As college football season heats up, the Wall Street Journal's Ben Cohen investigates the psychological and physiological effects of competitive feelings on both athletes and fans.
Emerging science suggests that rivalries can produce extraordinary outcomes and are best understood through college sports, according to Gavin Kilduff, a New York University management professor who's researched the topic.
The notion that people comport themselves differently in competitive situations dates back years; for example, Cohen cites an 1898 study that found cyclists went faster when other cyclists were around them. However, only in the past ten years have researchers begun to identify the psychology behind rivalries.
What is a rivalry?
"Rivalry is fundamentally related to competition, but it's competition over time," says Mina Cikara, Harvard University psychologist, providing an "opportunity for attitudes and emotions to become more polarized and entrenched."
History, proximity, and similarity of schools add the "oomph" to every rivalry, says Kilduff, and feelings intensify when their records against each other are close. For example, going into last Saturday's match-ups, Auburn University and University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) respectively lead Alabama University and Mississippi State University 18-16 since 1980.
Bolstering support for university athletics
In the Mississippi State locker room, a clock counts down to the yearly Egg Bowl versus rival Ole Miss—and resets right after the game. "Our players see it every day," says coach Dan Mullen.
What are the effects on athletes?
Rivalries both increase athletes' motivation and improve their performances. Examining results of running club races, Kilduff found runners were about 25 seconds faster in 5-kilometer races when going against rivals.
The competition also manifests physically—a 2003 study tested English soccer players' saliva before and after games and practices against various teams. When they played rivals, their testosterone levels spiked.
This reason, Cohen suggests, may be why rival face-offs produce upsets and frequently close games. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of the top 15 betting lines, in 48% of meetings the last 25 years, "double-digit underdogs" stayed within single digits of their football rivals—compared with just 39% of their other games.
On the other hand, writes Cohen, "There is enough scholarly literature about choking under pressure to fill Michigan Stadium."
However, academics caution they are just beginning to understand the ways that rivalries affect people, and whether across industries they could cause unethical decisions, risk taking, or overconfidence.
What about fans?
The intensity extends beyond just players on the field. For a 2011 paper in the journal Psychological Science, researchers had fans of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox watch baseball plays while hooked up to functional magnetic resonance imaging machines that monitored parts of their brains correlated with pleasure.
Not only were fans elated when their teams made good plays, but also when their rivals messed up—even when playing a third team.
"That is what is so fascinating about groups of sports fans in particular," says Cikara, the lead researcher, "People get invested and worked up about events and games over which they have no control."
Another study from the psychologists at University of Kentucky examined "schadenfreude," or happiness stemming from others' misfortune, and "gluckschmerz," unhappiness from others' good fortune.
The researchers looked at Kentucky basketball fans who read news articles about injured Duke University players. Extreme fans felt gluckschmerz when the injures were minor or players recovered, and schadenfrude when Duke's athletes were hurt severely.
As Cohen notes, "fans play an outsize role" in college football rivalries, because many of the players on the field grew up fans themselves. This year, more than half of the players in the Egg Bowl were from the state (Cohen, Wall Street Journal, 11/27).
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