Does it matter who wins? To true fans, more than anything

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010

If you're a Spain soccer fan, you're feeling better about everything right now. The economy looks just fine -- what double dip recession? The weather is nice -- that isn't heat; it's just sunshine. Inky black clouds in the Gulf? Not on your horizon -- you're just sure they'll get a cap on that oil leak any minute now.

The sense of well-being that comes from watching your favorite team win in the World Cup isn't just an imaginary glow. People with intense emotional connections to their teams experience actual physiological symptoms when they win and lose, research shows. One psychologist even compares the rush of euphoria and despair to being "jumped by a mugger." That's why, right now, a tepid glass of water tastes like the finest Albarino wine to the Spanish. Meantime, the French are suffering from such free-falling pessimism in the aftermath of their team's disgrace that one government official called it a "moral disaster."

We all know from experience that fans have strong personal investments in their teams -- just watch Jack Nicholson writhe in his courtside seat at Lakers games. But we don't pause to examine exactly why, or what it is that happens to us. We only know that winning gives us a vague sense of optimism about, well, everything, and losing plunges us into despair. Take one of my editors, who kicks holes in walls over Michigan football.

"What are some of the things you feel better about when your team wins?" I asked. He replied with the following list:

"Hopes for global peace.

"My capacity as both a husband and father.

"Food tastes better.

"I dream more fanciful dreams, and yet they seem achievable."

According to Ed Hirt, professor of psychology and brain sciences at Indiana University, the reason he feels this way has to do with his search for a "social identity." We all look for ways to boost and maintain our self-esteem "through associations and affiliations," Hirt says. "One of the key things we do in developing a strong sense of who we are is, we define ourselves through groups we are a part of. Some may do it with gender, religion, or military service. For many people, one thing that identifies them is their college team. And certainly people do it with pro teams, too."

At Indiana, Hirt undertook a study of the school's most passionate basketball fans, with the aim of observing whether the team's success or failure had real consequences for them. Hirt's findings? Of course it did. When Indiana won, the fans' belief in their abilities rose. He showed his subjects pictures of attractive members of the opposite sex and asked them to rate their chances of getting a date. After their team won, male and female fans alike were more confident of scoring the date. They also had more confidence at a variety of tasks, from throwing darts to shooting free throws to solving word games.

"For the really highly intense fan, the team's success has as much effect on them as their own success," Hirt reports. He adds: "People can elevate their self-esteem in the eyes of themselves and others by their association with successful others."

There are physiological reasons for that surge in confidence, according to Paul Bernhardt, an assistant professor of psychology at Frostburg (Md.) State University. Bernhardt participated in a study that measured physical correlations in World Cup followers: Did external victory or defeat translate "into some meaningful change for that person?" he asks. He collected saliva samples from Italian and Brazilian men in sports bars before and after the two teams played one another in the 1994 World Cup. When the Brazilians won, the testosterone levels of their fans rose more than 20 percent. The levels of testosterone in the Italian fans fell more than 20 percent. He and his partners found similar reactions when they tested fans before and after a Georgia-Georgia Tech basketball game.

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