The psychology of fanaticism: Everything sports fans do and why

Pride of Detroit

Why are you the way you are? I don’t mean that in a Michael Scott way. You’re not Toby Flenderson, and you don’t annoy me. I mean as that question to be interpreted on a much deeper level. I also don’t want to just ask Detroit Lions fans. I want to ask all sports fans. Why are we the way that we are?

What is it about fanaticism that makes people cram tightly into stadiums in, let’s be honest, uncomfortable fashion? What makes us spend our money on jerseys with someone else’s name on them and apparel with logos of our team? What makes us dedicate our entire week to just getting to gameday? Why is it that the result of that game controls the way we feel hours, days and sometimes weeks?

These are the things that go through our brains all the time. This is something about our species that I just needed to understand. So I reached out to Daniel L. Wann to help me understand why we do the crazy things we do as fans. Wann is a professor of psychology at Murray State University, and he’s spent years researching sports fandom and its impact on humans. He broke everything down for us. Here’s what we learned.

It starts with needs

It’s seems very basic, right? Why do we do almost anything? Because we have very real psychological needs and wants, and sports can fill in the need to belong.

“We’re social creatures,” Wann said. “If you’re a Lions fan and it’s a non-COVID year, you go to the stadium, it’s pretty easy to feel like you fit in. It allows to feel the sense of belonging.”

That’s not all, though. While we all want to feel like we belong to something, some of us want to feel like we can set ourselves apart from others. When you choose your team and stand by it, you’re being part of a group that likes sports, but you get set yourself apart by being a fan of your team. This feeds that part of our psyche that wants to be an individual.

Sports also give fans purpose.

“If you talk to Lions fans and try to unpack what it means to them to be Lions fans, they’re going to start talking about how it gives them a reason to wake up in the morning,” Wann said. “It gives them a sense of purpose and a sense of fulfillment. It really does provide meaning.”

Perhaps the most surprising need that Wann brought up though was the need for structure. From the very beginning of our lives we’re taught about the importance of structure. We build a morning routine, have to be at class at a certain time, and parents set ourselves a bedtime.

Those habits become part of our lives in order to build structure and predictability. Sports fit perfectly into that habit.

“Gosh, what provides more structure than following sports team?” Wann said. “It’s the fall. Now all Lions fans can go back to setting their lives by Sunday afternoon. We set our days, our weeks and maybe our months and our calendars by games and seasons. Every fall you know football is going to start up and every spring you’re talking about draft picks and it’s a way that provides some sense of routine and structure.”

We’re creatures of needs and while we often look at sports as something that’s strictly entertainment, it’s really something that’s helping us psychologically cope with life and fulfill our needs.

“The more you suck, the better next year has the potential to be”

Let’s talk about coping strategies. It’s a topic that Lions fans are quite familiar with, and they may not even realize it. Right off the bat, we need to talk about how weird sports fandom is in the sense that every time we watch a game, we’re guaranteed a happy or sad outcome. Sadness is the more interesting thing here. If we all knew we’d be happy after every game, we’d be on a gravy train with biscuit wheels, am I right? But that’s not the case. Instead, we’re flirting with the idea that we’re going to be miserable in three hours, and we voluntarily signed up for that possibility.

“If somebody ordered a pizza from a delivery service six times and it came late, it was the wrong pizza and it was cold three out of six times, you’re not going to keep going back to that delivery service,” Wann said. “Yet Cubs fans kept flocking to Wrigley Field for literally a century of heartbreak.”

Lions fans have their own “century of heartbreak.” They’re not alone. Red Sox fans had there’s and so do Los Angeles Clippers fans. No matter where you turn in the sports world, there’s a long-suffering fan base. But they wouldn’t stick around if it weren’t for coping mechanisms.

One way fans tend to cope is to pass the buck of blame. Our team can’t be responsible for the loss. They’re perfect. So, instead, we seek to find a scapegoat.

“A lot of these coping strategies involve ways that sports fans adjust the reality in their head,” Wann said. “For example we use attributional biases that blame something external for the team’s poor performances. The referees were horrible or the other team played out of their mind or we’re a passing team and the weather was terrible. They’ll figure out ways to explain away the team’s failure that are above and beyond my team sucks.’”

Sound familiar? Think back to 2014 when the Lions lost in the playoffs to the Dallas Cowboys. It was because the refs picked up the pass interference flag, right? That’s what some Lions fans told themselves. It couldn’t have possibly been the three second half turnovers that allowed the Cowboys to come back. No way.

What about the Lions loss to the Falcons due to the 10-second runoff? Sure, that’s a stupid rule and it’s totally cool to hate that an NFL game would end that way, but if the Lions would have just taken care of business, they wouldn’t have been in a spot to lose that way. Same goes for the batted ball against the Seahawks, or, yes, the Calvin Johnson catch rule. Some fans clung onto those reasons for dear life instead of coming to terms with the fact that the Lions just didn’t get it done. And that’s okay, you’re human and you need to find a way to cope.

