Why are sports fans fans? The neuroscience of sports fans.

Natalya Hall
10 min readAug 29, 2023

My father, a college football fan, always thought of my habit of watching YouTubers play horror games as odd. Why watch them play the game when I could get the game and play it myself? Well, I argue back, why doesn’t he play football if he likes it so much?

Looking at the facts, it turns out we watch our games for the same reason. The mind of a sports fan is not unlike the mind of a movie fan or a fan of watching a YouTuber play games. In fact, the same motivations that inspire people to be sports fans may underlie what inspires you to be a fan of a band or particular singer.

The key ingredients that affect fans and make them come back to a game to root for a particular team are mirror neurons, dopamine, oxytocin, and a bit of testosterone.

When you watch a game, you feel part of the action. Soon, that player you’re watching becomes you; you’re running across the field, throwing all your power and energy into making that final move to score the goal or get that win. You’re the one who made the win and are now basking in victory. What makes that feeling, that spectating brain becoming the playing brain, is mirror neurons (Le Anne Schreiber, 2015).

Mirror neurons were discovered in the early 1990s by a group of neurophysiologists at the University of Parma, Italy, when they investigated and mapped neurons involved in hand movement in the macaque monkey so as to help brain-damaged humans recover hand function. Along with their original goal, they discovered the existence of neurons that would fire both for when the action is taken (hand movement) and when the action is observed (watching a hand move).

While more heavily investigated in the macaque monkeys, there is a broad overlap between cortical areas active in humans during action observation and areas where mirror neurons have been reported in macaque monkeys, suggesting heavy similarity in human mirror neurons and macaque monkey mirror neurons (Kilner & Lemon, 2013).

These neurons are different from motor or sensory neurons due to their function and reason for firing. While the firing of a motor neuron results in the movement of the body and the firing of a sensory neuron results in a sensation of the body, mirror neurons are associated with both (Kilner & Lemon, 2013). They are also distinguished by their type of response to vision of objects or other non-action stimuli. Their activity is modulated both by action execution and action observation, with a degree of action specificity.

Like motor and sensory neurons being composed of different types of neurons, there are different types of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are composed of those categorized as broadly congruent versus strictly congruent (Kilner & Lemon, 2013). Broadly congruent means the neurons would fire for a broad action type during both execution and observation, such as grasping without specificity for type of grasp, such as precision grip or whole hand prehension. In contrast, strictly congruent neurons respond selectively to the execution or observation of one action type, such as only precision grip. They are reported as constituting approximately 31.5% of mirror neurons recorded. Suppression mirror neurons are suggested to exist, due to the inability to evoke movement using intracortical microstimulation in penetrated sites of the brain identified as having mirror responses. In addition, there may be mirror neurons more involved in encoding the ‘semantic’ or emotional equivalence of action carried out by different agents in different contexts. Mirror neurons will also fire at auditory stimuli, and is further modulated by different factors, such as occlusion, relative distance of observed action, reward value, and the viewpoint of the observed action. They will also fire exactly as long as the observed action. Overall, the research into mirror neurons suggests that the neurons are an important component to learning language acquisition and empathy development, among other activities in a healthy brain.

Thus when I’m watching and listening to my horror playthrough on youtube and my father is watching his football, our mirror neurons are firing to put us in the shoes of the player. We understand their actions, their goal, and the emotions associated with it, without having to do any inferential thinking about it.

In becoming the player, we also get their neurochemicals and peptides. Watching strenuous action, mirror neurons will provoke a small but measurable uptick in our heart and respiration rate (Le Anne Schreiber, 2015). In watching a competition like football or gamethroughs, they will also give us a concoction of dopamine, oxytocin, and testosterone; the things that make a spectator feel the workout and come back for more (Guidry, 2023).

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that regulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, as well as emotional responses and movement (Dopamine, 2020). It is produced in the brain’s reward system, which is the substantia nigra, ventral tegmental area, and hypothalamus (Hugo Juárez Olguín et al., 2016). From a study published in 2017, the reward system — along with other limbic regions involved in emotional cognition — is found to be recruited in response to positive content related to a loved team. This study found a neural component to the attachment a fan has for their team; a tribal love, where the fan gets the dopaminergic pleasure when the team makes a goal. This form of love between fans and their teams implies both the feeling of belongingness and rivalry against other teams (Isabel Catarina Duarte et al., 2017). This non-romantic love reflects a specific arousal and motivational state, which is biased for emotional learning of positive outcomes.

In the same vein, the fan can also feel pain when their team loses; the losing activates the same region of the brain that physical pain does (Romano, 2019).

To make an old statement true, pleasure is gotten from the journey, not just the destination. A study published in 2008 found that a measure of the unfolding nature of suspense is a stronger predictor of mediated sports enjoyment (Erik M. Peterson M.A. & Arthur A. Raney Ph.D., 2008). Sports are like gambling. For fans of teams that haven’t had luck, it’s the possibility that the next game brings them a win — the variable reward — that keeps them coming back to the stadium (Nir Eyal, 2012).

