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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Possibly. I think what scientists would argue is that a lot of what testosterone does is regulate social status. For all animals that have a social hierarchy, it is really important to figure out where you are in this hierarchy. Your testosterone level is kind of an indicator of where you are.

If you think that fans of winning teams have a vicarious social benefit, which I think you could argue, then, yeah, actually there is an evolutionary reason that your testosterone goes up. Your social rank has increased as a result of this competition.

Biologically speaking, what is different, if anything, about how males and female fans react to sports?

Testosterone affects mostly men. Scientists are really unclear about women—whether they just have a smaller change or whether it is delayed. But in a lot of studies of women in competition, researchers don’t see this clear effect that they see in men.

Going back to that election study, the testosterone levels of women in that study didn’t change. One of the difficulties with studying hormones is trying to figure out all of these other variables. How much do you care? How important is this to you? With men and women watching sports, you might say, “Well, the women just don’t care about sports as much.” But if you look at the election, and you ask them, how much do you care about this election? Women cared about the election just as much. Researchers measured their cortisol levels. They were just as stressed out about it. Really, this was just as important in every respect for the women Stanton studied, except that following it, their testosterone didn’t go up or down. You can get into a pretty lengthy discussion about why that happened, and I am not quite sure scientists know.

Some people are sports fans, and some people cannot care less. Is there something different, at a biological level, between these two groups?

I don’t think so. I was really interested in this question too, because it is not just my wife, but almost all of my friends [who are not sports fans]. I spend most of my life hiding this side passion that I have. I am out at dinner trying to check my phone beneath the table and trying not to be mad when we are having a nice dinner with our friends. I don’t want to be the insane one here.

People have these setups to do this, to have these relationships with sports teams, but you could be perfectly satisfied with your personal relationships. You could have other passions that you find rewarding. People get significant rewards from sports. It just makes you feel good. You get dopamine from feeling happy about it, but that doesn’t have to be what makes you feel good.

More importantly, I think the magnitude of the reward goes up the longer you spend with it. So, for people who have been hopelessly hooked since they were little, like me, there are too many memories of things that I have done with my family for me to be able to give it up easily. But if you have never been exposed, don’t start!

Here we are, in March Madness—three weeks of basketball that, for some people, have mind-altering affects. Tell me this: How are sports like drugs?


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