Resident Expert: Psychology and Fandom

NYUAD Associate Professor of Psychology PJ Henry says one important psychological factor for sports fans is that all human beings are driven by the need to belong.

Ever wonder why some people are such hardcore sports fans? NYU Abu Dhabi Associate Professor of Psychology PJ Henry says one important psychological factor is that all human beings are driven by the need to belong.

What factors are involved when someone becomes a sports fan?
One important question concerns individual differences: Why do some people choose to be attracted to follow sports teams more than others? Many people have asked these kinds of questions and have studied things like personality differences, past histories, and experiences including psychological problems and self-interested motivations, etc. Maybe some people have a higher need to belong than others, for whatever reasons.

Ultimately, why do we become sports fans?
People become sports fans for 10,000 different reasons, but one important psychological factor is a drive all human beings have to belong to collectives, whether that is family, friendship groups, political groups, universities, workplaces, countries, ethnic groups, religious groups, or sports teams. This need to belong is considered to be one of the most important, if not the most important, motivating force in humans. So we become fans because it connects us to others, and that connection to others has all sorts of mental health benefits.

So being a sports fan is generally a positive thing?
Yes, in addition to mental health benefits, economists would say it also has financial and practical benefits. Psychologically speaking, the benefits include increased self esteem, an increased social network for when things go wrong for us interpersonally, and added identifications that allow us to be complex and interesting human beings. So I think connecting to sports teams is a wonderfully psychologically healthy way to connect to others and give a person a feeling of belonging.

This need to belong is considered to be one of the most important, if not the most important, motivating force in humans. So, we become fans because it connects us to others.

PJ Henry, social psychologist, NYUAD faculty

What about those who take it to the next level? Can hardcore fandom also be a positive thing?
Of course, fandom can go too far with sports teams as it can with any attachment to any group, especially when those identifications can involve prejudice, aggression, or even violence against others who identify with other groups. These kinds of identifications can also be problematic if a person's sense of connection is with very few social groups. For example, if you have very few connections to groups other than your favorite sports team, then failures of that team (e.g., losing a World Cup match) will hit you harder emotionally.

How does all of this relate to your research?
I have been thinking a lot about the psychology of fandom from the perspective of a person who studies intergroup dynamics and prejudice. I have been developing over the past several years a theory I call stigma compensation theory. The basic idea is that the stigmatized, or those people in a society who are devalued or treated like second-class citizens, will be more likely to grab onto attitudes or behaviors that will reinforce their sense of social value or worth. So the theory predicts that attachment to sports teams would be more likely among those who are devalued in a society, such as low income, low educated, ethnic minorities, etc., because attaching oneself closely to these kinds of groups gives or reaffirms a person of their sense of social value. I don't have any data on this yet, but it's something I find especially interesting and hope to pursue in my research in the future.