The Science Behind Why We Watch Sports

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If you’re a sports fan, you probably have trouble answering when a non-fan asks why you like watching sports. It’s entertaining, sure, but why is it entertaining? Why do you get so wrapped up in a game in which the outcome, at best, only has a pretty good shot at going your team’s way? Turns out an array of scientific disciplines — psychology, physiology, cognitive science — have offered answers. Check out what the research has to say.

A Boost to Our Psychological Health

In the early ‘90s, Nyla R. Branscombe and Daniel L. Wann — both researchers at the University of Kansas — found that “strong identification with a specific sports team provides a buffer from feelings of depression and alienation, and at the same time, fosters feelings of belongingness and self worth.” In order to reach this conclusion, Branscombe and Wann performed survey-based studies involving University of Kansas undergraduates.

The first study found that those who strongly identified with the school’s men’s varsity basketball team were more likely to have high self-esteem and less likely to experience depression. The second study achieved similar results: the strongly identified were more likely to experience positive feelings and less likely to experience negative feelings. Additionally, strong identification with the team led to a lower “degree of perceived alienation from others.”

Maybe we should all watch a little more basketball?

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A Testosterone-Fueled Feeling of Dominance

A few years after the University of Kansas study, researchers at the University of Utah and Georgia State University studied testosterone levels of World Cup spectators (26 male fans between the ages of 21 and 40, to be precise). Saliva samples collected before and after the Brazil/Italy match revealed higher testosterone levels in fans of the winning team (Brazil) and lower levels in fans of the losing team (Italy).

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What’s the effect of increased testosterone levels? At least for men, it’s an increased feeling of dominance. According to Psychology Today, “the available evidence… is supportive of the link between [testosterone] and dominance.”

The Brain’s Belief That We’re in the Game

According to research cited by Grantland, “about one-fifth of the neurons that fire in the premotor cortex when we perform an action (say, kicking a ball) also fire at the sight of somebody else performing that action.”  These special neurons are called mirror neurons, and they allow us to “instantaneously understand [an] action, its goal, and even the emotions associated with it, without having to do any inferential thinking about it.” Unsurprisingly, they play a big role in sports spectatorship.

A 2008 study at the University of Rome looked into the behavior of mirror neurons while viewers watched videos of basketball players attempting free throws. Study participants were divided into 3 groups: novice viewers, expert viewers, and professional athletes. As noted in the Grantland piece, the motor systems of participants across all three groups perked up. However, novices’ systems perked up in a general way, while “both players and expert watchers showed activity of the specific motor areas involved in shot-taking.” The professionals differentiated themselves further — even their hand muscles perked up while watching the free throw shooters.

This may suggest that our brains aren’t just watching sports — they’re trying to play.

Science behind sports infographic

Next time somebody asks you why you watch sports, you’ll finally have an answer — its’s science.

Max Branson

Author Max Branson

Max is a Senior Content Editor at Killer. He comes from Michigan, a very pleasant peninsula. He spends his free time reading and writing.

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