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Originally published February 15, 2014 at 6:43 PM | Page modified February 15, 2014 at 9:53 PM

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The psychology of being a sports fan

Not only did winning the Super Bowl give Seahawks fans something to brag about, studies find winning and even being a fan can be beneficial in myriad ways from eating better to feeling better.


Seattle Times columnist

Twitter and the Super Bowl

A YouTube video shows Twitter activity in the U.S. during the Seahawks/Broncos Super Bowl, measuring the tweets mentioning each team and the halftime show. The Broncos tweets are orange, the Seahawks tweets are blue and the halftime show tweets are purple. It’s not until the end of the game that the Seahawks dominate the map.

• At the point of the opening-play safety, Broncos mentions are still dominant (except in Seattle, of course).

• As the Seahawks take a 22-0 lead on a Peyton Manning interception return, activity picks up.

• The halftime show gets a lot of interest.

• By the end of the game, the Seahawks are champions and turn the map mostly blue, finally.

Find the video by searching YouTube for the title: “Super Bowl 2014: The pulse of the game on Twitter.”

Source: YouTube, Twitter

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Every NFL Sunday, Matt Mikolas prepares for action. If he’s attending the Seahawks’ game, which he often does, that entails putting on a full Hawks uniform, spray-painting his hair blue and green, and inscribing the number “12” on his face.

Other Seahawks fans aren’t as extreme in their adornment as the 29-year-old Mikolas, a producer at KJR who goes by the moniker “Slickhawk,” and the rest of the so-called “Superfans” who have become familiar sights decked out in the north bleachers at CenturyLink Field.

But they’re often just as deeply invested in the outcome of every game. The Seahawks have become a regional obsession, with the collective mood largely dependent on their success or failure. In case you hadn’t noticed, the “12s” are everywhere these days, loud and proud.

“We’re all one voice,’’ Mikolas said. “It’s a powerful thing. It’s tangible.”

This magical football season has been over for two weeks now. The wild celebrations in the streets have ceased, the manic displays of joy on parade day are over. Yet Seahawks fans, I sense, are still clinging to the warm memories, unwilling or perhaps even unable to let go of the euphoria.

Seems like the perfect time to take a look at what in the name of Big Lo is going on here. Surely, whatever phenomena is at work to get men and women, young and old, rich and poor, folks of every ethnicity and occupation, to share the same fixation has to be deeper than just the fate of a football team.

It turns out there is a whole discipline of studying sports fanaticism, and it spills over into elements of psychology, sociology and physiology. A lot of important, fascinating, surprising stuff is churning around this topic, even though the cynical among us will be quick to derisively point to Jerry Seinfeld’s famous line about how fans are basically “rooting for laundry,” because of the rapid turnover of players.

To which Eric Simons, author of “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession,” responded in a phone interview, “That line is really profound, except it’s so dismissive of laundry ... It’s odd. Fans get so much from identifying with a team, in ways even players don’t. The athletes can be mercenaries, but the fan is permanent. Laundry matters to us quite profoundly. We get a ton out of it in ways that are deeply emotional.”

The average fan doesn’t need to know about such academic terms as “ingroup” and “outgroup.” It suffices to say they love their team and hate their archrival. What social scientists refer to as “disinhibition” and “deindividuation,” we recognize intuitively as the notion that you can get away with things as a fan in a crowd you’d never dream of trying in normal society. The phrase “cathartic healing” is a fancy way of saying that rooting for your favorite team makes you feel better about your life.

Because it does. Virtually every study shows precisely that: The sense of goodwill, bonding and shared purpose that comes with being a fan has a ripple effect that can benefit all aspects of living.

“If they’re doing well, it reflects on us, in terms of bragging rights, status, prestige and identity,’’ said Joe Weis, a sociology professor at the University of Washington. “It gives you good feelings. I’ve been feeling really good because of the Super Bowl win.”

That notion helps reconcile the logical disconnect that comes with turning over your feelings of self-worth to overpaid strangers who happen to be employed in your town at the moment, playing a game of no particular intrinsic value.

“Once you’re bonded to a team, and you experience all the benefits that come from it, then the relationship actually makes a lot of sense,’’ Simons said. “It’s quite rational to keep that relationship.”

For starters, studies show that rabid sports fans have higher self-esteem and are less depressed, less alienated and less lonely. Daniel Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State and a leading expert on fan behavior, has compiled a list of 24 benefits of social well being that come with identifying with a sports team.

“There has been a good deal of research in my lab and by others, replicated in multiple cultures, that indicate when an individual becomes attached to or identifies with a sports team, there are pretty clear psychological benefits of that.

“If you are Seahawks fans in Seattle, right now it’s pretty hard to feel lonely. It’s pretty hard to feel alienated. If you’re wearing a Seahawks jacket and walking through the mall, people are high-fiving you, people you’ve never seen before and never will see again. There’s a sense of community and connectedness that comes with it.”

Those results tend to hold true regardless of the on-field success of your team. The Cubs, for instance, haven’t won the World Series since 1908, but the sense of community around rooting for the Cubbies still shines through among the faithful.

