The Secret Lives of Sports Fans

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If you’re interested in the psychology of fandom, it’s worth taking a look at Eric Simons’ ‘The Secret Lives of Sports Fans‘. Simons is a journalist, author and diehard Cal Golden Bears fan who approaches the subject by trying to understand a number of his own experiences as a fan.

What he calls The Secret Lives would be better titled The Psychological Anatomy – as his journey, taking in academics, scientists, athletes and fans, builds a full and relatively coherent picture of what’s going on below the level of consumption and routine.

Simons looks at and takes apart some of the most extreme feelings of fandom – the euphoria of surprise victory, the gut punch of defeat and the deadening impact of decades of under-performance.

The big take-out is that we genuinely love the teams we support. As though they were people. 

One of the defining characteristics of being in love – as well determined by scientific research – is an expanded sense of self : the inability to differentiate clearly between the self and the loved one. Remember the days?

And as response latency tests demonstrate, it’s the same with teams. That doesn’t mean I don’t know if I’m a football team or a person – but it does mean that I have very blurry edges around many areas of my identity.

If I’m an Arsenal supporter for example, I’m likely to feel warmly about north London, no matter where I live. And red will be a favourite colour even though I’m actually drawn to blues and greens. I’ll probably feel positive about the Spanish, have a soft spot for Albania and much more.

Researchers have also found that it’s easy to recognise many of the psychological biasses we display towards ourselves in our beliefs about our team, and the opposition – the illusion of feeling we are luckier than other people, that we’re more objective in our judgements, that we interpret our own actions more favourably than other people’s and many more.

In the terms of Daniel Kahneman, we invest our trust in our teams and rely on them to guide our cognition.

Scientists now tend to think this is the result of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action. Mirror neurons are now believed to drive much social behaviour, equipping us to empathise, learn from others and connect to other people – build rapport, to use the language of NLP.  

According to Marco Iacoboni, author of ‘Mirroring People’ ‘It seems as if our brain is built for mirroring, and that only through mirroring – through the simulation in our brain of the felt experience of other minds, do we deeply understand what other people are feeling’.

Marco Iacoboni

When we fall in love they work overtime, enabling us to ‘take in’ the object of our affections in great detail, finish each others’ …sandwiches, you know the line. There’s also evidence that we mirror ‘in group’ members more than ‘out group’ members and as we watch a match on TV, our mirror neurons single out our own team for empathic support.

But as Simons shows, it goes much deeper than empathy. Sian Beilock, a cogntive neuroscientist at the University of Chicago (and author of ‘Choke : What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to’) found that experience in a sport (or other activity for that matter) changes the actual way that language is processed in the brain. For someone who’s never played hockey before, the sentence ‘he shot the puck’ goes straight to the language centre. For a hockey player, it’s sent to the language centre and in parallel to the motor cortex. The more hockey you play, the more you watch, the more pronounced the response. In other words, the more language is translated, literally, into action in your brain. 

Our sense of identification is so strong that our hormones respond as though we are part of the team. The psychology of fandom means that fan testosterone reflects the testosterone of playing, especially the aggressive testosterone high of victory. All of this we of course know from experience – but Secret Lives is fascinating because it establishes the scientific parameters of fandom’s biological impact on our bodies.

Rick Grieve, a clinical psychologist at Western Kentucky’s university surveyed undergraduates to understand how much they identified with different areas of their life : religion, sports, school activity, employment, social activity and community activity.

Sport, along with employment and social activity, came top. But you’ll likely move house, change job, change partners, heck you can even change gender – before you change your team. And the more unstable the general living conditions and macro environment, the stronger the sense of affiliation. Understandably high, but remarkably so, given the historically low status of sport compared to say, religion.

The psychology of fandom also shares something with addiction. Fandom clearly doesn’t generally impact people’s ability to function in society. But as with addiction, the drive or urge is out of synch with the internal circuits of reward, memory and control. Reward is linked across all addictions to dopamine release. Addicts experience a lack of control which allows the memory of the high to drive behaviour in search of fresh reward. 

But it’s seeking the reward, rather than the pleasure the reward produces, that catches you. If you interview people who are addicted to a whole range of different things, you’ll often hear: I don’t feel pleasure in the thing in itself, I just experience an overwhelming drive to satisfy my need. 

Wolfram Schulz is a Cambridge neurophysiologist and pioneer in probabilistic rewards : he studies amongst other things the relationship between reward, specifically dopamine release, and expectation. Schultz believes that our brains map out a probability distribution for every reward we might get and then release more or less dopamine depending on how predicted the reward was. The less expected, the greater the dopamine hit.

So, according to Schulz, we manage our own internal book based on the repeated experience of winning and losing. The big win, following a series of losses, is so unexpected that it leads to euphoria – a massive dopamine rush. In other words,  the algorithm of our reward system favours the unpredictability of sport. 

BF Skinner is considered the father of behavioural psychology. His experiments convinced him that most behaviour is based on habit and the incentive of reward, or reinforcement. Once the reward disappears, the acquired behaviour slowly loses its grip and the habit decays.

But Skinner found that very occasional reward was enough to slow down the decay, if not indefinitely, at least for a very very long time. Periodic reward, according to Simons, can persuade pigeons to maintain learned behaviour up to 10,000 times. For Spurs fans, this can be even longer. Even the remotest prospect of success keeps us dangling. 


Simons concludes that for most people, fandom is actually less about winning and more about surrender – in the sense of surrendering to hormonal and neurological responses. The lure of victory is strong, but it’s ultimately less about team performance and more about the community. The team of course is the symbolic centre, but it’s the ability to let go of life’s complexities and experience a sense of connection with people who are in every other respect total strangers that represents the transcending psychological magic of fandom.

The book’s great. Simons looks at each chapter largely through the experiences of himself and fans of different teams, usually American, with the exception of the Bay Area Gooners, and weaves his story through events, teams and interviews with athletes, fans and academics.

Implications for sponsorship

So what, if any, are the implications for sponsorship from this deep dive into the psychology of fandom?

Well first off, the book is awash with creative insights – around the idea of love, what the very hope of victory means for us, the depth of identification beyond fanatical caricature and much more. The book is a treasure trove in that sense.

Secondly, it feels there’s something important around the transcending value of being a fan and the sense of connection. We see a lot of fans now in sponsorship creative – it’s far from a new thing – but Secret Lives suggests there’s a dimension which is not so common : the broad sense of community within a fanbase. We’re all familiar with the experience of being a small part of a very large group again, but from a comms and activation perspective, how do we lean into it? This is especially relevant when we talk about encouraging sustainable behaviours in fans – because  the sense of community, if we can harness it, is hugely powerful. 

And one of the largest implications, one where most agencies go automatically but which many big brands, including the likes of Coca-Cola, still don’t have their head around, comes logically from mirror neurons : you only connect to people. We all know you don’t empathise with a league or sports federation or an event. Ambassadors don’t just provide a voice and a face, they make the sponsor relatable,

We’re built to relate to people, not things.