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The Psychology of Winning

2010 February 8
by Skip Sauer

You can put me in the skeptic’s camp when it comes to claims that a winning team boosts productivity, wages, and the local economy. But evidence matters, so I have an open mind, even a cautiously optimistic one, in the wake of the victory by the New Orleans Saints in yesterday’s Super Bowl. Hooray!!

Prior to the Super Bowl, there were a number of stories in the press on this topic. At Newsweek, Molly O’Toole links to several of them. Even better, she cites the academic literature on the economic and psychological impact of winning, including the recent Davis and End paper that Brian discussed here at TSE a few days ago. It’s the psychological and medical evidence that particularly intrigues me:

Prof. Len Zaichkowsky of the sports-psychology program at Boston University School of Medicine and School of Education compares the “eustress,” or good stress characteristics, of spectating to the stress-relieving benefits associated with sexual activity. The heart rate increases in a moderate, controlled way, which improves cardiovascular strength, and the accompanying endorphins highly correlate with longevity and the absence of disease. Just cheering for your team is enough to provide a positive rush, but a victory produces an even stronger boost.

A winning team is also able to boost the collective confidence of its fans, which in turn creates tangible results, says Indiana University psychology professor Edward Hirt. (That the study comes from Colts country makes no difference.) In his study of Big Ten basketball, Hirt found that many fans identify so strongly with their teams that victory and defeat become personal. On a range of tests, fans basking in their team’s reflected glory after a win felt more optimistic about their own abilities, from mastering mental puzzles to resisting romantic rejection.

This sense of confidence and camaraderie has far-reaching benefits. “In this country, we can’t even agree on a bill in Congress,” says Dr. Richard Lustberg, founder of the Web site Psychology of Sports. “But the city of New Orleans is united around the Saints—the tremendous degrees of euphoria, connectedness, this provides, all the psychological benefits … you can’t underestimate those kinds of connections.”

Those benefits include a noticeable boost in the city’s health. Zaichkowsky calls this phenomenon of collective feelings associated with a team “community mood states.” He first observed the trend in anecdotal evidence in Boston, where patients’ health seemed to improve in hospitals when the Red Sox were having a successful season. According to Zaichkowsky, worldwide observations of this occurrence have carried it well beyond the anecdotal; measurements of mood fluctuations based on fans’ own reports show lower rates of distress and depression for whole groups with the success of their favorite team. The powerful impact that sports teams can have on the mood of entire cities says that for our society, it’s more than “just a game.”

Bill Plaschke’s piece on the subject is also interesting. Plaschke extends this line of thought in an entertaining way to the entire nation. With the exception of Indianapolis, of course, and they’ll soon get over it.

Enough of the celebrating. For the sake of these academic studies and well-wishers like me, it’s time for New Orleans to roll up its sleeves and get to work!

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