Inside the Brain of a Sports Fan: What Happens When You Watch the Big Game 🧠
Insights from Neuroscience and Psychology Research (7min Read)
The Primal Nature of Sports
We vs. They Language
What’s Happening in the Brain?
Hormonal Changes in the Body
The effect on Mental & Emotional Health
For Better, or for Worse?
I’m a KC native & the Chiefs just won the Super Bowl, so I couldn’t think of a better topic to write on than what happens in our Mind, Brain & Body during a big game!
Have you ever felt that buzz in the air a few days before the big game that your team is playing?
Or what about the raw emotions and semi-flow state you feel while watching it with friends & family?
I couldn’t help but wonder where these feelings & perspectives come from, and I’m happy to report, there’s actually quite a bit of research on this topic.
Let’s dive in.
These feelings are more primal than you might expect. In fact, it’s been suggested that this “fan psychology” can be traced back to when we lived in small tribes.
Back then, tribes had warriors that protected the tribes from danger, and these warriors were true genetic representations of the tribe they were defending.
Today, our sports heroes are our warriors, the team that you root for represents you as they play and in a way, we identify with the team & players as if we are them!
This theory is supported by research out of the University of Quebec.
A research team there did a study on the “Dualistic Model of Passion” which suggests that this “fan psychology” and the underlying emotional reactions lie in the feeling of identification with your team.
They found that activities we identify with become passions, and over time, these passions reinforce the identity.
This means that over time, cheering for a sports team indirectly includes cheering for ourselves too!
This may be why we become so mentally & emotionally involved in games like the Super Bowl.
We vs. They
To further support this “Identification” concept Dr. Robert Cialdini noticed that college sports fans were far more likely to wear clothing with their team's logo on the day after victories than after defeats, a phenomenon he called “basking in reflected glory” (BIRG).
“It becomes possible to attain some sort of respect and regard not by one's own achievements but by one's connection to individuals of attainment,” he said.
Meaning, your team winning can gain you some level of social status making the game much more than “just a game” to a lot of people.
In other research that he did, he also noticed that sports fans tend to claim credit for a team's success, saying “we won” to describe a victory, but tend to distance themselves from a team's failure, saying “they lost” when describing a defeat.
Think about it, do you do this when your favorite team wins or loses? I know that I do!
This further supports the concept of “Identifying” with the team & its players.
Because we believe winning brings us respect, we include ourselves with the team, but when they lose, we put some space between us and “them.”
What About the Brain?
So, what’s happening in the brain during all of this? A ton… Especially in the emotional centers of our brain.
Research has shown that watching your team play in a high-stakes game like the Super Bowl can trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure (and addiction… 🤔).
The anticipation and excitement of the game can also activate the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional processing, leading to feelings of excitement, tension, and sometimes even anxiety.
This can start to explain that “buzz in the air” feeling in the days leading up to a big game.
Watching sports can also trigger the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with social bonding.
This is particularly true when watching with other fans, as the shared experience of watching the game can create a sense of community and social connection.
This is why it can sometimes feel like a semi-flow state when you’re watching the big game with friends and family.
All of your Nervous Systems are syncing up with one another giving the experience more depth & emotional resonance.
Research has also shown that when your team wins, it can trigger the release of endorphins, which can create a sense of euphoria and pleasure.
Sadly, the opposite is also true, when your team loses, feelings of disappointment and sadness can take over.
There is also some evidence that “mirror neurons” may be active during sports events like the Super Bowl and may contribute to these mental & emotional reactions inside of us, but research around mirror neurons is highly debated.
Since our brain & body are inexplicitly connected, you shouldn’t be surprised that some wild things happen in the body during sporting events as well!
Research from the University of Georgia found that testosterone levels in male fans rise markedly after a victory and drop just as sharply after a defeat.
In one test, Dr. Dabbs took saliva samples from 21 Italian and Brazilian men in Atlanta before and after Brazil's victory over Italy in soccer's 1994 World Cup.
The Brazilians' testosterone rose an average of 28 percent, while the Italians' levels dropped 27 percent.
Not only that, but this research suggests that people mentally project themselves into the games they are watching and experience the same hormonal shifts as the actual athletes themselves!
Something important to note is that this has only been shown in big games like the Super Bowl or playoff games.
Another study out of the University of Illinois suggested that people who highly identify with the team they’re watching show extreme arousal when shown pictures of their team’s player making game-winning plays.
This arousal was measured using heart rate, brain waves, & perspiration, and the craziest part was that these arousal levels they measured were comparable to seeing erotic photos…
Alright, so there’s a lot going on under the hood while watching games like this, but what does all of this do to our Mental Health?
Mental & Emotional Health
If you’re like me, you’ve gotta be thinking, “What do all of these chemicals & brain regions have to do with my day-to-day life?”
That’s a great question and where your Mental & Emotional Health comes into play.
You might think that hardcore fans have worse Mental Health but research doesn’t actually support this.
In fact, a study at the University of Kansas (Rock Chalk) suggests the opposite… Sports fans suffer fewer bouts of depression than people who are uninterested in sports.
Another study done at Murray State University suggests that “an intense interest in a team can buffer people from depression and foster feelings of self-worth and belonging.”
That being said, it’s not all positive, research from the University of Indiana suggests that the self-esteem scores of hardcore fans tend to track with how the team is doing.
In the study, hardcore fans were shown pictures of very attractive members of the opposite sex after a game and asked to rate their ability to get a date with them.
The results demonstrated that men and women who were die-hard fans were much more optimistic about their sex appeal after a victory.
Not only did their perceived pick-up game improve, but their overall confidence in their ability to perform on a number of mental and physical tests also improved…
However, when the team lost, this self-esteem & optimism disappeared.
For Better, or for Worse
So, what do you think? Are you too attached to your favorite team?
Now that you know the science, I hope that you feel like you can navigate your fandom more effectively.
Please let me know if you have any questions about today's post, and feel free to share if with your friends & family.
I hope you have a great rest of the week, as I finish typing this, I’m headed out to the Chiefs Superbowl Parade, it’s happening right outside my apartment here in KC!
And, as always, until next time… Live Heroically 🧠
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Murray State Research: https://journalofsportbehavior.org/index.php/JSB/article/view/11