Wann said another way to cope with team failure is to adopt a completely different way of thinking… negatively. Pessimism. “Same Old Lions” ring a bell? Turns out pessimism is just a way that we cope with a potentially negative environment.

If you go into every game thinking the team sucks anyways, you can’t hurt when your predisposed bias is confirmed. You’ve coped your way into win/win situation. If the team loses, you were right about them being bad. If they win, you get the happiness of the win. It’s actually kind of brilliant when you think about it.

Lastly there’s one that I’ve been seeing a lot of Lions fans do lately. It has something to do with Penei Sewell. The rookie didn’t have the greatest preseason. Some Lions fans aren’t willing to talk about that. It’s because they’re coping. Why would Lions fans want to even entertain the idea that their team could have made a bad decision? So to cope with the bad showing, fans have made excuses that will absolve the player of the bad showing and will keep them optimistic for the player’s future. (I’m not saying the Lions made a bad decision, by the way. I am saying this is something fans of any team are notorious for.)

Superstitions

Many of us have flown on a plane before or ridden a roller coaster. It is extremely common for us to fear death in those situations. The reason why isn’t because there are millions of deaths caused by plane crashes and roller coaster malfunction, because that simply isn’t reality. It’s because we’re human beings in a situation that we have no control over.

Sports is that way as well. No, we’re not in physical danger, we just have no control over the situation and it drives us crazy. So what do we do? We create situations where we can put ourselves in control. Like sitting in a certain position, drinking beer from a specific mug, or not checking your fantasy scores until after the game.

What I’m talking about here is superstitions. We tell our brains that if we do this thing, we can manifest destiny and point the universe in the direction of the Lions winning today. This is our way to simulate that we have control, something humans do to feel safer and less out of control.

The illusion of bliss

Fandom is, at its core, driven by desire. For just about every sports fan, there is just one goal: Win the championship That’s it. That’s the holy grail. It’s what we’re all here for.

We tell ourselves that when it finally happens, it will be the most blissful experience you’ll ever have. Why wouldn’t it be? For Lions fans, they’ve literally been waiting for this their whole life. But, according to Wann, that feeling you’ve been wanting to feel for so long will ultimately just wind up being the fun day you had before you have to go back to work on Monday. It’s because of something called affective forecasting.

Affective forecasting is when you try to predict your emotional state for the future. It’s a common experience outside of sports. “I’m going to be so happy when I get that job” or “If I could just be a millionaire, I won’t be depressed anymore.” It can help drive you to your goals, but when you get to that moment, the feeling rarely lives up to the fantasy you’ve created in your head.

“I’m a Cubs fans. For many, many decades I could feel the pain of Lions fans,” Wann said. “So the Cubs finally won the World Series a half a decade ago, and for 45 years it was like, ‘My god, if they won the World series that would be so awesome. It’d be the best thing ever and I can die a happy man.’

“Then they finally won it and it was great, but it wasn’t euphoria. Because when they won it, you’ve got a kid that’s home sick or you got a big project that you’re working on at work. You kind of forget that when the Cubs win the World Series, there’s actually other stuff going on in my life as well. So there’s no doubt that people look forward to these events and think they’ll be fantastic, and they will be, but it sometimes doesn’t measure up to our expectations.”

Nobody is saying you won’t be happy. You’re going to be stoked. The thing is, you might not be as happy as you thought you were because when you have these fantasies, nowhere in there are you thinking about what time you’ll have to get to bed that night or what bill is due the following week. Life goes on.

But does fandom?

What happens when a long-suffering fan base finally reaches the top of the mountain?

“Winning is not all it’s cracked up to be,” he said. “I’m a Cubs fan and I fit this category. I’m not nearly as big a Cubs fan as I was before they won the World Series. If you follow a team for 40 years and they finally win a championship, the feeling is this great, now what? 25 percent of Cubs fans did not want the team to win because they knew it would substantially change the meaning of being a Cubs fan.”

Have you ever seen the movie “Shawshank Redemption”? In the movie they talk about the incarcerated being institutionalized after being locked up so long. You start to get used to being in prison and then you start to depend on it.

Lions fans, we may be institutionalized. The very thought of winning a Super Bowl is what’s kept Lions fans going forever. It’s the end of the video game or the end of a movie. Once you’ve reached it, you don’t really care about that movie or the video game anymore. Then you’re the old man from Shawshank who just got out and gets freaked out by his first site of an automobile. Will your passion go away after the Lions win it all? Will you still care as much? The odds are that you might not.

We’ve been given a lot to think about today. There’s a lot that you can take from here that might enhance your viewing experience. Maybe you realize how silly your weird superstitions are and how they really have no outcome on the game and you stop. Maybe you learned how to cope with another Lions loss. The one thing we can all say we learned for sure is that humans are a weird species, but it’s beautiful what our minds can do.

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