Tonight our nation is engaging in a shared social activity: Watching other people play American football. Specifically, the Seattle Seahawks are competing against the New England Patriots in the 49th NFL Super Bowl.
As a behavioral scientist, what does this mean to me? Well, mostly it means that I am spending the evening eating food that is bad for me, pretending to watch football (while asking my son-in-law to explain it to me), cleaning my house, and grading papers for my classes.
This event always perplexes me…only partly because I have no interest in football. The truth is that most of the people in our country are not actually participating in this event. That is, most of us are not really PLAYING IN THE GAME! Yet, I see great passion from people who support their teams. They seem to be invested in the outcome of the event at a level way beyond what we would expect from a mere spectator. It’s like WE are actually playing in the Super Bowl….except we aren’t.
On Facebook, my friends are vehemently supporting/defending their team’s progress (and blaming the referees when calls are not made in “their” team’s favor). Yesterday, at the grocery store, there were long lines of people buying “supplies” for the big game. People are placing bets on who will win and many other facets of the game. In short, Americans are passionate about this event!
Robert Cialdini, a psychological scientist, uses the phrase “basking in reflected glory” to describe the behavior that I am seeing tonight. Clearly, most of my fellow Americans are not engaging in anything close to athletic activity tonight….yet, we FEEL like we are. As we support our respective teams, we bask in the glow of their success. When our team does well, we scream, “We WON!!” When our team fails to perform, we chide THEM for being “losers.” The key here is that we identify with OUR team when they (we) win, but distance ourselves and blame THEM if they lose.
This phenomenon is an extension of self-serving bias that we see at the individual level (i.e., We take credit for our personal successes, yet blame our failures on an external source). At the group level, we still act irrationally by taking “credit” when OUR team wins, while blaming the same team when THEY lose.
As I type this, I have no idea who will win this game. However, I do know that tomorrow some people will be very happy with their own victory (having never actually played in the competition), while others will be disappointed that their team let them down.