The Science of Being a Sports Fan

What does it mean to be “addicted” to your favorite team?

La Salle fans during March Madness. (Associated Press)

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No, I don’t think so.

In some sense, you have been your own lab rat. Can you explain what you’ve done to analyze how watching sports affects your own biology?

All of us feel like something has taken over a little bit when we are watching sports. This is governable, but at the same time there are things happening that you can’t control. With men in particular, your hormones are changing.

There is pretty good evidence that when males are directly competing, their testosterone goes up when they win and it goes down when they lose. There is also pretty good evidence that it just goes up in response to a challenge of any kind. It can go up at the beginning of a competition, and it could go up even more if he wins.

I found out that it is actually not that hard to test your own testosterone. You just spit into a test tube. I drooled into a test tube before, during and after some important hockey games and sent it off to a lab that analyzed my testosterone. What is interesting about these results is that there wasn’t actually a very clear story. My testosterone just went up every time—whether the team one, whether they lost.

Even though one person spitting into a test tube is not science, it turns out that in any individual it [testosterone level] is really hard to predict. You take 100 men and you show them all a game that they are very invested in. You can be pretty sure that the testosterone in the winners will go up, and the testosterone in the losers will go down, averaged out among all of them. But, it doesn’t allow you to predict an individual at all. Again, that gets back to this idea that self-control and some other things do play a role in governing this response.

It’s interesting when scientists compare the testosterone responses in fans versus the players themselves, right?

Most researchers who study testosterone will tell you that fans are having the same hormonal response that the players are. Basically, whether you played the game or watched the game, if your team won, your testosterone is probably going to go up. [Between players and fans] the magnitude of the change is going to be pretty similar.

There is this famous study that Steven Stanton did at Duke, where he studied hormonal responses to the 2008 presidential election. He found the same thing. For Barack Obama supporters, testosterone went up or at least stayed level, which Stanton says is as good as going up. For McCain supporters, testosterone went down. There is pretty compelling evidence that you have a significant response whether you are directly involved or not. Of course, nobody tested Barack Obama and John McCain and their testosterone.

Is there an evolutionary benefit to this?


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