Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sports Fans Self-Serving Bias

Why are sports fans so crazy? Why do we act in ways that we know are irrational, illogical, and that will cause us emotional suffering, but we continue to submit ourselves to it? HOW can sports have such a profound impact on our thoughts and behavior?

Sports fans feel emotional connections to the team they root for with varying intensity. A fan may view the team as an extension of their own identity and attach their self-concept to that of the team. Team success result in a positive self-concept and team failures result in a diminished self-concept. The bigger the fan (aka the more that they identify with the sports team), the bigger the emotional investment and the more they feel “at one” with the team. Sound familiar? One social-psychological theory that examines some of the extreme, irrational types of behavior associated with cheering for your sports team is called the self-serving bias.

The self-serving bias is pretty basic: an individual attributes their own perceived success to their internal factors (hard work, intelligence, skill) but tend to attribute their perceived failures to external factors (environment, bad luck, things out of their control).

Because a fan that highly identifies with their sports team views themselves in relation to their team, the same self-serving bias is applied. Ergo, I attribute my teams success to internal factors (we are more skilled, played better, worked harder, have better team chemistry, superior coaching, etc.) while attributing my teams failures to external factors (biased referees, dirty play by other team, the opposing goalie stole the game, we had players injured, etc.).

When the team that you highly identify yourself with is successful, you feel good about yourself and that carries over into your total overall mood. When your team is not successful, however, some have trouble coping, especially if they identify so strongly with their team that their self-esteem is seriously damaged by a loss. This happens more often than you'd think.

In fact, your team doesn't even have to necessarily fail in order for you to become overly defensive and take it personally. If someone criticizes your team, it is threatening to your own self-concept, so you are compelled to maintain a positive self-image by defending your team.

Say the Bruins and Team X have an emotionally charged, meaningful game. The Bruins win, but you hear fans of Team X demoralizing your teams success because they are applying their own self-serving bias. Team X's fan, for example, is attributing his team's loss to situational factors: Bruins got all the lucky bounces, the referees showed favoritism by calling Team X for more penalties, or Team X's best players were out with injury.

You probably feel differently. The Bruins probably won, in your mind, due to internal factors, and you want to point this out to your opponent: the Bruins created their own opportunities rather than just getting lucky bounces; the referees did not favor the Bruins, the Bruins simply did not do anything to require being penalized for, or perhaps you feel both teams were penalized equally, or even that Team X got away with more penalties than they realize; and of course, the "ifs" create the endless arguments. "If" your best player wasn't injured, we'd still beat you, and vice versa. The possibilities for counterarguments are endless, and sometimes many are legitimate. In the end, the outcome of any situation is probably a combination of both internal and external factors, but we choose what we want to see because of how it will impact our self-concept.

Identifying so strongly with a team and aligning it with ones own self-concept also means feeling as if the fan knows the players on the team on a personal level. Therefore, the team members’ actions both inside and outside the sporting arena elicit the of self-serving bias.

When Brad Marchand was suspended for 5 games earlier this season for clipping, the range of reactions from fans all over the NHL was interesting. Fans not emotionally invested in the Bruins tended to agree with Shanahan's decision. They attributed the Bruins negative situation as internal: Marchand had a reputation as a dirty player, the intensity of the game resulted in overly aggressive acts from both teams, and the animosity that carried over from the Cup finals last year impaired Marchand's ability to control himself.

Bruins fans and even Bruins management and coaches disagreed. The perceived failure in this situation (being suspended) was largely due to external factors: Marchand needed to do whatever was necessary to defend himself, he felt threatened in that situation, the referees had been calling that game unfairly, and the so-called clipping committed by Marchand was exactly the same as hits the Canucks previously laid on the Bruins the previous year, and those hits had been fine.

To many Bruins fans, it seemed like the league was out to get the Bruins at this point, having suspended Lucic for 1 game just to send a message, even though Shanahan admitted that it wasn't a particularly egregious hit. The Canucks rallied for a suspension as well, and their whining paid off. The suspension reflected an increasing trend of inconsistent and confusing punishments by Shanahan.

That was the general feeling back when this happened in January. Clearly, aspects of the self-serving bias are at play here, clouding judgement. To admit that Marchand perhaps had been purposely trying to take out Salo's knees when he clipped him (which I still don't think is true) would admit that one of our best, most beloved players, was a dirty player. And that is just as bad as being a bad player. And to let yourself think that - let alone others think it - is a huge blow to one's self-esteem.

The Canucks winning that game seemed like a huge deal at the time. They chalked it up to just being the superior team and playing a cleaner game than the Bruins did, while the Bruins saw it as an extremely unbalanced game from the officials, who had ejected Milan Lucic early in the game for something he had not done wrong at all, and the penalty was later rescinded after the game (too late, obviously). To cope with a nagging loss like that, it was easy to cling onto the reminder that we had beat them in the finals, when it mattered. To cope with the nagging memory of losing to the Bruins in the finals, the Canucks clung onto the reminder that they had won the most recent match-up. Or something like that.

I could go on and on with examples of the self-serving bias, but I hope you get the idea. Sometimes, the reflex when someone insults your team and therefore insults you is irrational beyond belief, but it is enough to preserve your self-concept...the best you can, anyway.

The stronger a fan identifies and attaches themselves to a team, the more emotional the reactions will be. When someone insults the Bruins, it's like they're insulting me personally. I, of course, consider myself to be obscenely high in my identification with the Bruins; the role they play in shaping my identity and self-concept has been a lifelong process that I cannot really distinguish from other aspects of life.

And that is just one of my attempts at examining why we as sports fans act so ridiculously irrational and are so emotionally dominated by sports teams. The idea of "sports team identification" will come up again, as it is generally used in studies that examine sports fans behavior to varying degree. Next up, aggression from sports fans - in relation to verbal and physical aggression, fan dysfunction, group think, and how it culminates into experiences in arenas and riots in the streets.

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