Sports Psychology
3:07 pm
Thu January 23, 2014

Obsessed With The Seahawks? Science Can Explain Why

In recent weeks, the 12th Man has been more ubiquitous in Seattle than rainfall (actually, we’ve been having pretty mild weather).

The flying flags, Blue Fridays and produce displays actually have a psychological and evolutionary basis, according to Eric Simons, author of “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans.”

“A lot of it has to do with group cohesion; it’s something that is important to us and necessary to us,” Simons said on KUOW’s The Record. “What they get from this relationship is the kind of meaning in their lives, a source of permanent identity: ‘I’m a Seahawks fan through thick and thin. I have loyalty.’ It’s this expression of personal value.”

In a travel society, there isn’t much to keep people in the group, Simons said. “If your group is not doing well, there’s no real reason why somebody can’t bail and go to the group that is [thriving] – we basically could be ‘permanent bandwagoners’ and just follow around who ever's successful.”

Thus, the tension between the fans who have a relationship with the team and those that are around to enjoy a dramatic event, such as the Seattle Seahawks making it to the Super Bowl, comes from the perceived lack of sacrifice the bandwagon fans contribute.

“We’ve kind of developed these ways of shaming people and of distrusting people who aren’t fully committed to the group because – this is one of the classic social science dilemmas – if you are sacrificing to be a part of this group to get the benefits of the group, then you better make sure that everybody else is also sacrificing and not just free riding,” Simons explained.

You can be a fan of that team and nobody can take that away from you, unless the owner moves the team.

It may all come down to a loop in the brain: The brain gets a reward, the reward locks in a memory and the memory makes you want to repeat the process. This  creates a cycle of passion, according to Simons. That passion can have its benefits – like motivating a player to practice to the point of being the best – but it can also lead to addiction, at which point, Simons said, the obsession interferes with other parts of a person’s life, like their relationships or finances.

Oddly enough, what feeds this cycle is not the actual success of the team. “If you are in this long-term relationship with your sports team, the winning and losing, the little ups and downs, are not actually the primary, important part of this,” Simons said.

“There’s a source of meaning, a way to connect with your friends, a way to connect with family, a way to connect with totally random strangers walking down the street wearing a Seahawks jersey that is something rare and wonderful in your life. If you lose, you’re unhappy for a week, but you have this thing forever.”

Simons said that the identity scientists he consulted look at how people answer the question: “Who am I?” That can mean identifying as a specific family member or with a particular career, but those things can change.

“But the one thing they really can’t take from you is your fandom,” said Simons. “You can be a fan of that team and nobody can take that away from you – unless the owner moves the team.” That situation, known all too well by Seattle Sonics fans, has been likened by scientists as experiencing a death in the family.

To avoid the possible psychological distress of the Super Bowl’s outcome, Simons has two pieces of advice for Seattle fans: First, acknowledge that a loss would be frustrating, and that there is a fairly good reason why you would be upset. Second, lower your expectations. Low expectations means a big dopamine rush if the Seahawks win; high expectations and a loss means great frustration.

So Simons said to try to convince yourself that Peyton Manning is unbeatable and it’s Denver’s year. “Does that actually work? I don’t know, I’ve never been able to do it that well for myself,” he said.

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.

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