Fantastic Fandom

Jalyn Neysmith
23 January 2012

The largest sporting event of the Canadian football season is almost here, and with it many people are gearing up for some serious celebrating. The Grey Cup attracts some of the largest crowds of any Canadian sporting event, and if you're a fan of a team in the running, there's no doubt you're already looking forward to the big day.

Or are you? Psychologists have found that sometimes the more fanatical a person is about a sports team, the more negative (pessimistic) they become about their team’s chances leading up to a big game. This is called proactive (i.e. defensive) pessimism. Scientists believe that this negativity is the brain's way of protecting us from an emotional letdown if our team “drops the ball.” The more emotionally invested a fan is, the more depressed they may become if their team doesn't win. So, people who are really devoted to their team may actually try to convince themselves that their team will lose, in order to mentally prepare themselves for the worst.

If, however, the team you are a fan of has been doing really well—for example, they haven’t lost a game yet—then scientists have identified the opposite to be true. Fans of winning teams may approach a big sporting event with increased optimism, or what has come to be called BIRGing: Basking In the Reflected Glory of their team's recent success.

Fast Fact: The first Grey Cup match was held in 1909, but this year is only the 99th time that teams will play for the cup. The missing games are from the 1910s, when the match wasn't held due to war and disputes over rules.

The reason people get so invested in their favourite sports teams is because fandom is a very personal statement. It’s well known that the majority of people root for a team for one of two reasons:

1. The team is based in the city you live in or the city you were born in.

2. Your family has always cheered for this particular team.

These two reasons say a lot about who you are and where you come from. Being a committed fan often requires a large personal investment. It’s not just about watching the sport, but also about being part of a larger social group and having a shared identity with that group. So, for loyal fans it's not just about the game but also about identity.

Fast Fact: Saskatchewan Roughriders football team fans have been voted the rowdiest of any Canadian sports team. They are also called Melonheads for their habit of wearing watermelon helmets.

The upside to this intense fandom is that if your team does win, you're likely to enjoy that happy memory for a long time. A study recently published in the journal Psychological Science showed that baseball fans could recall more details of games their team won than of games they lost. Authors of the study believe that fans could remember things like player names and number of innings played, because when a team wins, fans talk about it. If your team loses you'd rather forget about it, but if they win you want to recount what happened and relive the experience. This repetition better instills the memory in your brain.

So the next time someone says to you, “It's just a game,” you'll have the science to prove that it's actually way more than that.


Wann, D. L., & Grieve, F. G. (2008). The coping strategies of highly identified fans: The importance of team success on tendencies to utilize proactive pessimism. In L. W. Hugenberg, P. Haridakis, & A. Earnheardt(Eds.) Sports Mania: Essays on Fandom and the Media in the 21st Century (pp. 78-85). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Association for Psychological Science. The Science Behind Fanatical Behaviour by Shirley Wang

Article first published November 18, 2011

Photo Credit:smile4camera via Flickr Creative Commons

Jalyn Neysmith

Jalyn Neysmith is a museum exhibit developer with degrees in archaeology and science communication. She loves to travel and has lived in Alberta, Ontario and Australia, and is currently at the Field Museum of natural history in Chicago. When not globetrotting she can be found running adventure races, snowboarding, or playing the fiddle.

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