The World Cup started in Brazil on June 12. This means that the next few weeks will be filled with anger, anguish, joy, and triumph. Sports fans have always been deeply emotional and obsessed… but also incomprehensible to those who ‘don’t get it.’ Why do fans paint their faces, dye their hair, or engage in bizarre rituals for good luck? Why do we still cheer for our teams despite corruption or other misdeeds?
Edward Hirt, a psychology professor at Indiana University in the US, has researched sports psychology, and he says, "As human beings, we have this desire to feel a sense of belonging or a sense of social connectedness with others, and being a part of different groups (gives) us identities." Scientists have shown that fans who feel personally invested in a team or who attend games and cheer with their fellow fans reap mental health benefits that come from feeling social connected.
During the Game
The most passionate fans, whether they attend games or watch on a TV, escape their daily lives as well as their inhibitions during matches, as they cheer wildly. These fans display what is known as disinhibition. They shout, blow vuvuzelas, and make friends with the strangers around them. Even those who are ordinarily shy may forget their reservations about decorum when placed in an environment where people are demonstrating uncontrolled enthusiasm.
Disinhibition may also be accompanied by deindividuation. According to social identity theory, fans tend to identify themselves as members of the team they support. They take things personally, feel connected to the outcome, experience a loss of self-awareness, a sense of diffused responsibility, and decreased concern about how others may evaluate their own behavior. This may be one reason why football ‘hooligans’ can get out of hand, destroying property and acting disruly.
After the Game
Following a game, fans are likely to feel one of two emotions- anger mixed with sadness or joy- depending on their team’s performance or the outcome. The concept of "BIRGing" or “Basking in Reflected Glory” has been introduced to describe the phenomenon in which people feel great when their team performs well. Research shows that people feel better about themselves personally after their favorite team wins. They also use language that identifies themselves with the team, saying "we" won instead of the more accurate “they” won. In recalling Germany’s win over Portugal on June 16, one fan exhibited BIRGing by saying, “I would never have thought that we would have won 4-0, but we played unbelievably today.”
In contrast, "CORFing" or "Cut Off Reflected Failure" is utilized when a team is defeated and a fan wants to distance him/herself from the humiliation. People who employ this moderate their language in the opposite direction, saying "they" lost instead of “we” lost. As one England fan put it following England’s loss to Italy on June 14, “I thought the boys tried really hard, I thought they played quite well.”
Both BIRGing and CORFing may be influenced by hormones. A (1998) study by Paul Bernhard found that testosterone levels increased about 20% in fans if their teams won and decreased about 20% if their team lost. Other researchers believe that the physical reaction creates 'eustress’ (Euphoria + Stress) that could actually be ‘dangerously addictive’. In fact, research by Dr. F Frederic Berthier shows that winning not only improves a nation’s outlook, it also lowers the national death rate due to heart attacks. Following France’s 1998 defeat of Brazil to win the World Cup, deaths from heart attacks in men and women dropped on the day of the final.
To Love is to Suffer
Sometimes, “a large part of shared fan experiences, is suffering through years, sometimes decades, without tasting victory. It’s really painful when you invest in a team that’s ultimately a loser,” says Hirt. “One of the things I find in sports fans, which people don’t have in too many other things, is this idea that you earn the benefits of fandom through loyalty.” This may be one reason why fans do not like those who ‘jump on the bandwagon’ but also a primary reason why people continue to support their national teams despite continued defeat. Iranian fans continue to cheer for their national team in spite of insufficient resources and practice time ahead of the World Cup. The Iranian team has the daunting challenge of facing up against Argentina and Bosnia, but that has not dissuaded fans from watching and holding on to hope!
Photograph by Danilo Borges/Portal da Copa via WikiMedia Commons, available here
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