Testosterone levels rise in fans of winning teams

Released: 5/19/1998 12:00 AM EDT
Source Newsroom: University of Utah
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TESTOSTERONE LEVELS RISE IN FANS OF WINNING TEAMS

Sports fans, take note:

Men who watch their favorite sports team compete -- and win -- experience the same type of testosterone surges as the players themselves, according to a graduate student at the University of Utah.

Additionally, highly loyal male fans also demonstrate a rise in testosterone just by anticipating a sporting event of their favorite team, compared to fans who are less committed to the team.

Paul Bernhardt, a doctoral candidate in the U.'s Educational Psychology Department, conducted the spectator study when he was a post-baccalaureate student at Georgia State University in 1991. The results will be published in an upcoming issue of Physiology and Behavior.

Bernhardt and his colleagues were interested in testing a theory first presented by Dr. Theodore Kemper, a professor of sociology at St. John's University in New York, who hypothesized that fans watching sporting events would have testosterone changes similar to those experienced by the athletes. Previous research has shown that participants in sports competitions have increases in testosterone in anticipation of the contest and as a result of winning.

"We know spectators have a strong affiliation with athletes," said Bernhardt, who is working toward a Ph.D. degree in psycho-physiology. "For example, they speak about teams in personal terms, like `We won.' Since the testosterone effect occurred in athletes, we figured it would occur in spectators as well."

To prove that theory, Bernhardt's group conducted two separate studies. The first measured testosterone levels of male fans attending a basketball game between rivals Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia in 1991. The second tracked testosterone levels among male fans watching Brazilian and Italian teams play in a World Cup of Soccer tournament in 1994.

In the basketball study, the researchers collected saliva samples from eight male spectators about an hour before the game, and again about 15 minutes after the game. The game was played at a neutral site, ensuring that the crowd would not be dominated by fans from one school. The game turned out to be a close one, with the University of Georgia winning in the final few seconds.

For the soccer competition, the researchers were unable to attend the event, so they instead collected samples from 26 male fans watching the televised broadcast of the final match between Brazil and Italy. Twelve fans were Brazilian or of Brazilian descent, and 14 fans were Italian or of Italian descent. Brazil won with a penalty kick after the game had been played to a tie and an overtime had been played out with no one scoring.

In both studies, testosterone levels increased about 20 percent in fans of winning teams and decreased about 20 percent in fans of losing teams.

Testosterone is an androgen -- one of a group of hormones secreted by the testes and adrenal glands -- and is associated with increased sexual behavior and dominant behavior, especially aggression. Women's adrenal glands and ovaries also secrete small amounts of androgens (females have about one tenth the amount of testosterone as males) but their androgens do not have a strong masculinizing effect.

Levels of testosterone in males normally peak not long after waking up, then decrease by about 35 percent over the course of the day. During both studies, the effect among winning fans was strong enough to reverse the normal pattern of decline in testosterone levels. "The effect was likely sudden, rather than building up gradually during the game, because the outcome was not determined until the last few seconds of each game," researchers said.

The results are "fairly robust," Bernhardt said. "We're confident we're looking at a valid phenomenon. It's my personal observation that when you have fans in a city with a successful team, they get caught up in that success. The team's success seems to translate into positive feelings that have a physiological component."

In the anticipation study, Bernhardt and Dabbs measured the testosterone levels of 14 fraternity members at Georgia Tech before several basketball games and before several fraternity meetings. They found the testosterone levels were higher before the games than before the meetings.

The fact that the fans' psychological connection to a team is also reflected in their physiology is "a little surprising," Bernhardt said. "They didn't shoot the balls, or run the court, but they experienced the same rise in testosterone that the athletes do.

"I think this confirms a lot of people's notions that serious fans of sports teams really do seem to be affected by their teams. We have some tangible evidence of the connection between fans and the outcome of their favorite sports teams. This is not just happening in the mind, it's happening in the whole person."

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Contact: Paul Bernhardt, 801-532-3923 or 801-581-7148; e-mail, Paul.Bernhardt@m.cc.utah.edu.

Writer: Karen Wolf, 581-4628


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