What makes fans gather, cheer, and share their positive stress with one another is oxytocin. It’s a neuropeptide that brings the feeling of bonding, and is produced in emotionally-close situations such as the act of a gathering with a community. This neuropeptide works on both sides of the sports equation: it’s involved in the encouragement of important processes linked to greater team performance in sport, and involved in fans coming together to cheer for their preferred team (Pepping & Timmermans, 2012). Oxytocin helps sport spectators become bonded both to the experience of watching a team struggle for the win, and bonded to each other in the experience of identifying with a community (ketchum, 2018).

Having a close community is important for mental health. Having close bonds who will be able to help you with your struggles, and who you can identify and share joy with, is important. That truth holds for sports fans.

Daniel Wann, a social psychologist at Murray State University, has spent 30 years elaborating on Cialdini’s theory that identification with sports teams is, at least, a means to boost self-esteem. Wann and his colleagues have carried out more than 20 studies in which diverse groups of sports fans, including high school students, college students, senior citizens, Australians, female fans, hockey fans, NASCAR fans, and others, were evaluated in regards to various measures by which psychologists gauge well-being. These measures are a sense of self-worth, frequency of positive emotions, feeling connected with others, belief in the trustworthiness of others, sense of vigor and energy, etc. In every study, the degree of fan identification shows a positive statistical correlation with one or more of these factors (Barth, 2016). A sense of belonging, brought on by oxytocin, in fans can be a mediating factor or a direct factor in how a sport team community can go. Importantly, not just the fan identifying with the team, but with other fans. As humans are naturally social creatures, sports are a potentially constructive outlet for the tribalistic tendencies of modern humans (Barth, 2016). In that outlet, success can be taken both as a team win and a personal win (Wang, 2006). And thus in bonding with a team, the fan may emphasize loyalty in the face of team hardship, bask or reflect on past team glory, or distance themselves mentally without the tear in identity when the team faces a loss.

However for fans, sports is at the root of it a game to watch. After a game, fans of the winning team can show increased self-esteem with no related mood improvement long-term, while fans of the defeated team can show decreases in mood with no related self-esteem deflation long-term. Self-esteem can be mediated by mood and group affiliation changes (Knobloch-Westerwick et al., 2019). The loss of a beloved team does not equate to millions of fans needing depression medication, nor does the win of a team equate to a depressed fan being able to get off their medication.

In becoming the player with mirror neurons, spectating fans also experience a surge in testosterone levels. The androgen, which is secreted by the testes and adrenal glands, activates the subcortical areas of the brain to produce aggression, while cortisol and serotonin act antagonistically with testosterone to reduce its effects (Batrinos, 2012). While not directly associated strongly with aggression, it is part of the concoction the body uses to move in competitive contexts (Dreher et al., 2016). It’s observed to increase in sports fans, particularly among fans of the winning team (Bernhardt et al., 1998). Even if the experience is purely fueled by spectating fans’ mirror neurons, testosterone is produced during moments of intense competition. Thus, the fan can share much of an athlete’s thrill without the great workout (Barth, 2016). However, that testosterone surge would still affect the body, and can cause elevated heart rates, blood pressure, and the fight-or-flight response. This can be why sport fans can be more risk-taking and rowdy and feel like they’ve had a workout while spectating (Waters & Nattel, 2017).

Overall, the experience my father and I go through when we watch our respective games are fueled by similar neural concoctions. I feel the scare of the horror game without playing it, and he feels the victory of his favorite football team. Even if the youtuber makes a move I wouldn’t do, or my father’s football team doesn’t win, we learn to cope: we bond with others in our loss, bask in past glory, and stay subscribed to that youtuber out of the hope for a win in the future.

Sports fans are fans because they feel part of the action, fight and struggle, win or loss. They feel like they are part of a bigger community, which is the truth. Through the bonds made from glory or struggle, people come together to encourage and push their team to the end.

Citations:

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Salvatore Maria Aglioti, Cesari, P., Romani, M., & Cosimo Urgesi. (2008). Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players. 11(9), 1109–1116. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2182

Salvatore Maria Aglioti, Cesari, P., Romani, M., & Cosimo Urgesi. (2008). Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players. 11(9), 1109–1116. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2182

Iacoboni, Marco. Neuroscientist at UCLA and pioneering investigator of the mirror neuron system in humans. (2011).

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Hugo Juárez Olguín, David Calderón Guzmán, Ernestina Hernández García, & Gerardo Barragán Mejía. (2016). The Role of Dopamine and Its Dysfunction as a Consequence of Oxidative Stress. 2016, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/9730467

Erik M. Peterson M.A. & Arthur A. Raney Ph.D. (2008) Reconceptualizing and Reexamining Suspense as a Predictor of Mediated Sports Enjoyment, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 52:4, 544–562, DOI: 10.1080/08838150802437263

Nir Eyal. (2012, August 6). Psychology of Sports: How Sports Infect Your Brain. Nir and Far. https://www.nirandfar.com/how-sports-infect-your-brain/

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