The surprising biochemical effects of sports fandom
The tragic story of Paulo Ricardo Gomes da Silva starts innocently enough, with the 26-year-old Brazilian man attending a soccer game in May of 2014. With the game tied at 1-1, rioting broke out in the stands and da Silva was hit and killed by a toilet, which had been ripped out of a bathroom and thrown through the air. At the end of the melee, 40 fans were arrested. While the fatality is one of the more extreme cases of sports fandom, it brings to light an important theme: a sports fan’s health may be more wrapped up in their team than they ever thought possible.
A study published in 2005 in the journal Injury Prevention found that assault-related emergency room visits increased when Welsh national rugby and soccer teams won, perhaps establishing a link between fans of winning teams and increased violence—with alcohol consumption doubtlessly adding fuel to the fire. But the effects of sports passion on health transcend the obvious, and may actually work on a biochemical level, too.
Recent research published in Psychological Science showed that fans of losing teams ate more calories and saturated fat, presumably trying to “eat their feelings” after a tough loss, and that fans of winning teams ate less fat and overall calories. So not only might your team’s loss lead to depression, it may also lead to weight gain—talk about adding insult to injury. Previous research has also found that blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol both increase, especially in passionate fans, while watching their favorite teams play, regardless of the outcome.
Researchers have long known that both male and female athletes experience an increase in testosterone after a victory and a decrease after a loss. But a 1998 study conducted by researchers at the University of Utah also found that testosterone levels can rise and fall in fans, too.
The study looked at male fans of college basketball rivals and international soccer rivals, and found that in both cases testosterone significantly increased in fans of the winning teams and decreased in fans of the losing teams.
This finding may be due to “BIRG,” which stands for “basking in reflected glory” and is a concept defined by the study’s authors as a cognitive process “in which individuals increase their self-esteem by identifying with successful others.” This cognitive loophole of sorts allows humans to symbolically piggyback on the success of others. We are highly social creatures by nature, and often win or lose collectively as families, teams and communities, so this cognitive process may be an evolutionary way of encouraging group identity and increased social affiliation. In fact, sports fans often use words like “we” and “us” to describe their team, revealing the nature and depth of true fandom.
So what does the rise or fall of testosterone have to do with our health? Well, the major sex hormone, responsible for the development of many male physical characteristics, also has powerful effects on the mind—and low levels may cause depression, difficulty concentrating and a low libido, to name a few.
But while a winning-induced testosterone burst may seem like a good thing, it is definitely a classic case of the double-edged sword. Although evidence is sometimes conflicting, some studies suggest higher testosterone may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and incidents like heart attack, stroke or death, and may also have adverse effects with respect to cancer.
And just as a fan of a winning team may BIRG, he or she may also BIRD (bask in reflected depression) if his or her team loses. The hangover effect from a favorite team’s loss, especially after a big or heartbreaking one that ends a season, can have negative effects on mood and well-being for days, weeks, or even months. Just ask any still-reeling Seattle Seahawks fan about about the goal line play that decided last year’s Super Bowl. Or ask a Patriots fan how long it took to recover after having their dreams of a perfect season come to an end with a loss to the underdog New York Giants in the 2008 Super Bowl. Fans of these teams may very well have closed their blinds for days, and let dirty dishes pile to the ceiling while mourning the loss of their team. For passionate fans of losing teams, the struggle is very real.
So do be careful who you root for and try to keep your fandom in proper perspective. After all, it is not only “just a game,” but also one that is being played by a group of strangers on a field or court hundreds or thousands of miles away.