Legacy theory explains lunacy

Fans: Human behavior experts say the need to identify with a team through costumes and public displays may come from our cave-dwelling ancestors.

November 14, 2001|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Paul Muhler's home-game routine starts with a check of the weather.

If it's warm, Muhler pulls on his purple shorts, one of his Ravens T-shirts and a string of purple beads. On cold days, he opts for his mottled gray and purple camouflage fatigues and Ravens parka.

Either way, he tops it off with a floppy purple and black jester's hat.

The odd getup doesn't raise an eyebrow from Muhler's friends and family, who have come to accept his bursts of eccentricity during football season.

They know his other side, his reassuring weekday persona as a computer technician for a local bank, the father of two grown children, 44-year-old husband of 23 years, and a suburban homeowner from Harford County.

Muhler says he's just having fun, and being a good fan. Experts who study human behavior don't disagree. But, they say, there is more behind the purple bathing Baltimore since the Ravens captured the championship last January and continue to win key games like Monday night's last-second victory at Tennessee.

The need to identify with a team, especially when it is winning, through garish clothing and other public displays may be a legacy of our cave-dwelling prehistory, according to Robert Cialdini, an Arizona State University psychology professor who has studied fans.

"A lot of our behavioral habits and rules evolved in those times. When we sent representatives of our group out to do battle with neighboring clans or groups, they represented us. I think the athletes of today are our warriors - they carry the flag of our group," he said.

The droves snatching up Ravens tickets, exposing their purple-painted beer bellies for the roving television cameras and screaming themselves hoarse at PSINet Stadium are "basking in reflected glory," a phenomenon Cialdini described in a 1976 study.

He coined the phrase, sometimes shortened to "BIRGing," in the study, which has become a classic among social behavior theorists.

He and his fellow researchers examined undergraduates at six universities and found students were more likely to wear clothes bearing their school's name in the days after their football teams had won games. They also tended to refer to the team with the pronoun "we," as in "we had a great game."

Conversely, after a loss on the field, the students left their school sweatshirts in their dormitories and used the more distant pronoun "they," as in "they really blew it," when speaking of the team. Cialdini calls this "cutting off reflected failure," or "CORFing." It is part of guarding self-esteem.

"These teams are a reflection of the self. They represent us. To the extent that they win, in a very real sense, we win. When they lose, we lose," Cialdini said.

The root of the behavior is found in social identity theory, which suggests we enhance the perception we have of ourselves and the perception we want others to have of us by associating with winners and keeping distance from losers.

It is illogical, though generally harmless, Cialdini said. But fans' seesawing loyalties greatly affect the finances of sports teams.

The Orioles, who eked out 63 wins with 98 losses last season, learned that harsh lesson. Despite Cal Ripken's farewell tour, Oriole Park attracted the smallest single-season attendance in its history, 3,094,841.

The team, which once set a record for consecutive sellouts, slipped to sixth place among ballclubs in ticket sales. Television ratings plummeted. Fans who once proudly displayed the orange and black are apparently rethinking their public displays of allegiance.

Contrast that with the Ravens. As the defending champs, the team sold out virtually the entire season 22 minutes after tickets went on sale Aug. 4, despite a price increase. Ravens merchandise jumped to 10th in sales among NFL teams last year from 28th the year before.

Muhler is hardly a fair-weather sports fan, but he acknowledges being swept up in Ravens mania. He wasn't among the eager ones who sent in money for tickets during the city's failed expansion efforts in 1993, or even when the Ravens arrived in 1996. In fact, he didn't get his seats until the new stadium opened in 1998.

"I didn't jump on the bandwagon," he said.

He warmed to his obsession gradually, acquiring merchandise as the team climbed in the standings. Now, he's got a closet full of T-shirts, half of them related to the Super Bowl, which he attended. His house flies a Ravens flag. His car boasts a Ravens license tag holder. His cubicle at the office is decorated with a team photo and hard-to-miss purple placard.

He's proud of the team's wins, even though his head tells him he hasn't done much to affect the outcome of games from his upper-deck seats. He takes victories as a positive reflection on Baltimore, even though none of the 53 players actually comes from the city. Only two - Jermaine Lewis and Larry Webster - were born in the state.

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