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Examining The Psychology Of Sports Fans


After 162 regular season baseball games, the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates will meet tonight in a sudden death playoff. For my team, the Pirates, it's their first time in the post-season in 21 years. And after tonight, after just one game in a scheme surely invented by sadists, the Pirates might be out of the playoffs.

I've asked NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam to come in. He's here to talk about a range of theories to help explain the psychology of sports fans. But there's a good chance this could just turn into a therapy session. Shankar, welcome.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hello, David. Please tell me about your childhood.


GREENE: We don't have a couch in here. But my childhood is when I started loving the Pirates and Steelers. My mom was a big fan and I have these amazing memories of being in Pittsburgh. And it was like the whole city - the day after a big win - you could just feel sort of the uplifting emotion. And after a loss, I mean it was a state of depression.

VEDANTAM: Right, and you're talking about bonding and that's clearly a big reason why sports fans are sports fans. We connected with sports teams through family, through our parents taking us to ballgames, and that's why following a sports team feels so intense because it's tied up in these family loyalties.

GREENE: I almost feel like I have this bond with the players. I know these Pittsburgh Pirates player so well. Andrew McCutcheon, our star centerfielder, when he goes the plate, he has this relaxed batting stance. He leans the battle on his shoulder. I almost feel like I'm holding the bat there and swinging with him.

VEDANTAM: You feel like you're him.



GREENE: I could never be that but yeah, in a way.

VEDANTAM: You know, I bumped into Howard Katz. He's a psychoanalyst in the Boston area. He told me we have mirror neurons in our head, and that they are activated and not just when we do something but when we watch someone else do something. And so, one of the things that I think sports allows us to do is deeply identify with the people who are actually playing; that we can actually experience the game or it feels like we experience the game through them.

GREENE: Is this insanity, Shankar?


GREENE: I mean, the emotion and the intensity of this feeling that sports fans feel; I mean I'm nervous because I know the emotion is going to be so intense. It doesn't feel healthy.


VEDANTAM: Look, there are lots of theories about why this happens. One, is the idea that - what you just is talked about, we've been socialized into the sports. There's this other study I found that looked at how reminding people about their own mortality increased their affiliation with their sports team.

So psychologists call this Terra Management Theory, that we're looking for things that will outlive us because we're reminded about our own mortality.

GREENE: There will be fans in Pittsburgh and 200 years from now, in theory, will be rooting for the same team. I want to hold onto that.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. Now, there's another idea, David which is that we are wired to see patterns and sports really allows us to see patterns. So, you know, you look at the Pirates and you say: We've had 21 seasons of misery. But the truth is that these are all different teams with different players, and there actually isn't a pattern, but you're wired to see a pattern. And, you know, I'm exactly the same way.

The Philadelphia Eagles - the football team that I follow - in 2009, their opening home game was against the New Orleans Saints. Guess who won the Super Bowl that year.

GREENE: The New Orleans Saints.

VEDANTAM: And in 2010, they played the Green Bay Packers in their opening; guess who won the Super Bowl that year?

GREENE: The Packers.

VEDANTAM: In 2011, it was the Giants who won.

GREENE: So you're convinced that whoever they play in the opener is going to win the Super Bowl.

VEDANTAM: My first reaction was, jeez, this means the Eagles can never win the Super Bowl because they can never play themselves in their opening game.


GREENE: Irrational but I can understand it. I guess misery loves company. It's good to see that some people are as crazy as I am, Shankar.


VEDANTAM: Yeah, you know, that's the other thing that Katz talked to me about, David. Which is that sports allows us to feel intensely about something that actually isn't very important. And I hate to break this to you, David. But the truth is, tomorrow, regardless of whether the Pirates win or lose, you're still going to be OK. So in some ways watching sports is like watching a horror movie. You feel intensely but the stakes actually are not that high.

All I hope is that your horror movie tonight is not going to be really scary.

GREENE: Not be a horror movie.


GREENE: That would be great. Shankar, thanks for stopping by, as always.

VEDANTAM: Happy to be here, David.

GREENE: Shankar Vedantam regularly comes in to talk to us about social science research; in this case, sports. You can follow him on Twitter at @hiddenbrain. And while you're at it, follow us here at this program @nprgreene, @nprinskeep and @morningedition.

This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.