That’s a good question. The human brain doesn’t have that many ways of processing the world; it tries to be very efficient. So, we have this general reward system that is set up to make us feel good when we get something useful—food or sex, basically. What scientists have found is that this system is co-opted to be used for a lot of different stuff. For example, there are some researchers who think that very intense, romantic love is processed in the same area of the brain. In an fMRI scan, it is the same area of the brain that lights up very, very intensely when you take cocaine. And, it probably is the same area of the brain that lights up when your team wins—particularly when your team wins in a way that is unexpected.
I think part of why everybody loves March Madness so much is there is the chance for these big upset wins. When the 12 seed beats the 5 seed in a game, everybody is going nuts. The magnitude of this reward in your brain is greater for an unexpected win. It is like when you find food in the wild and it’s unexpected. Your brain thinks you are getting something evolutionarily useful and wants you to remember how to do it.
Is sports fandom an addiction?
No. For a drug addict, the motivation to seek the drug again becomes so powerful that it overrides self-control. The reward is so great, and the memory of the reward is so great, and the motivation to get this again is so great that your self-control isn’t able to interrupt this cycle. Most sports fans are able to say, “Okay, well that was fun, but there are other things that are more important.”