In fact, there is an element of shared misery in rooting that even strengthens the bonding and enhances the eventual breakthrough (see Red Sox, 2004). It also leads to the phenomenon of “bandwagon” fans, but that’s another story entirely.

“Our research has shown that the No. 1 reason people become fans is that it’s your connection to your first community,’’ said Adam Earnhardt, chairman of the communications department at Youngstown State University and co-author of “Sports Fans, Identity and Socialization: Exploring the Fandemonium.”

“I don’t care if a Seattle fan moves to China, he or she carries with them their love for the sports teams,” he said. “That identity is first and foremost.”

In that sense, your favorite team can serve the same purpose as church and family: Fostering a sense of belonging. And when a team begins to catch fire, as with, say, the Mariners in ’95 or the Seahawks of recent vintage, well, it’s easy to get swept up in the wave.

“Euphoria is contagious, as is tragedy,’’ said Long Island-based sports psychologist Richard Lustberg. “It’s very difficult in a relatively small town not to get caught up in the euphoria. My best guess is if you’re not caught up in Seahawks mania, you’re out of step. It’s almost like there’s peer pressure to be part of it.”

“There’s a universal need to belong,’’ added Christian End, associate professor of psychology at Xavier University and longtime researcher of fan behavior. “It’s almost to the point if you’re not identifying with the team, people are thinking, ‘What’s up with you?’ You’re violating the norm.”

Victories and losses, though not necessarily relevant to the far-reaching impact of fandom, can have profound immediate effect, not always positive. Studies have linked reckless driving, heart attacks and domestic violence to the outcome of sporting events.

According to a 2013 study published in Psychological Science, fans were found to eat healthier when their team won. Two researchers at INSEAD Business School compared outcomes from two seasons’ worth of NFL games with food consumption in more than two dozen cities. They found that people in cities with a losing football team ate about 16 percent more saturated fat on Monday compared to their usual consumption. And people in winning cities ate about 9 percent less saturated fats — trends that held true even when non-football fans were included in the sample.

Those results were replicated in a study of French sports fans, leading the researchers to hypothesize that people feel an identity threat when their favorite team loses and are more likely to use eating as a coping mechanism.

“When your team loses, it’s like you lose a part of yourself, because your identity is so merged with the identity of the team and the fan community,’’ lead researcher Yann Cornil said by phone from Singapore. “Sports in the U.S. makes such a difference in people’s lives, a loss can be distressing and result in binge eating.”

A famous study by Paul Bernhardt at Georgia State University in 1998 showed that male spectators of sporting events experience the same testosterone surges as the players themselves — an increase of about 20 percent by fans of winning teams, and a similar decrease in losing fans.

Scientists have also noted what are called “mirror neurons” in our brains, activated not just by participation in sports, but by watching others participate. These findings help explain the profound sense of vicarious connection to athletes.

“It’s phenomenal,’’ said Simons. “We have this ability to understand other people so remarkably that their victories literally become ours. Our testosterone literally responds to their victory. The more we follow a team, the deeper the bond becomes. They’re us, and competing on a literal level as us — a little extension of us.”

Professor Robert Cialdini at Arizona State University came up with the term BIRG — Basking In Reflected Glory — to describe the intense pride fans feel when their teams succeed. It can be used as a verb, as in, “Seahawks’ fans are currently BIRGing up a storm.”

The counterpoint, as coined by researchers C.R. Snyder, MaryAnne Lassergard and Carol E. Ford, is the concept of CORFing — Cutting Off Reflected Failure. This refers to the inclination by fans to distance themselves from their team after a defeat. We’ve all heard it in action: We won, but they lost.

This leads into another concept, that of cognitive bias, also known as confirmation bias, which causes fans to help explain away defeats by blaming outside factors, such as referees. I’m sure it would also help explain why Seahawks fans rallied around Richard Sherman after his postgame interview, rationalizing behavior that was widely criticized by many fans with no vested interest.

It could also explain the notion of “eustress,” invented by endocrinologist Hans Selye to refer to a combination of euphoria and stress, such as that resulting from watching tense sporting events. Indeed, it’s much of the appeal.

“It’s like going to watch the new sci-fi thriller,’’ Earnhardt said. “You want to get that good feeling. It’s like unscripted reality television.”

But let’s not get too technical here, because sports are best enjoyed at a visceral level. As Simons points out, the action you watch changes you in ways you can’t control. And even though he refers to fandom as “a species-level design flaw,” it’s one with a happy outcome much of the time.

Bottom line: Going nuts for the Seahawks, or whatever is your favorite team, makes you feel good. For the most part, this glow is healthy for both mind and body. So, go ahead, root for the laundry, BIRG your heart out, and don’t feel at all guilty about it.

“Everyone who loves the Hawks loves them for different reasons,’’ Mikolas said. “But at the end of the day, we’re all one family.”

Winning is healthy
A 2013 study showed that in NFL cities, fans consume more junk food on Mondays when their team loses on Sundays, but eat healthier after wins.
CategoryTeam wonTeam lost
Saturated fat consumption on Mondays-9%+16%
Calorie intake on Mondays-5%+10%
Source: INSEAD Business School, Cornil/Chandon study

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146

or lstone@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @StoneLarry




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