Basking in Reflected Glory: Football, Self Esteem, and Pronoun Choice

Sports fan? This might describe you. Not a sports fan? This will help you make fun of the sports fans! Everyone else who just doesn’t care either way, here’s a neat psychology study for you.

You’ve probably noticed that when a team wins, their fans are more likely to wear their jerseys around. Since the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots 21-17 in the Superbowl last night, I’ve seen a bunch of proud Giants fans gloating on Facebook. But it’s not just the bragging, it’s the way they brag.

It turns out that sports fans will actually change the words they use based on whether their favorite team won or lost. Once again, I turn to the impeccable Mitchell and Webb to illustrate the tendency:

I love that retort: “Remember when we were chasing the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Movies don’t inspire the same tribal attitudes that sports do, but Mitchell’s rant does highlight the absurdity of using the word “we” in this context.

It’s not just anecdotal. Mitchell and Webb are describing an actual social phenomenon: Even if they have nothing to do with the results, fans are more likely to use “we” pronouns when their favorite team is doing well.

Robert Cialdini called it Basking in Reflected Glory. In an attempt to gain social standing, we try to associate ourselves with success.

Basking in Reflected Glory

Conducting a creative study (pdf), Cialdini and his researchers called college students and asked them how their school’s team had done in a particular game. When describing victories, 32% of the students referred to the team as “we” – “We won,” “We beat them,” etc. In contrast, only 18% used the word “we” when talking about their school’s team losing.

Makes sense, right? People wanted to be seen as part of a winning group. But it gets better.

Cialdini added a twist to his study: before asking about the football game, he asked the students six quick, factual questions. Regardless of their answers, they were either told that they’d done well (gotten five correct) or poorly (gotten only one out of six correct). He hypothesized that the students who were told they’d failed would be more likely to grasp at straws to regain social status.

When the numbers were separated out, the tendency was clear: Almost all the increase in “we” pronouns was from the students who lost prestige by being told they’d failed.

Likelihood of using “we” pronoun(%)

“Succeeded” on Test “Failed” on Test Mean
Describing Win 24% (11/45) 40% (16/40) 32% (27/85)
Describing Loss 22% (9/41) 14% (6/42) 18% (15/83)

Students who were given a dose of self-esteem didn’t change their language based on whether their team won or lost.

But students who felt embarrassed? They were much more likely to latch onto a winning team and distance themselves from a losing team.

So you know all those Giants fans posting status updates on Facebook saying “We won!” or “We’re number one”? Ask them why their self-esteem is so low that they need to Bask in Reflected Glory.

That’ll show ’em.

[Title changed after posting from “How Football Scores Actually Change The Way We Talk”]

13 Responses to Basking in Reflected Glory: Football, Self Esteem, and Pronoun Choice

  1. Andrew T says:

    Great Mitchell & Webb clip, but it is kind of unfair comparing it to movies. Teams are associated with a location and the society that lives there, and go out of their way to cultivate a community of fans. You could use “we” with any activity involving representatives of your community, including academic competitions, legal battles, or wars.

    That said, I never did understands fans of teams from places they’ve never lived. But I know this was really more about fairweather fan language than any of that ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Jesse Galef says:

      Yeah, the closest I could come to defending the use of “we” is that by buying tickets/merchandise, a person is deciding to financially support the organization that recruits, trains, and directs the players.

      But it still feels like a giant granfaloon. With the notable exception of the Green Bay Packers, all the teams are privately owned – fans don’t have a say in how the money is spent or who gets hired. How does the team “represent” a community in any meaningful way?

      When a community’s representatives are selected for a reason that, you know, *represents* the community, they can be used as proxies that reflect on the group. When Congressman John Shimkus (R-IL) cites Genesis and the story of Noah’s Ark on why we don’t need to worry about global warming, I’m fine judging his constituents. After all, it indicates the character of the people who voted for him.

      But while the selection method is completely removed from any characteristics of the population the players/team “represents” it’s absurd to try to Bask in Reflected Glory.

