Why Do We Care Who Wins?

Last night’s national championship college football game, today’s New York Times article on America’s greatest small college rivalry (involving my own Hope College), and the upcoming Super Bowl all bring an interesting psychological question to mind:  Why do we care who wins? What psychological dynamics energize rabid fans?

In a 2008 Los Angeles Times essay I offered answers to my own questions, which first crossed my mind just before tipoff at that rivalry game described in today’s Times. The pertinent dynamics include the evolutionary psychology of groups, ingroup bias, social identity, group polarization, and the unifying power of a shared threat.

In a 2014 Politico essay I extended these principles in reflections on political and religious animosities between groups that, to outsiders, seem pretty similar (think Sunni and Shia, or Northern Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant).  The same social dynamics that fuel fun sports rivalries can, writ large, produce deep-rooted hostilities and social violence.