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Watching the Nail-Biting Big Game Hurts So Good

Fans get a bigger thrill when on an emotional rollercoaster, study finds

THURSDAY, Nov. 26 (HealthDay News) -- Call it the fear factor meets the jubilant sports fan.

A new study suggests that spectators -- especially those who root for the winning team -- enjoy the greatest satisfaction if it's a closely contested match and victory was in doubt, producing feelings of worry and even despair.

Chew on that this Thanksgiving weekend as you're glued to the TV set, watching back-to-back football games.

"Sports entertainment obviously instigates intense emotional experiences," said study co-author Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, an associate professor of communication at Ohio State University. "You would expect that positive effect is relevant for entertainment enjoyment, but negative affect is crucial, too."

Added study co-author Prabu David, also an associate professor of communication at Ohio State: "When people think about entertainment in general, they think it has to be fun and pleasurable. But enjoyment doesn't always mean positive emotions."

To conduct the study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Communication, Knobloch-Westerwick and David polled 113 college students as they watched a dramatic football showdown in 2006 between the Buckeyes of Ohio State and the Wolverines of the University of Michigan.

Adding to the stakes of the bitter, decades-old rivalry was the fact that Ohio State was ranked number one in the country, Michigan was ranked number two, and the winner would earn the right to play in the national championship game. Ohio States ultimately prevailed, eking out a nail-biting victory, 42-39.

Prior to the game, the study participants had completed a questionnaire that asked which team they were rooting for and how committed they were to that team. Half the students were Ohio States fans, one-third were Michigan backers, and the rest were uncommitted. Then, during the 24 commercial breaks throughout the game, the students were asked questions via the Internet about how up or down emotionally they were feeling, whether they thought their team would win, and how exciting they found the game.

The researchers discovered that the Ohio State fans who at some point during the game were convinced their team would lose ended up thinking the game was the most thrilling and satisfying.

Knobloch-Westerwick, who prefers reading crime fiction to watching sports, summed up the results this way: "Sports fans seek out the 'risky' entertainment of sports [risky because 'their' team might lose after all, which creates disappointment], probably because the intense connection to 'their' team, as well as the real threat of losing the game, create intense suspense -- instead of going for something with a guaranteed happy ending, such as the typical holiday suspense movie."

One outside expert said the study findings echoed previous research that has tackled entertainment and suspense theories.

Stuart Fishoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and emeritus professor at California State University, Los Angeles, said that another way to measure a fan's state of mind is to study reactions from game to game or from season to season and assess who the fan surrounds himself --- or herself -- with while watching those games.

Fishoff added that the new findings can also provide insights beyond the sports-entertainment arena. "You can apply what you learned here to health care -- what do you do to reduce people's anxiety in medical situations?"

More information

For more on the psychology of sports fans, visit Miami University.

SOURCES: Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, Ph.D., associate professor, communication, and Prabu David, Ph.D., associate professor, communication, both at Ohio State University, Columbus; Stuart Fishoff, Ph.D., senior editor, Journal of Media Psychology, and emeritus professor, California State University, Los Angeles; December 2009 Journal of Communication

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