Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Us, We and Them: The Psychology of Support

hockey fans
Chris Jones, a writer for and Esquire magazine, recently wrote a piece on sports fans' use of the word "we" when describing their favourite team. As in "Hey, we won last night!" or "I'm really glad we didn't blow that lead last night" or "Man, I'm glad we fired that deadbeat Mike Milbury."

Jones is pretty adamant in his stance on the issue: "Here's the deal: If you don't play for, or you are not an employee of, the team in question, 'we' is not the pronoun you're looking for. 'They' is the word you want." - via

It's a concept that I endorse. It's weird to associate yourself so personally with a team that you have no actual association with other than a one-way emotional bond. You didn't have any influence on the outcome of the game, so you can't say "we".

But it isn't quite so simple. There's actually science behind fans' use of "we".

In a pioneering piece of psychology research from the mid-1970s, Robert Cialdini, a professor at Arizona State University, attempted to understand the "we" phenomenon in sports.

Researchers contacted participants during the 1974 university football season and asked if they would be willing to answer questions for a survey on students' knowledge of campus events.

After six questions testing the participant's knowledge of campus events the experimenter told the student they had either done well on the test or had done poorly. It didn't matter how they actually did, experimenters just randomly assigned the participants to one of these two conditions. This served to either reduce or improve the participant's self-esteem.

Students were then asked to describe the outcome of a specific football game - either one that their school had won, or one that their school had lost.

Overall, students were more likely to use "we" after their school had won the game (e.g., "we won last night"); students were also more likely to use "they" after their school lost the game (e.g., "they lost the game in overtime").

By using "we", people are able to publicly associate themselves with a team's successes and effectively bask in their glory. But by using "they", people distance themselves from the team and their failures - don't rub that stink on me.

What's most interesting is that the strength of the findings increased when a participant's self-esteem was experimentally lowered. Students were even more likely to use "we" after their team's win and "they" after their team's loss when they were told they did not do well on the test portion of the interview. The authors found the same result when they lowered self-esteem by reminding the students about a previous loss their team incurred.

If you feel bad you might as well look to some outside source to make yourself feel better.

Theoretically, based on these findings, you would be more likely to hear someone from Detroit say "we" after a Red Wings win (the thinking being they should feel worse about themselves for living in Detroit).

Or if you remind a Vancouver fan that they choked away last year's Stanley Cup and proceeded to destroy their city they might respond with a "Hey! We won last night and we're well on our way to winning the cup this year." You might also just get a simple shrug and a "Well, at least we haven't bit anyone this year."

People want to be judged positively by others and they often try to associate themselves with something positive, like a successful sports team. This is especially true when they already feel bad about themselves. By piggybacking on the success of their team they can feel a sense of belonging and enjoy the warm feelings associated with being a part of something successful. It doesn't matter that they didn't actually participate in that success. The important thing is that they feel connected to it.

The results of Cialdini's study were not as strong for the students who were told they did well on the test portion of the interview. When a person's self-esteem is not threatened there is less of a psychological need to make oneself look good in front of others, so people consequently feel less need to associate themselves with something like a winning team.

For example, it's possible someone rich and successful doesn't feel any threat to their self-esteem, so they don't feel the need to directly associate themselves with their favourite team. That would explain why Larry Tanenbaum doesn't give a shit about the Maple Leafs.

The researchers also found that students were more likely to wear school clothing after the football team won than after the team lost. People want to be seen supporting something that is doing well. Wearing clothing after a loss groups you in with a bunch of losers, which is the reason why people, whether consciously or not, are less likely to visibly show their support after their team loses. Knowing this will make seeing people in Pittsburgh Pirates hats awfully confusing.

So Chris Jones is right. Fans don't score winning goals and they don't give rousing speeches in the dressing room. And in the case of Florida or Long Island, they don't even pay to watch the games. But despite not directly influencing the outcome of a game, a fan's image and self-esteem are on the line every time their team plays a game. And when years of futility beat you down, sometimes that's your only hope for feeling better.


Anonymous said...

Saying "we won" also rolls off the tongue much more easily, I just like saying the words better than "they won". Also saying "they" feels like I'm some fancy-pants who's too good to associate myself with a bunch of ruffian athletes.

I personally don't care if fans want to say "we" if they're committed fans... I mean "we" are the ones indirectly paying their salaries, and without fans, there is no team. If you're investing your time and money in the team, say "we". It's the least you can get from an under-achieving team that otherwise leaves you emotionally barren.

Anonymous said...

I think saying "we won" could also be seen as fans saying "we, as fans, won tonight, because when our team wins, we feel good and that means we win."

Saying "we won" is much easier than saying all that.

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