The science of sports fandom

Thousands of screaming fans with painted faces and chests, elaborate costumes and homemade signs are just normal sights in sport stadiums around the world. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, Americans spend over $8 million on sports logo apparel yearly.

But why? What is it that drives this deep obsession of sports fandom?

Dr. Marco Iacoboni, director of the Neuromodulation Lab at UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, studies an aspect of the brain that may provide an answer.

“I’ve studied for many years the system in the brain which is called the mirror neuron system,” Iacoboni said.

Mirror neurons were discovered accidentally by scientists working with macaque monkeys in the early 1990s. While measuring their brain function, the scientists found that individual neurons fired both when the monkeys grabbed an object and while they watched someone else grab the same object.

Later, these results were reproduced in human subjects. “These cells were active when the person was completely still, not moving at all, and watching someone else making the same action,” Iacoboni said.

At UCLA, Iacoboni studies how mirror neurons are involved in imitation and empathy, which are a large aspect of human behavior. Throughout our day, we often unconsciously mimic the behaviors and mannerisms of others, a phenomenon known as the “chameleon effect” by psychologists. Similarly, we experience emotional contagions from other people’s joy or sadness.

“When it comes to sports fandom, it explains why we’re suckers for watching sports, because it’s almost as if we’re playing the game ourselves. Internally, in our minds, we’re making the moves of the athletes,” Iacoboni said. “When you’re doing that with other people there is a double-whammy here because there is also the fact that when you move… you also find yourself kind of mimicking what the athletes are doing. And you’re not the only one. If you’re watching the same sport with someone else, that person will do the same. And now we’re in the situation in which we’re not only mimicking the athlete on the screen, but also the person in the living room.”

He is applying his research to mental health applications like schizophrenia. Doctors are typically able to treat the symptoms of this disorder, but patients often have difficulty functioning well in their community due to a lack of social cognition. After finding the region of the brain that activates and controls certain mirror neurons, Iacoboni plans to stimulate them to create empathy.

Iacoboni’s research is just one of many biological facets relating to sports fandom being studied. Scientists have shown that testosterone levels rise or lower depending on if your team wins or loses. Psychologists have found that self esteem is also effected by your team’s performance and suggest that a strong identification with a team can provide a sense of community and belonging. Other studies have evaluated the effect of being a sports fan on language skills, driving safety and suicide rates. They found indications for an increase in language capacity, reckless driving in racing fans, and higher rates of suicide following the relocation of a team.

These passionate communities that sports create are far from new. “If you think about it, in ancient civilizations we used to have… religious rituals in which we do things together,” Iacoboni said. “The closest thing to one of these religious rituals… is going to the stadium and cheering for your team and doing that with people.”

He is not the first to make the connection between sports fandom and religion. An article in "Psychology Today" discussed this very topic, stating, “If ritual may be entertaining, then entertainment, as experienced in a sports stadium, may be ritualistic.”