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Curiosity Desk | Nov. 7, 2018

Can The Psychology Of Sports Help Voters Deal With Election Day Defeat?

Wash 3A Championship Football
Bellevue fans cry in the final minutes of the Washington state class 3A high school football championship, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Tacoma, Wash. Eastside Catholic upset Bellevue, 35-13, ending a 67-game Bellevue winning streak.
Ted S. Warren/AP
Curiosity Desk | Nov. 7, 2018

There’s an old saying that politics is a blood sport. And if it seems that politics in America these days are more like sports than ever before, maybe that’s because — in polarized times — they kinda are.

"We've got two parties and they have defined themselves by their boundaries, solely and completely, in the same way that we define teams solely and completely," said Dr. Steven Schlozman, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-heads Mass General Hospital's Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. "The Red Sox can’t kind of win the World Series. They either win it or they lose it."

Schlozman says one way that those following politics and sports fans are alike is in their tendency to form something called parasocial relationships.

"People feel like they know Brady. People feel like they know Gronk," he said. "People feel like they know Elizabeth Warren. Whether they like her or not, people feel like they know her. But it feels more real than a lot of relationships that we might have. And when they lose, it feels like you’ve lost — somebody in your family has lost."

Of course, in sports we root not just for players, but for teams. And so, too, in politics there is the candidate, but also the party. The psychology of groups — including sports fan bases and believers in a cause — is University of Richmond psychologist Don Forsyth’s specialty.

"If we become identified with a group — if we’re committed to that group — that boundary between the self as individuals, psychologically, and the larger collective becomes obscure to us" he said. "Our group's outcomes are our personal outcomes."

Nowhere is that as pronounced as in defeat. Studies have shown increases in measurable levels of depressed feelings in members of all sorts of groups following a loss. And there’s another particular reaction common to groups after a defeat, said Forsyth.

"Based on my research they generally don’t blame their group," he explained. "People usually don't do that. They don't usually blame their leader. They don't actually blame their group. They blame the other group."

In sports that might mean blaming the referees. In politics it could be accusing the other side of dirty tactics, or gaining some other kind of unfair advantage.

"When you first lose, you just have a general negative malaise," said Forsyth. "But, boy, when you start blaming the other group that usually turns your emotion into anger. That’s the thing to worry about in the next few days."

How intensely you react after a loss hinges largely on how passionate you are about your team, party, candidate, or cause said University of Quebec social scientist Robert Vallerand.

"The thing about politics is that underneath the surface it deals with your values; your identity," said Vallerand.

Vallerand describes passion on a spectrum, from healthy — harmonious passion — to unhealthy — obsessive passion. And he said events like election losses can inch one toward the obsessive end. So, he warned, beware stewing for hours in front of cable TV news or even darker impulses like overindulging in alcohol.

"This cause is not your whole life," said Vallerand. "People can focus on what is to come and not what they’ve lost."

Of course, there’s a limit to the parallels between sports and politics. The leaders we choose make decisions that will directly impact our lives in ways that mere games never could. And Schlozman reminds that, in politics, we don’t just get to root — we also get to play.

"I really, really want folks to recognize that unlike the voice they think they might have with the Patriots, they have a real voice at the polls," he said. "And I’m not just saying that because I’m feeling politically active. If we don’t believe that we don’t have a democracy."

Still, there is wisdom to be gleaned in the wake of Election Day from the language of sports. For those basking in the thrill of victory, consider legendary UNC basketball coach Dean Smith, who said, “a lion never roars after a kill.” And for those experiencing the agony of defeat, remember that definitive sports adage, “there’s always next year.”

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