The Science of Super Bowl Team Loyalty

As Super Bowl Sunday draws near, many Americans are piling up on beer and tweeting about Beyoncé.  But here in San Francisco, diehard fans are proudly sporting Niners gear, banners are displayed across the city, and everyone is eagerly anticipating the moment when “we” win. If the recent World Series were any indication, folks in the foggy city by the Bay are crazy and will smash, burn, and destroy everything in sight to express their delirious joy.

Pride in one’s local sports team and wild rioting after a victory are not limited to San Francisco, of course. Why are people so fanatical about their sports teams, particularly when the team is successful? Social psychologists have a name for this phenomenon—as we do for any interesting phenomenon—and it is known as the tendency to bask in reflected glory, or BIRG, for short. To BIRG is to share in the glory of a successful other with whom you feel you are somehow associated, even if you did not directly contribute to their success. People are BIRGing ALL the time – like when practically every white person I know claims to be distantly related to the Queen of England,  when cities boast that so-and-so famous people hailed from there, and when you brag that your friend’s brother’s teacher’s wife’s dog’s girlfriend went to school with Zooey Deschanel.

Nobody BIRGs as shamelessly as sports fans. In a classic experiment across 7 large universities during college football season, data collectors covertly kept track of how many students came to class each Monday wearing apparel that showed school spirit—for example, buttons, jackets, and shirts that displayed the school name, team nickname or mascot, or university insignia. Researchers found that on the Mondays after a victory, students of the winning team were more likely to wear clothing that showed their school spirit, compared to Mondays following a loss.

Niners fans BIRGing like it’s 1849

Ever notice how sports fanatics love to use the pronoun “we,” as in “We are #1”?  By using the pronoun “we,” fans are publicly associating themselves with the team, whereas the pronoun “they” puts distance between oneself and the other person or party. In studies by the same team of researchers, students from a university with a highly ranked football team were randomly called on the telephone. When asked about the outcome of several football games, students were more likely to use the pronoun “we” (e.g.,“we won”) when describing a victory. However, when describing a defeat, students tended to not use the “we” pronoun—for example, respondents were more likely to say “they lost” rather than “we lost.”

Yes, people seek to affiliate themselves with successful others so that they can look good, despite not having anything to do with the success. And, people are equally quick to distance themselves from losers. I just hope that when *my* team wins the Super Bowl, that *my* fellow San Franciscans will party hard but keep *my* city operable by Monday morning.

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About the Author

Dr. Sin has a Ph.D. in Social/Personality Psychology and is not related to Dr. Evil.

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