The Psychology Of The Crazy College Sports Fan
Why we’re neurologically wired to paint our chests in 18° weather.
The longest two seconds of my life were on September 10, 2011. The Michigan Wolverines were playing Notre Dame in the first night game in Big House history with a record-breaking attendance of 114,804 fans. Michigan was winning until the fourth quarter, when Notre Dame — with 30 seconds left in the game — scored a touchdown, pulling ahead 31–28. But while the Irish fans started puffing up their chests, Michigan fans put their heads down with determination.
With the help of quarterback Denard Robinson’s arm and fast feet, Michigan flew down the field and suddenly — with 8 seconds left in the game — was lining up just 16 yards from the end zone. Everyone expected Denard to take a knee and set up a kicker for 3 easy points that would send the game into overtime. Instead, he threw the ball. It couldn’t have been in the air for more than 2 seconds, but if you asked anyone in the stadium, they would remember it as 2 minutes.
I leaned toward the end zone as if the harder I leaned, the more likely the touchdown would be. I saw wide receiver Roy Roundtree sprint into the end zone and jump high into the air, turning around mid-flight. I held my breath. The ball shot into his chest just as he was hit by a Notre Dame defender. Roundtree went crashing to the ground, but had managed to hang onto the ball — it was a touchdown. A win. The stadium erupted and I felt the energy course through my entire body.
Ann Arbor didn’t sleep that night.
I know the crazy college sports fan well because I am one: I bow at the feet of Coach Jim Harbaugh and his infamous pleated khakis. The Michigan fight song is my ringtone. I bleed maize and blue.
But what turns fans into the crazy superfans you see on the Jumbotron jumping around like monkeys with their chests painted blue? It’s something deeper than what can be explained by tradition and institutional pride. A lot of smart people have wondered the same thing and have done the research to tap into the sports-obsessed mind. What they’ve found is that sports fandom is not only perpetuated through society and community — it’s biologically wired into our brains.
A Sense Of Belonging
My friend Alex was born and raised in Ann Arbor by two proud alumni. He has a special photo album of his family sitting in the exact same seats—Section 42, Row 15, Seats 9-12—nearly every year of his life.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve gone to the games and have known everything about the team,” he told me. “When I was little I would read the programs to memorize the number, height, weight, position and graduation year of every player.”
Humans have an innate desire to belong to a group. Historically, this was a survival tactic, but today, even though there’s no evolutionary need for it, we long for a sense of community more than ever. So it makes sense that Alex hasn’t missed a kickoff in 26 years: His identity depends on it.
My crazy fandom didn’t start until college. After graduating from high school in a class of 59 students and no football team, I desperately longed for a ready-made community I could cheer and cry with. I found it during my first game at the Big House. With wide eyes and a Block M sticker on my face, I entered the largest college stadium in the world and was immediately swept up in a current of enthusiastic fans pulling me toward my seat. I’d never been a part of a something so much bigger than myself, full of so much spirit and pride.
I knew then and there: This was where I belonged.
This Is Your Body On Sports
If you dig down to the sociological and psychological rock-bed of fandom, there are scientific reasons to explain why devoted fans wear the same lucky (read: unwashed) jersey for five months each year.
During the longest two seconds of my life at the 2011 Michigan-Notre Dame game, it wasn’t just my emotions that were kicked into overdrive. My palms grew sweaty and my heart rate reached a dangerously high level. I held my breath and forced myself not to blink — I couldn’t risk missing even a millisecond.
For a control freak like myself, it’s especially scary to lose my composure like this. But I’m not alone. When psychologist Charles Hillman showed photos of dramatic plays to fans of the University of Florida Gators, he found that his subjects were just as stimulated looking at a spectacular end zone catch as they were looking at porn or graphic photos of animal attacks. “Individuals that are highly identified with the team show extreme arousal compared to the average fan,’’ Hillman later told the New York Times.
In other words, we’re evolutionarily programmed to lose our shit during every game. You can tell my downstairs neighbors I really can’t help it.
Get Your Brain In The Game
Perhaps the most interesting research on superfandom is the effect of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that activate when you see something emotional happen to another person. This reaction is similar to the way you might brace yourself when you see two cars almost crash on the freeway the exact same way as if you were driving one of them yourself.
