Updated 13 September 2013

Why do we cheer?

What is it about sports that makes us shrug off our inhibitions, scream at the top of our lungs? Experts say it dates back to our tribal hunter-gatherer ancestors.

What is it about sports that makes us shrug off our inhibitions, scream at the top of our lungs and live or die by the result of a game that we're not actually playing? For as long as there's been sport mania, there have been psychologists trying to find the answer.

Competition among cavemen

The roots of sports-fandom date back thousands of years to our tribal hunter-gatherer ancestors. According to evolutionary psychologists, these tribes formed the basis of our modern-day desire to pledge allegiance to certain groups - or teams. Back then, ties within small groups were essential to survival, as was uniting against other tribes in warfare. 

"Relationships were built on reciprocity, in making sacrifices to help each other," said Liberty Eaton, a psychology lecturer at the University of Cape Town. "But if you met somebody from a different group, you couldn’t be sure that they would help you. They might just take your food and go back to their clan."

Equally as important was a certain "us versus them" mentality that excluded members of other tribe, which in the modern age manifests itself as competitiveness between colleagues, countries and sports teams.

"'Us' were obligated to help each other, but no such obligations applied to 'them,'" Eaton explained. "And once it became a survival mechanism, it got 'hard-wired' into our brains – just the same as the processes that guide mate selection, and responses to threat."

Sports gained popularity centuries later, during agrarian periods, when most people spent their days performing dull manual labor. Distractions such as church and sport became valuable breaks from drudgery, and good opportunities to reinforce social ties.

"In previous eras when travel and mobility was relatively low, most people's lives were really quite dull and parochial," said John Williams, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Leicester in England. "Supporting a sports club offered opportunities for a connection with the national stage, as well as opportunities for shared emotional highs (and lows) in largely unexciting societies."

Theories for cheering

Today, social scientists have a number explanations for why we still put up with 70 000-person lines just to catch a glimpse of our sports heroes.

  • Sport gives us something to be a part of. The idea behind that is Optimal Distinctiveness Theory, which makes us want to feel as though we belong to a unique and cohesive group. The problem, according to Eaton, is that teams are fairly similar to each other. Therefore, "fans have to work hard to make the teams appear different and unique, hence emphasis on team colours, mascots and songs."
  • Sport makes us less afraid of death. According to Terror Management Theory, we are frightened at the prospect of our own mortality and try to handle it by associating with a group, institution or culture that will live on after we're gone. "Being part of something 'bigger than me' is reassuring," Eaton said. "Identifying with a team that has a history and which looks as if it has a long future is thus appealing."
  • Sport let us revel in someone else's success. A theory called "Basking in Reflected Glory" means people can often boost their own self-esteem by living vicariously through others' successes. "Thus if your team performs well, you as a fan of that team can bask in their success, due to the allegiance and connection you have with the team ("we won")," said Dr Ed Hirt, a professor of psychology at Indiana University.
  • They've sold us on it. Eaton also thinks that our fondness for certain sports doesn't just come from our brains - it's the attention surrounding big events like the World Cup that gets us so worked up. "After all," she explained, "people are not obsessed with the International Chess Championships simply because it doesn’t have the same media exposure. People like any sort of festival, and the bigger the party, the more excited some people will get about it."

Through good times and bad

Super-fans aren't always basking in their teams' glory, however. Teams lose, players get sold to other teams and goalies fumble epically on occasion. Eaton says there's a reason why we stick by our teams even when times get bad.

Social identity theory suggests that once we find a group, we do our best to make that group look good so that we can boost our own self-esteem. So even if a team loses (or if there's a draw), fans will search for a way to compare their team favourably against the others.

"We may not score the most goals, but we play a cleaner game than the others," Eaton said. "Or: We have the best fan spirit, we have the most colourful players, and so on."

In fact, part of the appeal of sports teams is their permanence. Williams says people stick it out with their favorite sports teams because they're one of the few things in life that we can count on for consistency. 

"Sport may offer a kind of continuity when most things seem to be in flux and out of personal control," he said. "Your job, home, family and country might all change, but your club or national affiliation via football offers an important personal anchor."

According to Hirt, sports can help us transcend the isolation we feel in other parts of our lives by connecting us, if only for 90 minutes, with countless other like-minded fans. "I think fanship, like other social bonds we have with others through church, military service, and social groups serves an important function in satisfying our need to belong." 

Sources: Liberty Eaton, a psychology lecturer at the University of Cape Town; John Williams, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Leicester in England; Dr. Ed Hirt, a professor of psychology at Indiana University.

(Olga Khazan, Health24, updated August 2012)

(Picture: springbok fans from Shutterstock)





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