Field Guide to the Die-Hard Fan

Latin Name: Devotium Extremis

Notable Characteristics: Suffers periodic laryngitis from singing, screaming, and/or arguing with referee, movie usher, or security guard. Named Twitter handle, hamster, and/or child after object of obsession.

Songs & Calls: "Wooooooooo!" "Man, I'm your biggest fan!" "Will you sign this?"

We've all experienced the joys of fandom—a feeling of oneness with fellow concertgoers, or the excitement of waiting in the dark for an anticipated film. But fandom can become so intense that it compromises meaningful pursuits.

"Engagement in a devotee world isn't inherently harmful," says Jeff Rudski, a psychologist at Muhlenberg College—who has studied Harry Potter addiction. "But for some, the object of devotion begins to substitute for other rewards in life."

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We're built to become deeply connected to outside entities. The brain's mesolimbic system functions as a reinforcement circuit between the opiodergic system (which controls liking) and the dopaminergic system (which governs wanting)—so when we like a donut, we want it again next time it's available. These mechanics evolved to steer us toward things like food, but other factors can trip the circuit. "For fanatics, liking may trigger an unusually high degree of wanting," Rudski explains.

Superfandom may also be a coping strategy. "Fanatics may be driven to escape an issue that's difficult to face," says Samantha Smithstein, cofounder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco. Others may use their obsession to connect with others. Still, most of us are fans because it's just, well, fun.

Case Study

The Sports Nut (Devotium Facepaintus)

You've seen him in high-definition: the shirtless, body-painted guy screaming himself hoarse in the bleachers. His focus on the field is so intense, you'd think he was one of the players—and in his mind, he really is, says Ed Hirt, professor of psychological sciences at Indiana University.

Watching someone perform an action triggers mirror neurons, making the viewer feel, to an extent, like he is the doer. The greater the observer's personal draw to the action, the more intensely he feels that he's the one hitting a home run, Hirt says.

The end result is "a vicarious sense of success," according to Hirt: For a moment, a fan feels athletically gifted, unstoppable, and adored. A University of Utah study showed that during tournaments, die-hard fans experience the same hormonal surges athletes do. "They even become more optimistic about their own life when 'their' team wins and gloomy about their personal future when 'their' team loses," says Hirt.

Sports fandom also taps into a primordial human need to belong to a community. Devotees tailgate in the parking lot before games, swap stats, and trade the occasional chest bump or hug. Sports fans who faithfully follow a local team experience increased social connections, which are key to fostering well-being, notes the North American Journal of Psychology. And the crazier and more "out there" the fan, says Hirt, the higher his or her status climbs within the group.

The Music Lover (Devotium Groupis)

Cranking up a favorite song is one thing; seeing a pop group 44 times is another. Actively listening to a beloved tune stokes the brain's pleasure center and feels extremely arousing. "It's like a temporary roller coaster of emotions, with no severe consequences," says Valorie Salimpoor, a researcher at McGill University. "The intensity of the feelings the music evokes is highly reinforcing." That may explain why some die-hard fans still aren't weary of Skulls & Roses.

For some, concerts can extend that "high" even further. Live shows often incorporate light displays, choreography, or a good old-fashioned mosh pit. If an aspect resonates with fans, "the disparate sensory elements contribute to a much stronger rush than whatever they get from an iPod," says Donald Lodge, a music researcher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

In fact, participants in a Swedish study who described their most powerful musical experiences (many of which took place at concerts) relayed an almost religious experience—pounding heart, tears, no adequate words to explain their emotions.

Nostalgia lends even more meaning to favorite songs, since music seals in memories from the era in which one first heard it. Fans who center their lives around a particular band probably got hooked during their formative years, Lodge says. "That's when you struggled most with identity, and the music you related to at the time helped answer the question, 'Who am I?'"

The Movie Nerd (Devotium Popcornicus)

There are those who enjoyed Avatar and then there those who joined multiple online fan forums, viewed the movie 23 times, and still found time to post fan fiction online.

Watching a film is a highly stimulating experience, says Peter Stromberg, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa and author of Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You. "It's a form of pretending, where you engage the fiction by putting yourself in the story and suspending your knowledge of the outside world."

So although someone who's seen The Empire Strikes Back myriad times knows that Luke won't truly succumb to Darth Vader, he still experiences nail-biting concern when the two duel onscreen. "Those who become highly engaged in a movie are able to block from consciousness their knowledge of how it will turn out," Stromberg says. "That's why, time after time, they find the same sort of emotional satisfaction they found in seeing the movie the first time."

In fact, to die-hard movie fans, remaining cocooned in that celluloid world may seem more attractive than being fully engaged in their real lives. Stromberg contends that participating in an online fan community or dressing up as a favorite character and heading to a convention grants an opportunity to "sustain involvement in the movie and the emotional relief it provides."

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