February 5, 2011
When the Packers are down, Nathan Gehring is down, too.At the first sign of trouble, nerves set in. And when the game seems to hang by the skin of his teeth, Gehring’s heart pounds against his chest as numbness seeps from his fingers down to the pit of his stomach.
A Packers defeat “could ruin a day, it could ruin several days,” said Gehring, a 32-year-old financial planning adviser.
When the troops in green and gold take the field Sunday, they won’t be the only ones with something on the line.
“This is a much more personal event than a mere sports event,” said Robert Cialdini, a psychologist at Arizona State University. “It’s not a diversion; it’s not something to keep us entertained or intrigued. It’s something much more fundamental. (It) accounts for why we see people living and dying emotionally with the success of these teams, and — in some cases — physically.”
Cialdini’s research shows that sports fans identify so strongly with the teams they love that fans actually have the same physiological responses to the game that the athletes experience.
In victory, testosterone levels spike. In defeat, they plummet.
“Their successes and failures are our successes and failures,” explained Cialdini, a Milwaukee native and Packers fan. “They reflect directly on us as individuals, even though we have not scored a point or made a tackle or touched the field of play.”
Cialdini theorizes that human evolution is responsible for this strong relationship between fan and team.
“When we were evolving many eons ago, we existed in small groups of 25 to 50 individuals in bands or clans or tribes,” he said. “If our warriors beat the warriors of the neighboring bands, clans or tribes, because they were genetically identical to us, it meant that we were inherently better than our neighbors. That atavistic, primitive tendency remains.”
And Cialdini said this inclination to build deep emotional and psychological ties to sports teams as a way of asserting superiority and self-worth is heightened in smaller communities, such as Green Bay and Pittsburgh.
“The most ferocious fans come from the cities that have inferiority complexes,” said Cialdini. “I don’t mean that they are inferior. I mean that they think that they’re underestimated in the grand scheme of things, and the only way available to them to disprove those underestimations is through the ascendency of their sports teams.”
It may have negative undertones, but being passionate about the hometown team is good for your health, said Daniel Wann, co-author of “Sport Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators.”
“The research shows that individuals that strongly identify with a local sport team tend to have a better social-psychological makeup,” Wann said. “They tend to have lower levels of loneliness and alienation. They’re more likely to have a positive evaluation of the satisfaction of their social life. If you’re a Packers fan, you’d have a hard time being lonely in Green Bay right now.”
Cialdini doesn’t quite buy that rosier reading of the research.
“There’s clearly something unhealthy about it,” Cialdini continued. “If they depend on affiliated sports teams for their successes, then their happiness is out of their own hands. There’s nothing wrong with being tied to a team and feeling good about their successes, but when you live and die with it, that’s a prison sentence.”
Alarmed by the effect a football game could have on his behavior and state of mind, Gehring recently started monitoring his emotions to keep them in check.
“I tried it during one Packer game,” he said. “It was a game they lost, but I felt much, much better the whole game. That allowed me to disconnect from the impact the emotions were having on my thinking and just go back to appreciating what the guys on the field were doing.”