We all know sports fans who say, “We won,” when their team wins, and “They lost” when their team loses. That’s because associating your self with a winner and distancing yourself from a loser appeals to the ego – even though in reality the fan didn’t win or lose. They did not play, they watched. That’s not to minimize the importance of fandom or fan loyalty. It’s just a fact, backed up by billions of dollars spent supporting their teams.
In social psychology, attaching yourself to another’s success and claiming it as your own is called Basking In Reflected Glory (BIRG). The opposite is known as Cutting Off Reflected Failure (CORF) or distancing yourself from another’s failure.  BIRGing and CORFing are the reasons we say we won and they lost. It is also why we demonize coaches and specific players. It distances our selves and our team from failure, subsequently protecting our ego investment. This ego investment is why spectator sports are a billion-dollar business. It’s also why Chicago Bears fans blame Jay Cutler for the losses of a team that has many problems, and why LeBron James has to sleep with his eyes open when he’s near any Cleveland Cavalier fans.
It doesn’t just happen with coaches and players. It sometimes seeks a higher level. For example, a few Michigan sports bloggers skewered former U of M athletic director David Brandon, arguing that he destroyed Michigan football and became Michigan’s Athletic Director only because he was being forced out of Dominos Pizza. Even if he is somehow to blame for Michigan’s football woes, which started long before he arrived, the Wolverines hold decisive leads in every rivalry series, so “destroyed” is hyperbolic – at best. Also, he remains chairman of the board of Domino’s – so they aren’t pushing too hard to oust him.
Bloggers also claimed that he didn't reach out to Harbaugh after firing Rich Rod, and that Harbaugh would not have come to Michigan if Brandon hadn't resigned - not true according to the Harbaugh camp. And the bloggers say he’s arrogant and unsympathetic; that is not the man those around him know.
“Dave helped me rethink ways of being successful, and was extremely supportive during the roughest periods,” says Michigan men’s basketball coach, John Beilein. Recently, Brady Hoke, former Michigan head football coach, also praised Brandon on his new talk show. So why did so many people hate David Brandon? Actually, his critics were more loud than numerous and demonizing Brandon was a very effective CORFing strategy to distance their egos and Michigan football from its underperformance.
Brandon was on three Big Ten championship teams under Bo Schembechler, and the bloggers loved him when Michigan went 11-2 and won the 2012 Sugar Bowl. That love went south with the football team’s performance.
“Dave never waivered in his expectations, as Bo taught him,” says Beilein. “He is a tireless worker who instills great confidence in those around him.” His critics didn’t see that because demonizing Brandon was their brains’ way of protecting their egos, (and some livelihoods), which were tethered to the success of Michigan football. Not bad people, just psychologically vulnerable people in a difficult place. Hence many reported falsehoods and distorted truths; their followers didn’t care because people follow bloggers for opinion validation, not facts. That’s how confirmation bias works.
Confirmation bias filters reality to match expectations by selectively paying attention to information that confirms expectations, while ignoring information that contradicts expectation.[2, 3] Chicago Bears fans ignore all of the facts about the Bears that contribute to Cutler struggles. Likewise, all the Cleveland fans saw about LeBron was no NBA title in Cleveland.
It was even more extreme with Brandon. As Michigan Athletic Director, Brandon:
Michigan Cheerleading is the reigning National Champions for a third straight year. Coach, Pam St. John says Brandon facilitated resources that made the success possible. These are just a few of Brandon’s accomplishments that went unnoticed by the bloggers. However, they noticed rising ticket prices and a change in student seating from reserved to general admission, both of which were met with a huge backlash (although curiously not until the year of Michigan’s worst football performance since 2009).
Even though Brandon responded to the students’ concerns by rescinding the general admission policy and lowering ticket prices, the bloggers overlooked that news from the Michigan Athletic Department. They also overlooked the fact that the unpopular general admissions decision involved the executive officers of the university, the university president and the regents. Yet they led their followers to believe Brandon was the sole decision-maker, because the football team was losing and they desperately needed to CORF. Demonizing Brandon was essential to that end because they make their livings on confirmation bias, i.e., telling people what they need to believe, not reporting the facts.
BIRGing, CORFing and confirmation bias are common human practices with spectator sports. However, it is problematic, especially when it involves high school and college athletes. David Brandon’s a proven success, and has moved on to head up Toy R Us. LeBron James and Jay Cutler are stellar athletes – they’ll be fine. However, high school and college athletes are much more vulnerable. Adults CORFing on social media, to serve their own ego needs is unacceptable. Just because spectator sports are a type of social tribalism does not mean you have to be primitive.
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1. Boen, F., N. Vanbeselaere, and J. Feys, Behavioral consequences of fluctuating group success: an internet study of soccer-team fans. J Soc Psychol, 2002. 142(6): p. 769-81.
2. Bronfman, Z.Z., et al., Decisions reduce sensitivity to subsequent information. Proc Biol Sci, 2015. 282(1810).
3. Mercier, H. and D. Sperber, Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behav Brain Sci, 2011. 34(2): p. 57-74; discussion 74-111.
4. McDonald, M.M., C.D. Navarrete, and M. Van Vugt, Evolution and the psychology of intergroup conflict: the male warrior hypothesis. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 2012. 367(1589): p. 670-9.