In 2008, researchers at Italy’s University of Rome published a study that found the more familiar you are with an action, the more intensely those mirror neurons are going to fire. This suggests that the brains of fans who not only watch, but also play sports essentially reenact a life-like simulation of the motion they’re seeing on their TV screens. So as fans watch their team run onto the field, their brains process that information the same way they would if they themselves were running out to the line of scrimmage.
The feel-good effect of sports
There have been a surprisingly large number of studies analyzing the testosterone levels of men after winning and losing in various competitive scenarios, both athletic and non-athletic (think chess and video games). What these studies revealed was fairly obvious: After a competition, men who won were found to have increased levels of testosterone compared with men who lost.
What’s interesting about this experiment from the perspective of sports-fan science is that testosterone peaked even for guys who were playing in non-active competitions. Experiments conducted by behavioral scientist Paul Bernhardt in the early 1990s reached a similar conclusion: Bernhardt found that sports fans experienced the same rush of testosterone that the actual players did.
Additional studies by neuroscientists at Harvard University showed that as diehard fans watched their team play well, there was a dramatic rush of dopamine — the feel-good chemical involved in feelings of love, lust and addiction — to the brain’s reward centers. With one good play, researchers saw, fans’ happiness shifted from an emotional high to a chemical one.
But what keeps fans going when they aren’t constantly riding high on season wins? *cough* Michigan State *cough*
The simple answer is hope. The more complex answer is that when your team is on the field, your brain still produces dopamine, since it’s holding out hope that they might just win. In other words, fans are chemically compelled to believe that the next game will be the big win the same way gamblers are sure the next pull of the slot machine will win them the jackpot.
Superfans >>> Everyone Else
The day I moved to Chicago after graduation, I ran around the corner to grab a few essentials (coffee, wine, Cheez-Its — you know, the really indispensable stuff). As I turned onto Clark Street, I heard someone shout “Go Blue!” When I looked up I saw a police officer in his cruiser looking right at me. I realized I was wearing one of my Michigan sweatshirts, which probably inspired his shout of solidarity. With those two words, I knew I was going to fit in just fine in Chicago. All it took was a quick reference to my beloved community to make me feel more at home than unpacking all my boxes ever would.
Finding meaning within a group is not specific to sports fans — you could hypothetically reap the same belonging-related benefits from gang membership, a church, an improv community or a CrossFit class. In reality, though, it’s hard to find such a large, obsessively-devoted group of people united by anything but sports these days.
Inflated egos and invincibility
Researchers have found that their favorite team winning a big game can give fans a feeling of invincibility. Edward Hirt, a psychologist at Indiana University who studies social cognition and judgment, performed a study on fans of the university’s basketball team. Hirt found fans to be more confident about their own sex appeal and their ability to succeed at mental and physical tests after a win than a loss. Key takeaway? Exercise restraint after a big win — trying to flip a car or open a beer bottle with your teeth may not be as good an idea as it seems in the moment.
But let’s put late-night heroism aside for a minute: Team victories can affect your long-term well-being, too. Daniel Wann, a social psychologist who has studied fandom for more than 30 years, has found time and again that the more invested a fan is with their favorite team, the more likely they are to have a strong sense of self worth, feel connected to others and be emotionally stable.
Now if that isn’t a winning combination, I don’t know what is.
A sense of meaning
More recently, Wann and his research team have determined that superfans also have an above-average sense of meaning in life. “We found that identification wasn’t necessarily leading directly to meaning, but rather it was going through belonging,” Wann told Nautilus magazine. “So identification leads to belonging, which in turn leads to a sense of meaning.”
And this makes sense, especially in terms of college football. The fandom for a school like the University of Michigan knows virtually no bounds: It boasts the largest living alumni base in the world — 575,000 and growing. The superfan passion of Michigan alumni extends to their family members, spouses, children and friends, ensuring the community will continue to grow and to reinforce that sense of belonging its members hold so dear.
Who’s got it better than us?
It turns out that the guys who flamboyantly wear their jerseys the day after a big win are actually a supremely socially connected group, that the winner-loser structure of the game makes fans well adjusted for failure and challenge in their own lives and that losing streaks are partnered with neuro-chemically programmed bursts of hope that keep us optimistic against all odds.
All thanks to football.