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Is Fandom Really Worth It?

What studies reveal about the good and the bad of loving a sports team.

The Atlantic

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Illustration by Christopher DeLorenzo.

There’s a lot of losing in sports. Only one team can win at a time, and only one champion escapes the season without tears. But that doesn’t stop Americans from spending nearly $56 billion a year on sporting events, while dropping many billions more on jerseys, cable packages, buffalo wings—to say nothing of the substantial emotional costs incurred. (Having logged many fan-hours on behalf of the pre-success Cubs and post-success Arsenal FC, I’ve paid my fair share.) Is fandom worth it?

At first glance, the evidence isn’t encouraging. Following a loss, fans are more likely than usual to eat unhealthy food, [1] be unproductive at work, [2] and—in the case of the Super Bowl—die from heart disease. [3] What about fans of the winning team? Well, their testosterone levels tend to increase, [4] which may account for why triumphant fans are more likely than other fans to suffer a postgame traffic fatality if the score was close. [5]

Rival fans’ treatment of one another is hardly more reassuring. A recent neuroimaging study found that fans experienced greater pleasure when watching a rival team fail, as opposed to non-rivals. The same subjects were significantly more willing to heckle, threaten, or hit rival fans. [6] This ill will extends even to the health and welfare of opposing players. Fans in another study reported feeling schadenfreude when reading about the injury of a rival team’s player, and gluckschmerz (sadness at others’ good fortune) when later reading about the player’s unexpectedly speedy recovery. [7]

Yet a substantial volume of research shows that being a fan can also have positive effects. It can ward off depression and alienation and build a sense of belonging and self-worth—provided the object of one’s devotion is a local team. [8] Much of this is due to social bonds among fans, but not all—sports worship also provides individual fans with a number of strategies for navigating life’s emotional challenges. A landmark 1976 study described fans’ tendency to embrace a winning team as “basking in reflected glory,” or birging. [9] Researchers found that after a win, fans were more likely than usual to wear apparel connected to the winning team, and to claim credit for the team’s success via pronoun—describing the team as “we” instead of “they”—in conversation. This was especially pronounced in fans whose self-esteem had been deliberately lowered by the researchers through criticism. (Who knew we sports fans could be such sensitive souls?)

Subsequent research has extended the birging model, identifying related self-help strategies such as “basking in reflected failure” (birfing), “cutting off reflected success” (corsing), [10] and the especially ingenious “cutting off future failure” (coffing). [11]

Amid all the birging and schadenfreude and gluckschmerz, being a fan seems more than anything else to be a matter of managing responses to things one can’t control. Sports fans are inclined to respond to reminders of mortality with optimism, [12] and to remember victories much more clearly than defeats. [13] There are surely worse ways to live.

The Studies:

[1] Cornil and Chandon, “From Fan to Fat?” (Psychological Science, Oct. 2013)

[2] Gkorezis et al., “Linking Football Team Performance to Fans’ Work Engagement and Job Performance” (Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Dec. 2016)

[3] Schwartz et al., “Super Bowl Outcome’s Association With Cardiovascular Death” (Clinical Research in Cardiology, Nov. 2013)

[4] Bernhardt et al., “Testosterone Changes During Vicarious Experiences of Winning and Losing Among Fans at Sporting Events” (Physiology & Behavior, Aug. 1998)

[5] Wood et al., “The Bad Thing About Good Games” (Journal of Consumer Research, Dec. 2011)

[6] Cikara et al., “Us Versus Them” (Psychological Science, March 2011)

[7] Hoogland et al., “The Joy of Pain and the Pain of Joy” (Motivation and Emotion, April 2015)

[8] Wann, “Examining the Potential Causal Relationship Between Sport Team Identification and Psychological Well-Being” (Journal of Sport Behavior, March 2006)

[9] Cialdini et al., “Basking in Reflected Glory” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Sept. 1976)

[10] Campbell et al., “Beyond BIRGing and CORFing” (Sport Marketing Quarterly, Sept. 2004)

[11] Wann et al., “Basking in Reflected Glory, Cutting Off Reflected Failure, and Cutting Off Future Failure” (Social Behavior and Personality, Nov. 1995)

[12] Dechesne et al., “Terror Management and the Vicissitudes of Sports Fan Affiliation” (European Journal of Social Psychology, Nov. 2000)

[13] Breslin and Safer, “Effects of Event Valence on Long-Term Memory for Two Baseball Championship Games” (Psychological Science, Nov. 2011)

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This post originally appeared on The Atlantic and was published April 1, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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