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The Science of Sports Fandom

Sports Fans, Beware of Your Cravings

Fans whose teams lose turn to fatty food.

Are you or someone you know caught up in “World Cup Fever?” The excitement may be affecting you in mysterious ways. I asked writer and sports fan Cristina Schreil to look into different ways sports fandom affects people.


Here is some of what Cristina discovered:

We’ve all heard the expression “eating our feelings” — but the expression hardly seems to apply to roaring, enthusiastic crowds of World Cup fans, who don bright face paint and pack into bars as more and more countries face off on the football field. The electrifying, emotional whirlwind of the World Cup has as many fans heartbroken, angry or disappointed over their team’s loss as elated over victories.

We expect fans to have big displays of emotion, but one study shows that fans also respond in subtler ways: This year’s tournament will leave some fans eating more.

Downtrodden Fans Crave Fattier Food

Recent studies suggest that sports mania affects fans in unusual ways. In a series of three studies published in Psychological Science titled “From Fan to Fat? Vicarious Losing Increases Unhealthy Eating, but Self-Affirmation Is an Effective Remedy,” researchers found that people eat less healthy foods after watching their favorite football or soccer team lose a game.

Specifically, researchers looked at individuals whose favorite teams had a decisive game on Sunday. On Monday, they spotted differences in how they were eating:  “Compared with baseline consumption levels, saturated-fat consumption increased by 16 percent after a defeat and decreased by 9 percent after a victory.” The researchers then looked at overall caloric intake and found that “Caloric intake on Mondays increased by 10 percent after a defeat and decreased by 5 percent after a victory.” In short, downtrodden fans not only reach for unhealthier food the morning after, but also more food. 

Fandom Linked to Unexpected Behavior Change

Many studies suggest that watching a team win or lose has psychological effects that go beyond a simple change in mood or self-esteem. 

Sports fans have long experienced the same ebb and flow of intense emotion alongside sports stars they admire, and scientists have long studied this. In 1992, researchers Hirt, Zillmann, Erickson, and Kennedy looked at the “costs and benefits of allegiance.” Their results, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed that fans automatically tend to consider the fate of their favorite team as their own fate—sharing in the deep feelings of loss or the ecstasy of victory with them. That would, in part, explain the eating patterns of fans after a win or loss.

Another study, “Testosterone and Cortisol Release among Spanish Soccer Fans Watching the 2010 World Cup Final,” examined 50 fans during the game and found that both testosterone and cortisol levels in fans rose while watching. 

The researchers described the act of watching a beloved team play in a high-stakes game as something much more significant to fans: “We think the World Cup final soccer match posed such a threat, as for many fans their social status depended on the performance of their national team.” For many fans, their passion for a team is ingrained into their identity.

No matter what the outcome of this year’s World Cup games, fans will be affected by the drama of the tournament and in deeper ways than you might have realized. Just be careful around those chicken wings.

How is the World Cup affecting you? Share your comments below.


Cornil, Yann and Chandon, Pierre. (2013) From Fan to Fat? Vicarious Losing Increases Unhealthy Eating, but Self-Affirmation Is an Effective Remedy.” Psychological Science.

Hirt, E. R., Zillmann, D., Erickson, G. A., & Kennedy, C. (1992). Costs and benefits of allegiance: Changes in fans’ self ascribed competencies after team victory versus defeat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 724–738.

van der Meij L, Almela M, Hidalgo V, Villada C, IJzerman H, et al. (2012) Testosterone and Cortisol Release among Spanish Soccer Fans Watching the

2010 World Cup Final. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34814. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034814

Copyright @ 2014 Cristina Schreil

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Chicken Bucket Photo Credit:  <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/navin75/178801517/">Navin75</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/">cc</a> 


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