      • Andrew T says:

        I guess you could make a capitalist argument and say that the owner wouldn’t be able to continue doing business as a successful franchise unless his actions hewed close to the local desires. But we all know that’s silly and there are probably hundreds of counterexamples. So you have a point. Still, not as bad as “we”ing Indiana Jones ๐Ÿ™‚ Also, you can look at college sports since the athletes are students just like you, though the recruiting system is so specialized you can argue that any which way…it’s really no better than the pros being residents of the area, just like you.

        That brings me to my next point: I may be accepting of this because a communal feeling in ANY group without an actual agenda or ideology of some sort (a fan club, a political party) is a granfaloon. There’s such a variety of people in, say, the DC Metro area (or even in Shimkus’ district…I bet…maybe…) that no small group of people could possibly be real “representatives”, or take actions that they approve of “as a whole”. So if the idea of “local community” beyond people you personally know is silly, why should I get in a philosophical huff because a sports team doesn’t “really” represent that community?

        The alternative is only following events that only your circle of acquaintances is involved in. And while that’s great, the skill and devotion of professionals offers a different and more complex angle on the game (or any activity). Bottom line is, it’s more fun watching and appreciating the strategy and/or athleticism when you convince yourself you have a connection to one side, arbitrary though it may be. Even if you lose!

  2. mkb says:

    You must be a Patriots fan. Following the studies, only some fans use “we” because of low self-esteem. By suggesting that all fans of the Giants may be using it for that reason are you trying to deflect attention from the fact that your preferred team lost?

  3. dbumRob says:

    The tendency to live vicariously might mean that these people are desperate to feel some sort of victory in their lives. Maybe their political leanings and economic situations aren’t tending towards positivity. It’s easy for the owners in their grand boxes to get all pumped up because their profit margins are going up with every point. The whole identity thing is lost on me when teams sell stadium names and the members don’t live in the community and the stadium gets built with tax dollars even after the public referendumed a loud “no.”

    I live in Seattle.

  4. Moishe Pipik says:

    The word “fan” comes from the word “fanatic.” Enough said.

  5. Barry Galef says:

    Very interesting, and it rings true! This explains a lot about why people want their local sports teams to be winners. But it doesn’t explain why, if most teams are necessarily mediocre or worse, a city would want a sports team if it didn’t have one already. Could it be that we all hold onto the wins in our memories, and quietly erase the losses, so that we tend to have a successful alter ego no matter what?

    • mkb says:

      Barry, that might be one reason, but another one is that a town may want a team so that it’s residents can enjoy a sporting event in person instead of having to watch all sport events on television (or not see them at all). I went to graduate school and law school in a town with a World Team Tennis franchise (the Boston Lobsters) and loved attending their matches. Upon moving to the DC area I mourned that there was not a team here. Now, of course, we have the Washington Kastles and I go to every match I can.

  6. we are manchester united says:

    no this is not true in me mind .somethimes they are ppl who suport only the best team for entertainment we call them glory hunters lol.but for the rest of us we say we no matter if our team wins or lose.

    “Could it be that we all hold onto the wins in our memories, and quietly erase the losses, so that we tend to have a successful alter ego no matter what?”

    no that not true i have supported man utd since little and i remember one day we lost a really inportmant match and got knocked out and it hurt my heart for the first time.that when i realise i love man utd and i will support them no matter what if we win or lose .we are the fans who understand why ppl cry when there team gets relgated.its about being part of something.

    ps im from manchester

  7. we are manchester united says:

    “”Youโ€™ve probably noticed that when a team wins, their fans are more likely to wear their jerseys around. Since the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots 21-17 in the Superbowl last night”

    in england ppl were there football shirts all the time if win or lose .even if not playing today.seems like you dont understand football fans

  8. we are manchester united says:

    for example newcastle lost 5-0 today and there fans were still like cheering/singing proud to be newcastle fans.right that is my last comment

  9. Truly Amazed says:

    THERE IS A TIME TRAVELER POSTING HERE! Manchester United is from one week from now. Quick, Mr. United, tell us your future secrets!

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