There's a new study claiming heart attacks skyrocket after the Super Bowl. Sounds plausible, but if it's anything like all the other things we "know" happen more on Super Bowl Sunday, take it with a grain of salt, i.e., it's completely bull.
If you repeat a fun fact enough, people start to believe it, even if it's more fun and less fact. We're all aware of the fact that domestic violence numbers shoot up during and after the Super Bowl; it's almost common knowledge at this point. Men get upset over the outcome of the game and take it out on their significant others. Problem is, it's been "common knowledge" for 18 years, even though it was thoroughly debunked just days after the hoax first started.
This was a big deal back in 1993, to the point where CBS and the AP labeled it a "Day of Dread" for women. A press conference was held before the game to warn women to remove themselves from dangerous situations. Activists prevailed upon NBC to air a public service announcement during the game. Of course, this was false. Ken Ringle of the Washington Post used his column in January of that year to look at, you know, actual statistics. They don't back up any of the claims, and indeed academics quoted in the original hoax said their statements were taken out of context or just made up completely.
Same thing with the oft-quoted statistic that more than half of all avocados purchased in this country are eaten on Super Bowl Sunday. On the surface it makes sense, as we unfailingly eat guacamole at Super Bowl parties, and sparingly the rest of the year. Obviously, that's an exaggeration: the actual figure for Sunday sales is more like three percent.
Another exaggeration is that everyone flushes their toilet at once during halftime or after the game, overwhelming sewage systems. Snopes, which has a great takedown of all these myths, notes that this legend dates back to the radio days, when audiences apparently couldn't wait the 15 minutes of Amos 'n' Andy to poop. It's simply not true.
So what to make of this latest study, which holds that the stress and disappointment of losing gives fans heart attacks at a higher rate than normal. I can't say exactly how this one will be debunked — you statisticians can handle that — but I can see a couple huge flaws. The survey data comes from precisely two Super Bowls, and of those, only one of them fits the hypothesis. The data also tracks cause-of-death records, not individuals, so there's no proof that the dead were even football fans.
The more intriguing questions are why do studies keep claiming links between the Super Bowl and statistic spikes, and why do we keep believing them? It's easy to see why advocacy groups would put these spurious studies out there: link something to the Super Bowl, when everybody's talking about the Super Bowl, and it's bound to get traction. Women's groups want to draw attention to domestic violence. The Avacado Board wants to draw attention to guacamole. It's just good business.
Of course, we believe because we want to believe. We know the Super Bowl is the most important event of the year, and we want the statistics to back it up. When we gather at friends' houses, we know tens of millions are watching with us, flushing their toilets with us, hitting women with us. We want to be a part of something bigger. Give us a semi-plausible study that belongs on a Snapple cap, and we'll eat it up like ten million pounds of guacamole.