Study finds fans' outlook linked to team's fortunes

November 19, 1992|By Boston Globe

Do your favorite team's losses cause you to question the meaning of life? And do those victories make you feel like a world-beater?

For the serious sports fan, that's the way it goes.

But the personal fallout from your team's performance goes far beyond elation after victories or depression after losses. Just how far was revealed in two studies conducted at Indiana University and the University of Wisconsin (which happen to be Big Ten conference schools).

Researchers found a relationship between victory and defeat and the way the study volunteers -- 300 psychology students at the two universities -- viewed themselves.

Both studies revealed that "fans see their teams as an extension of themselves," says Edward Hirt, assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University and chief investigator of the studies. "Team success is personal success, and team failure is personal failure."

The findings, the authors say, illustrate what psychologists have labeled BIRGing (for basking in reflected glory) and CORFing (or cutting off reflected failure).

For the studies, published in the November issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, sports fans were asked to watch live games on television and then fill out questionnaires related to that game and to sports in general.

Next, they were asked to take part in what they believed was an unrelated experiment: predicting their own performance at simple tests of motor, mental and social skills. Those whose team won predicted they would score higher in the tests than did losing fans. Those whose team lost, however, were more affected than those whose teams won. "Winning didn't put them up significantly, whereas the loss did seem to pull people down more," Mr. Hirt says.

To test their motor skills, the students threw Velcro-covered balls at a felt dart board, or threw a miniature ball into a hoop.

In the mental skill test, they were asked to unscramble five-letter anagrams.

Researchers had wondered whether "winning" fans would perform up to their higher expectations, but they found no evidence of this.

"True level of ability is what determined how they did," Mr. Hirt says.

He and his colleagues were intrigued by the results of the social skills test, in which students looked at slides of 12 people of the opposite sex who had been rated for attractiveness. They then were asked to imagine asking each person pictured for a date and to predict the responses.

Students whose sports teams had won believed that only the most attractive people would accept their invitation. "What was interesting to us was the fact that the winners thought the more unattractive people wouldn't want to go out with them," says Mr. Hirt, who notes that this phenomenon showed up in both studies. "Maybe they thought the less attractive people would be too uncomfortable with one as skilled as them."

This kind of enhanced self-image, Mr. Hirt says, comes from basking in reflected glory -- BIRGing.

But as Boston sports aficionados know, true fanship is not always a bed of roses.

Fair-weather fans can CORF -- cut off reflected failure -- and distance themselves with talk about how "they" lost. But real fans, Mr. Hirt says, "just can't do that. They have allied themselves with a team, and you can't just subtract something that's been a part of you."

The researchers say they don't know how long the reaction to victory or defeat lasts.

And they note that the change is relatively minor and doesn't seem to affect performance on motor or mental tasks.

Still, the studies do establish what the paper calls, "the costs and benefits of true fanship."

Asked how the findings might apply to fans in a city whose baseball team stumbled, whose basketball team is struggling, and whose football team stinks, Mr. Hirt says, "I think it could have some effect, especially if nearby you have a comparable city that's outdoing you. It could lead to a sort of general feeling of being down, and of wondering, 'Why is it our teams -- why is it we -- can't win?'"

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