Busted Brackets: Therapy For Sports Fanatics

Die-hard fans of Georgetown, Gonzaga and other colleges are feeling down in the dumps after their favored teams lost early in the NCAA basketball tournament. But when do the March Madness blues go too far? Host Michel Martin discusses the psychology of sports fanaticism with professor Don Forsyth of the University of Richmond.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, if you're a fan of folk music, you've probably heard the classic song, "Deportee." It's been covered by artists like Bruce Springsteen and Dolly Parton. Now, a new artist has been bringing new life to the song by uncovering more information about the story behind it. We'll tell you more about that in a few minutes.

But, first, you might be among the millions of college basketball fans gathering their wings and chips and getting ready to settle in for the next round of games in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. And chances are, with this year's surprising results, they are probably many whose brackets are already busted. I'll just keep my pain to myself.

But that made us wonder, why do we care so much? Why is it so hard for some of us when our teams lose or our brackets go down in flames? So we've called Donelson Forsyth. He is a psychologist and he's a professor at the University of Richmond and he's thought about this.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DONELSON FORSYTH: Hello, Michel. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, all right. I'll just admit this, that I was pulling for the Hoyas, the Georgetown Hoyas, and they lost their very first game and - yes - it hurt, but not as much as it seemed to hurt Chris Haines. He's a Georgetown grad living in Washington. He took the train up to Philadelphia to watch the Hoyas take on tiny Florida Gulf Coast University and he says he was at the edge of his seat in the arena until the start of the second half and here it is.

CHRIS HAINES: And then the wheels just came off and it was incredibly painful to watch. The people behind me started cheering for Florida Gulf Coast and then, after the game, you know, you just - you kind of - you want to get out of there as quickly as possible. Get out of the arena, get out of the area and then you don't want to watch the tournament the rest of the weekend when you lose a game like that.

MARTIN: You know, you can still feel the pain, can't you? Can you hear it? Can you hear it in his voice?

FORSYTH: I certainly can. The overcommitted fan and the difficulties of his team loss.

MARTIN: Why do you think...

FORSYTH: That's very difficult.

MARTIN: Why? Why do you think it hurts so much?

FORSYTH: Well, the psychology of fans, the sport itself - it's the same psychology that applies to any group membership. People are drawn to their groups, they insert themselves in the groups and those groups serve very fundamental, interpersonal and psychological needs. So even a team - you're not part of that group. You're not playing on that group. It's true. You're just a spectator of their performance. Still, their outcome is your outcome. You are psychologically a part of that group. And when it fails, you have failed.

MARTIN: Chris says that he talked to one of his good friends who was watching the game at home and he said he even had physical reactions to the game. Let's play that clip.

HAINES: He just wasn't handling it well and transformed from someone who enjoyed the game a lot to someone who just was kind of incapacitated by how anxious he was feeling during the train wreck as everything kind of came off the rails. Watching, he was, like, physically uncomfortable to the point that he had to get up and leave his apartment. And, you know, he said even his wife recognized that there was a marked change in his demeanor. I don't know if she used the word terrifying or concerning or - but it was concerning enough that she noticed it and encouraged him to, you know, leave the TV behind.

MARTIN: Now, I don't know this gentleman, but I do know that, in this area where I live, in the Washington, D.C. area, people say that they notice a marked change in the atmosphere in the local metropolitan area depending on whether the local football team, the Redskins, win or lose. Is that typical?

FORSYTH: Well, sports teams bring us together. They're part of our community and they draw us together and, when they thrive, we thrive. Our community thrives. We feel more connected, but when our teams encounter failure, particularly the devoted fan - then their connection to others is broken. They feel humiliated. They feel sad. Their self-esteem drops.

Researchers - this is Bob Cialdini at Arizona State. He was the first to coin the concept of BIRGing, Basking In Reflected Glory. When your group or your team succeeds, you can bask in the glory of its great success, but when your team fails, you have to cut off its failure somehow. You have to minimize your connection to that failure group and the committed fan - usually, their self is so strongly connected to their group, they can't cut off that reflected failure and so their self-esteem, the affect falls. There's hormonal consequences. A devoted fan watching their team play - you know, their raging hormones, basically - their testosterone levels increase. Oxytocin decreases. Cortisol, a stress-related hormone, tends to increase. We respond very physiologically to our teams' outcomes.

MARTIN: Now, you mentioned testosterone, so I do have to ask. Is this a guy thing?

FORSYTH: Well, women have testosterone, as well, but men have an awful lot more, as it turns out, but both men and women who are devoted sports fans do show changes in their level of testosterone, particularly if they're really into the game, it's a key game, if it's part of the final four.

But, to get back to March Madness, though, you know, I think this is - many of the negative consequences of being a devoted fan are somewhat minimized by the ritual of all those teams playing together. Only the truly devoted and narrowly focused fan can't find another team to support out of those 68 teams as they move on from bracket to bracket. There must be someone else that he's happy has won. Someone.

MARTIN: Well, one thing I wanted to ask is - we've focused a lot on the agony of defeat. Does the ecstasy of winning last as long and is it as powerful?

FORSYTH: Unfortunately, no. The hurt is much greater than the ecstasy of having won, basically.

MARTIN: Why is that?

FORSYTH: So it doesn't last as long. If we win, we're worried about the next win. Very quickly - oh, we won this game, but we have another game to play. If we lose, it's a much more negative experience, particularly for the devoted fan. They have a harder time getting over their failures and it is quite extreme. People have tracked the emotional consequences of being a strong fan and you do find there are negative psychological after-effects of a team failing for the devoted fans.

MARTIN: What would you recommend, Professor? We only have about a minute left. What would you recommend for people whose brackets are totally busted and their emotions are, too, right about now?

FORSYTH: Well, they have to find some salvage. There must be one of - we're in the sweet 16 now, so you know, my bracket - yes - I lost a few, but I still have nine teams, you know, in the sweet 16. I can take confidence in that. And even some of my enemies - I can start to root for them.

MARTIN: Not - just not Duke.

FORSYTH: Ohio State.

MARTIN: Just not Duke.

FORSYTH: Well, let's not push it too far, but - and I went to Florida. I can actually start to think positively about Ohio because they've resurrected my western bracket. If it wasn't for Ohio, I'd have no one in that bracket, so it softens the rivalry. I can become less - well, irrational...

MARTIN: OK.

FORSYTH: ...by at least finding some other team I can root for.

MARTIN: OK. Well, and so who do you have to take it all?

FORSYTH: Oh, the Gators are going to take it all, of course, which is...

MARTIN: Goodbye.

FORSYTH: ...which is good.

MARTIN: I'm hanging up now.

FORSYTH: Research on - everyone in Gainesville will have much more positive mental health if the Gators win.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we look forward to that. Professor Don Forsyth is a psychologist. He's with the University of Richmond and he was kind enough to join us from member station WCVE in Richmond, Virginia.

Thank you so much for joining us.

FORSYTH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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