U Mad, BRA? Why we let sports-related anger get the best of us

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It’s a bit of an understatement to say that there are some people across the globe who take their soccer seriously.  This World Cup has given us more than enough examples of fan taking things to a new level.

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Um….

All joking aside, things have gotten serious in the last few days with threats, violence, and riots.

Let’s start with Juan Zuniga, the Colombian player who injured Brazilian star-player, Neymar.  Even before the 7-1 loss to Germany, Zuniga was getting death threats from Brazilian fans.  In fact, the Colombian Soccer Federation has had to provide him with additional security.

Meanwhile, Brazil broke out into chaos after the loss with fights among fans and riots in multiple locations.  In fact, 12 buses in Sao Paulo were set on fire by angry Brazilian fans after the loss.
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Likewise, Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, is taking considerable flack for the loss and some believe this will lead to her losing her next election.

Make no mistake about it; this isn’t just one soccer-obsessed country overreacting to the result of a game.  We see this sort of anger elsewhere as well.  The South Korean team was pelted with toffee by angry fans when they returned home and English fans set fire to an Italian flag in response to a loss.

So why does all this happen?  Why to people find them themselves getting too riled up over sports?  After all, it’s only a game, right?

Well, as it turns out, there are several basic psychological phenomena that make anger a likely reaction to disappointing outcomes in sports.

Basking in Reflected Glory: One concept, originally described by Robert Cialdini and relevant to sports viewership, is the tendency of people to bask in the reflected glory (BIRG) of successful others.  You often hear this in the language they use to discuss their favorite team.  Fans respond to victory by saying “we” won, “we” played great, and who do “we” play next.  Even though they themselves have done nothing concrete to have earned the victory, they still see themselves as part of the team and, therefore, partially responsible for the victory.  The tendency to BIRG is even more likely in a county like Brazil that receives so much of its esteem from soccer.

Tension: Once you acknowledge that fans care about the outcome because they identify with the team (i.e., they BIRG), it’s easy to understand the tension that accompanies viewing a sporting event.  This becomes even more true as the stakes get higher.  The more important the game, the greater the tension and, as was discussed under Anger Basics, people experience greater anger in response to negative events if they are already feeling tense or on edge.

Elevated Status and Meaning: It is not uncommon to hear fans describe sporting events as hugely important or even monumental occasions, elevating the status and meaning of the events well beyond their actual implications.  Attaching so much importance to an event will certainly lead to frustration and anger when there is an undesired outcome.  In other words, if someone thinks that watching their team win will be the best thing that ever happened to them, watching them lose will probably feel like the worst thing that has ever happened to them.  It certainly doesn’t help that the Brazilian press has been using words like “catastrophic” and “a historic humiliation” to describe the loss.

Perceptions of Unfairness: It’s easy to find controversy or some reason why the outcome was not fair or deserved. Ambiguous calls by officials, poor play by a player, or poor coaching all fall into the category of reasons why a team “should” have won and otherwise “would” have won.  It all feeds into the feeling that the desired outcome was taken from the fan and gives the fan a specific target to be angry with (e.g., coach, referees). In this case, it’s easy for fans to look at Neymar’s injury as the primary (and unfair) reason for the loss.  Hence, it’s easy to target Zuniga as the offending party.

Secondary Gain: Finally, for some, the outcome of the game has actual consequences.  Typically, these consequences are manufactured by the person ahead of time through gambling, fantasy sports, or even just through banter with a friend who supports the opposition (i.e., “smack talk”).  For such people, the outcome has very real financial or social implications and it is easy to have an emotional reaction to the idea of lost money or damaged pride.

The good news is that no one is doomed to feel angry every time his or her team loses.  There are some fairly simple steps that can be taken to help decrease unwanted feelings of anger.

  1. Keep it in Perspective: It is important, not just during the game but in the time leading up to it, to remember the real implications of things not going the way you want them to.  It may be easier said than done but try to keep in mind what it will really mean if your team loses or wins (i.e., is this really “catastrophic”).
  2. Awareness and Relaxation: Being aware of feelings of tension and anger in the moment and introducing relaxation approaches can be a valuable way to decrease unwanted anger.  Useful relaxation approaches can include deep breathing, counting, progressive muscle relaxing and others.
  3. Limit the Banter: Friendly banter can become unfriendly in a hurry so it’s a good idea to remember not to dish out any more than you can take.  Adding damaged pride to a loss only makes it worse and there’s a good chance that the targets of your excessive smack talk will come back at you when you are down.
  4. Avoidance: Ultimately, it might make sense for people to consider whether or not they want to invite something into their life that makes them so angry.  Watching sports is a choice, even for people who are really passionate about them, and you can choose not to watch if it isn’t healthy for you or the people around you.

By Ryan C. Martin

Note: This is update to a 2011 post, The Inciting World of Sports