Let’s start off this post with an exercise in imagination.
Imagine that we happen to be big fans of the same team.
First, imagine that our favorite team is the underdog in a major sports competition – say, the NCAA basketball tournament. People didn’t really expect that we’d win anything. Yet we manage to win game after game, eventually beating a top-ranked team. The National Championship is so close, we can almost taste it.
Now imagine a different scenario: Our team is actually ranked #1, and they’re heavily favored to win. Experts said that the road to victory was basically paved for them, especially after several of the other early favorites were defeated in earlier rounds. But in a jaw-dropping upset, they lose to an 11th ranked, barely-known team.
What jumps out at you about those two scenarios?
One tells the story of underdog triumph – the other of stunning defeat.
One team is a well-known basketball empire – the other is a relative unknown whose success in this year’s tournament sent thousands of college basketball fans to their Google search engines just to find out who they were.
But there’s something you may not have noticed that means just as much to the story –
When people talk about their favored sports teams, they can choose one of two pronouns – “we” or “they.” It’s fairly common to hear either one, so you may not have noticed the difference in the descriptions above because they both sound so natural. “We won last night!” or “They really tanked.” Both sound correct, right?
They might both sound normal, but there’s one good reason why you may pick one over the other – winning.
As it turns out, people who are talking about their team after a victory are more likely to group themselves in with the winners. “We didn’t miss a shot!” or “Our rebounding was amazing!” But fans reflecting back on a loss aren’t quite so eager to associate themselves with their failed, beloved team. Even when sticking up for them (“They were just having an off night!”), you’re still more likely to see that disconnecting “they.” (Cialdini et al., 1976).
These processes are referred to as BIRGing and CORFing. Though they may sound a bit like gross body functions, they actually stand for Basking In Reflected Glory and Cutting Off Reflected Failure.
Essentially, we want to be grouped with people, teams, and things that do well… and we want to separate ourselves from those that fail.
So when your team loses, “they” tanked. When they win, “we” really pulled it out!
Think this only applies to sports? Think again.
Liars are more likely to use pronouns like “he” or “they,” and less likely to use “I,” “me,” or “my.” Why? To distance themselves from their bad, evil lies, of course (Newman et al., 2003). If you’re using third-person pronouns, you’re cutting yourself off from the reflected “badness” of the lie.
Obama ran an incredibly successful presidential campaign in 2008, galvanizing legions of voters by encouraging them to bask in his reflected glory – “Yes We Can!”
How successful would he have been if he didn’t encourage his voters to bask along with him? (“Yes I Can Do It All By Myself”? Not nearly as inspirational).
Finally, how many people attempt to ‘bask’ in the reflected glory of a famous public figure? How many of Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard classmates have probably claimed that they OH MY GOD sat next to him in a class once, or TOTALLY know his sister/father/second cousin?
There are plenty of examples all around us – when people or teams succeed, we want to be grouped with them. When they fail, we avoid the association.
So go ahead – ask a Butler, VCU, Kentucky, or UConn fan how they feel about this year’s NCAA tournament. I’m sure you’ll hear a whole lot of “we”s. But as for those Duke, Ohio State, Kansas, and Pitt fans… well, “they” might not be quite as pleased.
This is the last of a series of posts related to basketball and/or sports psychology in honor of NCAA March Madness (Here are the first and second). Hope everyone who watches basketball has been enjoying this year’s (crazy) tournament!
Cialdini, R.B., Borden, R. J., Thorne, A., Walker, M.R., Freeman, S., & Sloan, L.R. (1976). Basking in reflected glory: Three (football) field studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34 (3), 366-375 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3522.214.171.1246
Newman ML, Pennebaker JW, Berry DS, & Richards JM (2003). Lying words: predicting deception from linguistic styles. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 29 (5), 665-75 PMID: 15272998