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The Science of Sports Fandom

Why Fans Go Nuts: The Psychology of Sports

How does psychology explain sports fans’ and athletes’ behavior? 5 answers.

Many psychologists, just like other people, are sports fans. As a result, there is quite a bit of research on the psychology of sports. Here are some of the more interesting psychological studies of sports and athletic activity.

1. Why Do People Care So Much About Their Home Sports Teams?

Sports fans can become rabid and out-of-control. Consider riots at European soccer matches and violent clashes between home and visitor fans at U.S. sports venues. Why do sports fans get so involved and heated?

Decades of social psychological research has clearly demonstrated what is called the in-group, out-group bias. We identify with “our team” and our team’s fans (the in-group) and come to despise the other team and their fans (the out-group). This is the heart of sports rivalry. We “bask in the reflected glory” when our team wins, and research has shown that fans’ self-esteem rises with victories and falls with defeat.

2. Is There Really a “Hot Hand” in Sports?

This common belief – that a player can get “hot,” and make baskets/hits/passes, or “cold,” and miss repeatedly, has been shown to be a myth by research. The probability of making a particular shot or getting a hit is independent of other shots/hits. Moreover, recent research suggests that because players believe in the hot hand, they may take riskier shots when they feel they are hot. More on this here.

3. When and Why Do Athletes Choke Under Pressure?

The game is on the line and the player needs to make a free throw, but misses. Is there such a thing as choking under pressure? Research by psychologist Roy Baumeister and others suggests that athletes can indeed “choke” because they become self-focused and “think too much” about what would otherwise be an automatic behavior (i.e., shooting a free throw).

4. Is There Such a Thing as a Home Field Advantage?

Recent research has shed some light on this question. There does indeed seem to be a small home field advantage. What are the psychological reasons? Well, there are many. First is the well-known psychological construct of social facilitation – the fact that people seem to perform better when there is a supportive audience. Another reason for home field advantage may be officiating bias – with referees favoring the home team (and the cheers of the crowd). In addition, familiarity with the home court/stadium, and travel fatigue on the part of the visiting team, likely play a role.

5. Why Do We Enjoy Watching Sports More in Groups Than Alone?

Watching sports in a group enhances the we-feeling solidarity if we are surrounded by our home team fans. It makes us feel better, win or lose. In addition, the emotional contagion of a roaring (or moaning) crowd, make it a more intense emotional experience. So, watching in a group leads to stronger and more memorable emotional feelings (positive when our team wins, negative and dejected when our team loses – but we get the shared sympathy or our home team fans). 

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