Dealing With Super Bowl Defeatby Daliah Leslie | February 8, 2015
The morning after the Eagles lost to the Redskins 24-27, my boyfriend removed his Eagles watch before he left for work. He didn’t wear it again for another two weeks. At first, I admit, I was a little annoyed. After all, that watch was one of the first things I gave him.
Now, after seeing the reactions of a slew of devastated Seahawk fans, I’m just glad my boyfriend didn’t smash the watch straight through the television set.
It’s not news that sport fans have strong connections to their teams’ fate. There are dozens of reasons why people choose to emotionally commit to a given sports team, but a few are especially prominent. Surveys show that the top three most common include:
- Having parents who were fans
- The favorability of the players and the overall characteristics of the team
- Geography (i.e. supporting your local team) carrying with it, the influence of friends and community.
Adam Earnhardt, chairman of the communications department at Youngstown State University and co-author of Sports Fans, Identity and Socialization: Exploring the Fandemonium said:
‘Our research has shown that the number one reason people become fans is that it’s your connection to your first community.’
Being a “fan” is an expression and an extension of one’s identity. As such, it is not an illogical affectation for a fan to use the word “we” when talking about their team. In actuality, the brain does not differentiate between what is “me” and what is “the team.”
Mirror neurons are thought to be activated in the brain, causing a fan to take on the emotions, actions and even hormones of the players they are rooting for. Urine analysis performed on spectator fans after a game have shown quantities of unused sugar that resulted from the adrenal gland stimulus (i.e. caused by excitement), similar to that which is produced by the players in the game. The key difference: the player burns off said adrenaline while the fan does not. As such, it is scientifically understandable when a fan screams obscenities or even runs head first into their own television set after a bad loss. (I said “understandable,” not “acceptable”!) This is even more understandable if your team was one Marshawn Lynch yard away from winning back-to-back Super Bowls, only to lose it in a blink of an eye.
Team defeats, especially when they are narrow or unexpected (both true in Sunday’s Super Bowl), have a measurable effect on a fan’s self-regulation abilities. Yann Cornil, researcher at the INSEAD Business School, noted that:
‘Although prior studies had shown that sport outcomes influence reckless driving, heart attacks and even domestic violence, no one had examined how they influence eating.’
Cornil, along with fellow INSEAD professor Pierre Chandon, described how something as small as a rush play versus a pass play can determine what we eat the following day.
Using archival and experimental data, Cornil and Chandon demonstrated that vicarious defeats experienced by football fans (watching your favorite team lose) cause said fans to make severely unhealthy eating choices.
Comparing the outcomes of the 2004 and 2005 NFL seasons with people’s food consumption in over two-dozen cities, Cornil and Chandon were able to determine the quantities and types of food eaten after wins and losses. The researchers explained: ‘The data also allowed us to look at people living in cities without an NFL team or with a team that didn’t play on that particular day, providing us with two control samples.’
Overall, their results demonstrated that, on the the Monday after a big game, football fans of the losing team ate about 16% more saturated fats compared to their usual Monday consumption. Fans of the winning team ate about 9% less saturated fat compared to their usual intake. Surprisingly, these trends held even when people who did not identify as football fans were included in the sample. They found no evidence of anticipation or compensation effects and found no effects when the home team did not play or in cities without an NFL team.
‘People eat better when their football team wins and worse when it loses, especially if they lost unexpectedly, by a narrow margin, or against a team of equal strength,’ said the researchers. They also found that a simple technique of self-affirmation – where an individual reflects on what they personally value in life – eliminated the unhealthy effects of the loss.
This is perhaps particularly noteworthy for fans of teams that have a seeming perennial losing pattern. The fact that simply reaffirming the positives to ourselves can extinguish such aforementioned negative effects is reassuring. It’s a reminder that while the reasons for a disappointed fan drowning in Big Macs or jumping through their own television set may be explained from a biological, psychological, neurological, sociological, and physiological viewpoint, it isn’t justified in absolute terms that cannot be dealt with.
In fact, such over-the-top reactions arguably separate the individual from the team and the stratified team/fan collective they believe they belong to. For one thing, while Super Bowl XLIX ended with players brawling in the end zone, player reactions rarely go farther than that. Furthermore, while shared victory is always preferable, there is an undeniable element of shared misery and loss that is part of the basis for the fan community.
Loss can also have unintentional therapeutic results as well. The fan whose identity is so tightly merged with the identity of the team may find a sort of wake-up-call after an upsetting loss. The loss can result in the inclination to distance oneself from their defeated team. This concept, as coined by researchers C.R. Snyder, Mary Anne Lassergard and Carol E. Ford is referred to as CORFing (Cutting Off Reflected Failure).
It’s true that although watching the game can affect you in ways you cannot control, the majority of every fan’s faculties remain under their control. Furthermore, while losing has potential negative side-effects for the viewing fan, overall, the act of being a fan of any team is a positive thing. Whether it’s high self-esteem or being more active physically, politically and socially, sports fans are positively benefited by their love of the game.
Cornil Y, & Chandon P (2013). From fan to fat? Vicarious losing increases unhealthy eating, but self-affirmation is an effective remedy. Psychological science, 24 (10), 1936-46 PMID: 23925307
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