Super Bowl and Super Fans: Why We Care So Much

More research shows that the Big Game is big deal for many -- for better or worse.

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We’re not talking about the casual fan who watches the Super Bowl every year because he just really likes chicken wings, and all his friends are doing it. And we’re not talking about the fan who occasionally goes to a game if the opportunity presents itself, but doesn’t know the names of all the players.

We’re talking about the real fans who never miss a game and know every player’s stats without consulting their smartphones.

For them, a team is more than just a sports organization and games are more than just sports contests. There is a deep personal identification with both the players and the outcome, that has measurable effects on fans’ mood and behavior. Research shows, for example, that there are mental health benefits to being emotionally connected to a group such as a football team that makes you feel as if you are a part of something greater than yourself. Teams can provide a sense of community and connectedness in our increasingly isolated world.

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That applies even if the team isn’t successful; in fact, struggling ones often help to build stronger camaraderie among fans, and that can have positive effects on mental health as well, says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies the psychology of sports fandom. “I’ve interviewed fans that are constantly losing. It’s not bad for you to root for the losing team; it won’t hurt your mental health.” In fact, she says, “You get a survivor mentality.”

But just as with any attachment, there’s a flip side. If a game goes south, it can just as easily have a more negative effect on a fan’s mood and behavior. “True fans are really vitally wrapped up in what’s happening with their team. If they win, they’re elated, but if they lose, they may actually feel emotionally let down,” says Whitbourne.

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When a team looses, super fans can feel betrayed and may even lash out in anger. “You feel almost as if you have lost something close to you,” she says. “I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say it’s the five stages of grief, but after that there may be hopefulness for next year, or even switching [loyalties] to another team.”

Some research has even connected the bad feelings following a loss to a rise in domestic violence. A 2011 study that surveyed domestic violence calls to 763 police departments in different states found that a 10% increase in reports of domestic violence incidents in the couple hours following a football team’s loss. Not only that, but the number of calls doubled when the team lost to its rival. That suggests that fans are so invested in the team’s success that the loss angers them so much it can set off misattributed violence.

Of course, alcohol likely fuels such reactions, but they are also bolstered by a well known psychological and social phenomenon called ingroup-outgroup bias. Fan groups tend to demonize followers of rival teams, for example, for no other reason than that they root for the opposition. At the same time, they may form irrational bonds with people they don’t know just because they root for the same team. (See a University of Alabama fan attack a University of Oklahoma fan earlier this year:

Athletes themselves are affected by all of the devotion too. While the cheering and enthusiasm can inspire players, research shows that when the stakes are high and a championship is on the line, teams tend to choke if they’re playing at home–in front of their fans. Not surprisingly, the pressure to perform often prevents players from doing their best.

That’s a good reason to play the Superbowl, the NFL‘s ultimate contest, on neutral territory. That doesn’t mean that superfans and their emotions won’t be running wild, but at least most of them will have distance, and time to process the outcome.