The pleasure and pain of our brains and sports

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In their new book "This is Your Brain on Sports," L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers challenge conventional wisdom, uncover the hidden influences in sports and use reams of data to investigate questions that tug at every fan. Why are rivalries so important? Why are quarterbacks so damn good looking? (Or are they?) What's the appeal of the t-shirt cannon? Through the prism of behavioral economics, neuroscience and psychology, they reveal the hidden influences and surprising cues that inspire and derail us -- on the field and in the stands -- and by extension, in corporate board rooms, office settings and our daily lives. In the following excerpt, the authors -- one a sports journalist, the other a Tufts psychology professor -- consider why the agony of enemy's loss feels as good as the thrill of our team's victory.

When the Los Angeles Dodgers opened the 2011 baseball season by hosting San Francisco, they deployed 457 security personnel at the ballpark to avoid hostilities. That didn't stop a millionaire from chartering a plane to fly over Dodger Stadium displaying the message DODGERS STILL SUCK, FROM SF CHAMP FANS. And it didn't prevent Bryan Stow, a Giants fan and paramedic from Santa Cruz, from being beaten to within an inch of his life in the parking lot after the game. His crime? Allegedly he told a gloating L.A. fan to pipe down, adding, "I'd rather eat my own feces than a Dodger Dog." He ended up in a coma and suffered permanent brain damage.

That same year, after the Philadelphia Flyers lost 3-2 to the New York Rangers in the Winter Classic, a pack of Flyers fans repaired to Geno's, a popular cheesesteak shack in South Philly. Standing in line, a hometown fan wearing a Claude Giroux jersey exchanged trash talk with a Rangers fan wearing Ryan Callahan's jersey. The Rangers fan, Neal Auricchio, an off-duty policeman and an Iraq War veteran from Woodbridge, New Jersey, held up his hands and flashed the universal let's-all-just-calm-down sign. The Flyers fan was having none of that. Dennis Veteri was a 32-year-old Philadelphian with a criminal record so long it could be serialized. This literal Broad Street Bully knocked out Auricchio with a punch to the face. Auricchio suffered a concussion and lacerations that required facial reconstructive surgery. Veteri ended up with a litany of assault charges.

We see this sort of thing before, during and after games and matches. The strange phenomenon of the bleacher brawl has become as much a part of the sports tableau as the Kiss-Cam and that catchy White Stripes song. There are plenty of reasons why. Fans get a rush watching others compete -- and sometimes fight -- so they leave the arena "all jacked up," girded for battle of their own. As always, alcohol clouds judgment, kills inhibition, and fuels conflict. So it's easy to chalk up these worst-case scenarios to toxic combinations of arousal, booze, and miscreant personalities. More sobering, though, is the conclusion that these notorious episodes are only extreme examples of a more universal tendency: Sports fandom begets a tribal mentality.

You probably don't need research studies (or us) to convince you that the allegiance of sports fans runs deep. But just how deep is fascinating. The experience of rooting for your favorite team can actually be captured at a neural level. In 2010, Mina Cikara (then a Princeton postdoctoral researcher, now a Harvard professor) joined two other colleagues to scan the brains of Yankees and Red Sox fans as they viewed a series of baseball game updates. Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI -- in effect, a video of brain activity -- the researchers monitored changes in blood flow to different regions of the brain in real time. What they found was extraordinary.

When fans saw highlights of their own team doing well -- getting a big out, stealing a base, hitting a homer -- activity increased in a region called the ventral striatum, often referred to as the pleasure center of the brain. Self-reports of how much pleasure each fan experienced based on the game results followed a similar pattern. But what happened to fans when their team failed? The researchers found greater activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the region of the brain associated with emotional responses to pain -- whether our own or the witnessed pain of a loved one. Here, though, the spike was triggered by mere news of a batter striking out or a pitcher walking the bases loaded. Even though the baseball fans weren't observing physical pain, each had a neurological experience akin to that of watching his spouse suffer an intense headache or break a bone.

Even more striking was how the fans responded to the performance of their rivals. According to both the fMRI and participants' self-reports, when a Red Sox player committed an error, Yankees fans experienced a surge of joy. When a Yankee was thrown out trying to steal second, Red Sox fans felt pleasure. And they did so to the same degree as when they witnessed the positive plays of their own team: Seeing a rival lose was just as gratifying as seeing their team win. It was schadenfreude (extracting pleasure from someone else's misfortune) distilled to its neural essence.

As a control, the researchers showed the same fans miscues and errors committed by players on non-rival teams, such as the Blue Jays and Orioles. When the participants saw the outcomes of these plays, they were indifferent. In other words, only when the other team was their big rival did watching its slip-ups create just as powerful an emotion as seeing their favorite team succeed. For that matter, watching a rival succeed proved even more painful than their own team's failure, as any fan who has been trapped in enemy territory when an archrival wins a title can attest.

But back to the bleacher brawl. The fMRI study looked at more than just brain activity and fans' perceptions. After presenting the series of highlights, researchers also asked respondents to assess the level of aggression they felt toward their archrival. Most troubling to Cikara and her colleagues: Data indicated that those fans whose brains showed the greatest pleasure response to a rival player's failure were also the ones who reported harboring the most aggressive tendencies. If we can take them at their word, these are the fans most likely to pour beer on or curse at an opposing fan. "The failures . . . of a rival out-group member may give ... a feeling that may motivate harming rivals," the researchers suggest. Applying this idea beyond the world of sports fandom to more global conflicts, the researchers draw grim conclusions about rival tribes' abilities to resolve tension and refrain from violence. "A potent predictor of schadenfreude," they explain in a follow-up study, "is envy."

Who among us can't relate? When the classmate next to us in class fails the exam, we're unaffected. If the straight-A student, whom we may view as an annoyance and a rival, fails the same test, we're much more likely to get that private jolt of glee. Which gives us more guilty pleasure, seeing a common thief arrested or a multimillionaire charged with insider trading? When people seem to "deserve" their misfortune, or when we feel resentment or envy, empathy falls by the wayside and a dark side of human nature rears its head.

There are unsettling truths underlying the whimsical scarlet-and-gray T-shirt that reads, My two favorite teams are Ohio State and whoever is playing Michigan (or, for that matter, the maize-and-blue Ohowihateohiostate bumper sticker):

  • Many of us watch sports to root against as much as to root for.

  • The failures of our enemies can be just as enjoyable as our own successes.

  • The more we take pleasure in the missteps of our rivals, the more susceptible we may be to the type of harassment and even violence detailed earlier.

Think back to Dennis Veteri, the fan at the Philly cheesesteak joint who fancied himself an amateur hockey goon. Research suggests that setbacks for the Flyers in the game earlier that afternoon -- taking a bad penalty; giving up a goal -- would have triggered activity in regions of his brain that are normally activated by personal pain. Such pain would only be exacerbated by the fact that it was inflicted by particularly hated rivals, the Rangers, in a tight 3-2 game with the outcome in the balance until the final horn. And, unfortunately, one "effective" way of replacing this distress with pleasure would have been to see misfortune inflicted upon the hated rivals -- or at least someone who roots for them.

Just a couple miles from where Veteri's brutal encounter with Neal Auricchio occurred, law enforcement once opened what it called Eagles Court in the intestines of Veterans Stadium. It was such a foregone conclusion that Eagles fans would turn unruly and violent during NFL games that it made sense for the city to build a court -- complete with judge and holding cell -- inside the venue. Given the violence that persists in the stands during games (and afterward in parking lots), some municipalities might be wise to resurrect the idea. And add extra staff when the home team plays a heated rival.