Fan Psychology and Your Favorite Sport Team

This past weekend college football officially kicked off its season and Thursday night the NFL will do the same. There were some big games (#1 Alabama vs. #3 Florida State) and amazing comebacks (UCLA down 44-10 late in the game came back to beat Texas A&M 45-44). There are few things in life that people are more passionate about than their favorite sports teams. Football is king in the United States but in the rest of the world soccer dominates the landscape.

With passion comes some interesting psychology. For example, people will like others who cheer for their team with virtually nothing else to go on. That’s the principle of liking in action. When we find one thing we have in common with someone else, especially when it’s something we’re very passionate about, it’s easy to like them because we view them as being like us.

The principle of consistency comes into play when people make public statements about their team then feel pressure to back up those statements no matter what the facts may be. For example, I have a relative who is a big Michigan Wolverine fan. I happen to be a huge Ohio State Buckeye fan. The two teams have one of the longest, most heated rivalries in all of sports which culminates in “The Game” every November.

When the Maize and Blue dominated the Buckeyes throughout the late 80s and all of the 90s my relative insisted it was because Michigan was a better team and program. The tables have turned since those days and over the past 15 years OSU had owned Michigan, winning 13 times. My relative can’t bring himself to admit Ohio State simply has a better program at this juncture. Instead he chalks up the OSU wins to cheating, poor officiating, rule breaking, luck and just about anything else he can think of. To be sure, there can be bad calls and an element of luck, but it’s hard to argue your team is better when they’ve been so thoroughly dominated for so long.

My relative isn’t alone when it comes to defending his team at all costs. As I noted earlier, to remain consistent it’s normal for people to vehemently defend their team and position at all costs.

One other bit of psychology you’ll see on full display, especially on game day, is confirmation bias. This psychological concept tells us people will search for evidence to confirm their position while denying evidence that contradicts their position. We’re all susceptible to confirmation bias when it come to our teams. Consider how often opposing fans will dispute calls despite clear evidence on instant replay.

Consider the following study cited in The Person and the Situation by Lee Ross, Richard E. Nisbett, and Malcolm Gladwel. The authors wrote, “In this study, Dartmouth and Princeton football fans both viewed the same film of a particularly rough gridiron struggle between their respective teams. Despite the constancy of the objective stimulus, the opposing partisans’ assessments of what they had viewed suggested that they ‘saw’ two different games. The Princeton fans saw a continuing saga of Dartmouth atrocities and occasional Princeton retaliations. The Dartmouth fans saw brutal Princeton provocations and occasional measured Dartmouth responses. Each side, in short, saw a struggle in which their side were the ‘good guys’ and the other side were the ‘bad guys.’ And each side thought this ‘truth. ought to be apparent to any objective observers of the same events.”

Later the authors wrote, “This polarization effect, it seemed, occurred because the subjects in both partisan groups tended to accept evidence supportive of their own position uncritically, while at the same time critically scrutinizing and ‘explaining away’ evidence that was equally probative but that ran counter to their position.”

So, what’s the point here? Sports brings out passion in people. You’ll be accepted by those who cheer for your team and reviled by those who don’t…at least on game day. When it comes to “convincing” someone about the superiority of your team save your breath because it’s like trying to teach a pig to sing – you won’t succeed, you’ll upset the pig, and you’ll get frustrated in the process.

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Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Chief Influence Officer at influencePEOPLE
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is a sales trainer, coach and consultant whose specialty is applying persuasion and influence in sales and customer service situations. He is one of 20 individuals in the world who currently hold the CMCT designation. Brian’s blog, Influence PEOPLE, is followed by people in 200 countries and made the Online Psychology Degree Guide Top 30 Psychology Blogs in 2012.
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