — are forced to make rationalizations or justifications for questionable or outright detestable actions. Indeed, many of these fans would be among the loudest critics of other players or teams that did these things.

We’ve seen this time and time again in the NFL. Baltimore Ravens fans came to the defense of running back Ray Rice, even after video surfaced of him abusing his fiancée. The current case of adamantly unrepentant Greg Hardy, which I discussed last week, is another example of fans and even the team’s owner seeming to not care in the slightest about what a player did as long as they’re helping the team. New England Patriots fans will aggressively assert that DeflateGate was either a conspiracy, a cover-up, or just a manifestation of the rest of the league’s collective jealousy.

I will admit that the Seahawks are not an exception in this regard. There was a good deal of criticism after the team drafted Frank Clark, who was kicked off his college football team after being charged with domestic assault. The team’s front office vociferously denied that he did anything wrong.

Personally, I’ve never defended Clark. I’ve never claimed that he’s a great person, or that the charges against him were fraudulent in any way. But I’ve also never criticized Seattle for drafting him. I’ve never called for him to be cut from the team. And that makes me feel sort of uncomfortable.

Let it be known that my goal here is not to vilify sports fans, or show that we’re all horrible, morally compromised people. It’s irrational to expect a dedicated fan — one who sees that fandom as an integral part of their self-concept — to cut all ties with their team simply because that team made some unethical decisions. Furthermore, fans will naturally feel the need to defend themselves and their team when faced with external pressure or criticism.

Rather, I merely seek to highlight some of the ways that sports fandom can alter the way we perceive and interpret different events. Perhaps the best way to combat these biases is to recognize that they exist by discussing them and analyzing them, and in this regard, psychology provides a fitting set of tools.

In the end, it’s impossible to conclusively establish whether or not sports fandom is beneficial or detrimental to the individual. As demonstrated, watching one’s favourite team can provide a sense of community with a multitude of positive side effects. However, it can also bring out an array of cognitive and perceptual biases, potentially leading to discrimination and moral inconsistency.

With all of that in mind, I think there’s only one definitive conclusion that we can draw: sports are really, really weird.

…also, go Seahawks.

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