Examining the minds of fans
This weekend, millions of people will huddle together in stadiums and sports bars across the country to root, cheer and holler for groups of people they have most likely never met.
There are fans of every sport in every country, but the highest levels of dedication are on full display each Saturday of every passing fall.
Each touchdown will come to mean something greater than six-points; the outcome of the game will have effects more profound than wins or losses.
What pushes a person to become so invested in something they could never control? Why would someone devote seemingly endless hours and commit sometimes staggering sums of money to simply watch and not participate?
There’s a web of connections, drives and mental needs that compel a spectator to twist sports into something greater than scores and statistics, satisfying deeper psychological necessities than a simple game ever could.
THE NEED TO BELONG
The term “fan” comes from “fanatic” — certainly not the most flattering of labels.
“Fanatic” itself points toward some sort of extreme, but Michael Tamborski, a doctoral candidate in social psychology, said being a “fanatic” is actually not that extreme.
“It’s more likely than not [a] normal [state] to be identifying with a team,” Tamborski said. “All people want to feel included, and no person wants to feel excluded, and that’s pretty much a universal need.”
Sports fandom has a strong social basis, largely arising from the innate need to be accepted by others. People like to fit in with groups; sports is just another way to do so.
“The reason people enjoy following teams ties back to group identity issues,” Tamborski said. “People have various levels of identity, and being a part of a group is something that is fundamental to human nature.”
College sports work on even deeper levels. It’s a group within a group: the college community subdivided into the college sports team.
“Everyone has a desire to be a part of a group, and sports are a very salient example of that, especially college sports,” he added. “You are a part of this very inclusive community — OU — and rooting for this team makes you feel like you belong in this group.”
To be a part of a group is to be psychologically fulfilled, and the more included an individual feels, the more satisfying the experience.
CRIMSON & CREAM
The most outward display of group identification, especially in college sports, is that of donning school colors. This can be as understated as a crimson sweater or as showy as body paint and foam fingers. The purpose is the same — to not only support one’s team, but to also demonstrate group affiliation to others.
There’s a satisfaction that comes from unity. To feel like you are a part of a group is fulfilling, but to outwardly support that feeling deepens the satisfaction. To imitate the jerseys of the players on the field not only connects the spectator to them but the legion of fans surrounding them.
“There’s lots of little things people can do to conform to a group,” Tamborski said. “There are norms, like school colors, and that’s one way to show your identity, and ultimately increase self-esteem.”
To be tied to others, including the players, in this manner is a way to share in the joys and successes of others and boost one’s own self-esteem, the other major goal of sports fandom.
“[Fandom] has benefits for self-esteem, especially when you have a good team,” Tamborski said. “If a team wins, the individual can bask in reflective glory. The success of the team rubs off on that person.”
Wins become something deeper than a victory for the players on the field; fans share in the success and feel as though they had a part in the result. People are in a perpetual state of needing to maintain self-esteem. Sports can be an easy way of doing that.
But if team victories are tied to maintenance of personal self-esteem, how are there any Oklahoma State fans left?
There’s a sense of group loyalty that can help overcome the negatives of group failure. This helps explain why diehard fans are so resistant to bandwagon fans.
“There’s an element of group loyalty that comes into play, regarding fair-weather fans,” Tamborski said. “There’s this sense of ‘Hey, this is my group that I’ve worked to be accepted in. Who are you?’”
Though it turns out sports fans are quicker to turn their backs than they might lead you to believe.
Robert Cialdini pioneered sports psychology research in the 1970s, eventually coining the biggest phrase in the field: “basking in reflected glory.” His early studies showed that college sports fans were more likely to wear clothing with their respective school’s logo or colors on the day after a win than after a loss.
Wearing school colors the day after a win allows fans to pull the success of victory into the next day, while wearing them after a loss would drag the feelings of failure on further.
He later showed that sports fans were most likely to take credit for team victories (“we won”) and reject team failures (“they lost”).
This is a simple defense mechanism that protects the ego from damage, keeping self-esteem stable.
“If your team wins, you can raise your self-esteem by reflecting with them, so you include them,” Tamborski said. “When they lose, that’s a failure, and you psychologically separate yourself. People as a whole tend to take credit for successes and excuse themselves from failures.”
Some fans still readily accept wins and losses with a deeper, inner resonance. With fans of this sort, the season can become an emotional roller coaster.
“Most people are happy when their team wins and sad when it loses,” Tamborski continued. “People who have more extreme mood swings are outliers, and that mood swing is the result of the team’s identity being even more closely lodged in with your own, or other personality issues, including neuroticism (emotional instability).”
Behavior of this sort is unhealthy and indicative of a social identity that goes too deep.
However, for the majority, sports fandom is a perfectly healthy habit that has immense benefits for the psyche and self-esteem.
True to most things in life, the source of sports’ appeal is different for all. For most, it involves a need to belong and a desire to increase self-esteem. For others, it may be as simple as escapism. Some use sports to blow off steam. Others are addicted to the adrenaline rush that accompanies tracking a big game. Maybe it’s just a diversion from everyday stress and activity.
If there is one bond that holds for each and every sports fan, it’s that the game at hand is more than just a game.