For most people, the day of the Big Game is one filled with friends, family, food, and most importantly, football. This cherished Sunday, which is dedicated to all things American football, also provides us with a great opportunity to explore the ways in which our brain reacts to a major sporting event. Although you may not be consciously aware of it, being a sports fan actually has a significant psychological impact on you before, during, and after watching your favorite team play. Below are three ways in which social psychology helps us understand how we are affected by our team winning or losing.
Whether you won your first t-ball tournament or won gold at the Winter Olympics, everyone basks in the feeling of pride that comes with success. When our favored team wins the Big Game, we experience a similar feeling of glory and enjoy reveling in it even after the game has long ended. Have you ever noticed how people wear jerseys of the winning team, or proudly announce when their team has won, but will try to avoid the topic at all costs when their team has lost? We like to associate ourselves with groups that are victorious, but distance ourselves from these same groups if they lose. Immediately after a team wins, fans like to feel as though they are a part of this winning team. To show off that they are a member of this in-group, they will call friends, send out tweets, post to Facebook, and take all sorts of actions to broadcast this information. Furthermore, if you are a fan of the winning team you will often refer to yourself as a part of it, saying things like “We Won”. On the other hand, when your team loses, you are more likely to say “They Lost” and disassociate yourself from the feeling of defeat.
Counterfactual thought can impact the way in which you think about, reflect on, and judge the game. At the end of a game, we tend to look back and think about “what could’ve been” or “what if…”; we think about all the different ways in which just one play, one catch, or one punt could have changed the whole outcome. These counterfactual thoughts are closely tied with negative emotions like regret and remorse. Further still, research has shown that when the game ends with a close score, we are likely to feel these negative emotions even more acutely. For example, if your team is losing by a lot by the third quarter, it is easy to imagine that they will lose the game, preparing you more for the defeat. However, if the losing team scores a touchdown in the last few minutes and turns the game around, thoughts of “what if that player hadn’t fumbled the ball” will be more extreme. An exception to this is if your team is losing at halftime. Rather than seeing the game as a failure, our brain will work optimistically and use these thoughts as a motivator to perform better and help us understand where we can improve in the second half.
Come Monday morning, fans of the winning team will claim that they knew all along that their team would win. Studies have found that even when all odds are against a team and they come out successful, we will still be convinced that we had no doubt about what the result would be. Once we know how something is going to turn out, we typically focus on what was consistent throughout that led to the win. For example, we hone in the fact that the quarterback was passing well throughout the season and ignore information that could have lead to a loss instead of a win, i.e., the quarterback sprained his ankle during the first round of playoffs. Thus, our brain makes us feel as though what actually happened is much more certain than it may have realistically been.
When you watch the big game this weekend, you may find yourself a little more aware of the ways in which our psyche impacts our experience and our actions, especially in the realm of being a sports fan!