Why You're Still A Fan, Despite All The Crap: A Look Inside Your BrainS

Adapted from The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession.

Sports, as is established here, and here and here and here and here and here and here, are just the fucking worst.

Forget why would you raise your kid to be a Leafs fan, why would you raise your kid to be any kind of fan at all? Sports don’t just frustrate and disappoint: On a reflexive, fundamental level the entire enterprise challenges your brain to work hard to keep you functioning like a non-sociopath. Research shows that competition, even vicariously, yanks your testosterone levels around without you having a thing you can do about it. Sports lead you to shut off neurons in your brain that want you to behave empathically. It causes you to perceive the world in terms of allies and enemies. It creates blind spots that lead you to defensiveness in the face of overwhelming reality. Our self-control battles away gamely with all of this, but none of it even happens if you don’t care first. The Vancouver riots, Bryan Stow, the guy who poisoned trees, Penn State—sports doesn’t instigate any of that if you walk away at the beginning.

So why talk to the kid about recreational Maple Leafs?

Because as always seems to be the case, wherever you find the worst of human nature you find a lot more people embodying the best. Because if you care, you also make it matter, and we're deeply motivated to seek things that matter. Sports offer you meaning—you don’t have to seek or even acknowledge this for it to be true—and as one sports fan psychologist, Murray State’s Daniel Wann likes to say, it’s probably not the worst thing you can do to find it.

Obviously you don’t need to win everything all the time to make it meaningful. Sports are full of minor moments of grace, from Adrian Peterson’s monster season finale to the Golden State Warriors’ cicada-brood-like playoff rebirths. A team can provide an anchoring point for your brain to link the two of you in a fixed spot in the universe. It’s not a trick or an illusion: There are experiments that suggest this is literally your brain expanding its understanding of “me” to include the team. When it does, sports can make you reflexively more loving, more altruistic and more social.

No one’s really looked for this in a sports fan, but there’s every reason to believe that your brain on sports looks like your brain in love. Arthur Aron, a relationship psychologist at SUNY Stonybrook who’s been scanning the brains of loving couples with fMRI for the last decade, says sports fans watching their favorite team—maybe even unrelated to the outcome—would see similar activity in the part of the brain set up to make us feel good for finding rewards in a hostile universe. Just contemplate your team’s logo and you could bathe in a warm release of dopamine comparable, Aron says, to looking at a picture of your spouse or taking cocaine. Because, his research says, those look similar too.

The outcome, and more importantly your expectation of the outcome, do matter. One of the points of the brain’s “dopamine reward system” is to create happy memories for you to chase. You get a reward, you get dopamine, you remember and you want to find it again, whether it’s food, sex, music, or sports victory. Because it’s so particularly useful to remember the rewards you didn’t expect, that’s when the dopamine surges most freely. So you see your team win unexpectedly and it’s like finding Cheez Doodles in the middle of Antarctica. It’s hard to understand the fanatic loyalty of Warriors fans, who’ve stuck with their team through 38 years of title-less, often miserable basketball—why would you saddle a kid with that?—except that the unpredictable nature of those rare playoff appearances means Warriors fans really might have felt more peaks of joy in the last decade than bored-by-success Lakers fans.

We share that reward system with most other mammals. A lot of the reflexes that engage when you’re a sports fan go way down the animal tree, like the mirror neurons that underlie our understanding of action. But nothing makes me appreciate being human more than stories about fish, so here’s a story about how shitty it is to be a fish sports fan. A Portuguese researcher named Rui Oliveira has created a way of getting fish to watch other fish fight while he measures the “spectator’s” testosterone. What he finds in the fish is what endocrinologists find in human fans: Watching sports causes our hormones to change without our apparent control. The fish—and, it seems, probably birds and mammals and pretty much every species that has testosterone and sex—live efficiently in a world they can’t master, their actions governed in part by surges and drops in testosterone that make them belligerent or depressed.

But fish fans can’t love one of the competitors in the fish boxing ring. They get no joy from victory. They feel no sense of solidarity with their finned brothers and sisters. They do not make increased charitable contributions in the name of Team Tilapia. They have all of the downside of watching sports with none of the meaning.

Our meaning comes at the cost of a constant challenge to our self-control not to let the emotion get out of hand, but it’s usually one that self-control wins. Fans cry when their teams lose—for a day and then they move on. For billions of people on Earth, win or lose, sports are like art, music and theater: real emotional drama that satisfies our brains’ evolutionary imperatives.

Our ability to love our teams and to return to them when they fail us, it seems to me, is a big part of what makes us human. It’s why we’re cooler than fish. For us, and us alone, it is better to love and lose than never to love at all.

Eric Simons is the author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession, available now from the Overlook Press. You can find him on Twitter @ericsimons.

Image by Jim Cooke.