The most exciting football games are those your team almost loses. No big news there. But a new study looked into the complex emotions of being a fan and reached some interesting conclusions.
Researchers studied fans of two college football teams as they watched the teams' annual rivalry game on television. Fans of the winning team who, at some point during the game, were almost certain their team would lose, ended up thinking the game was the most thrilling and suspenseful.
"You don't want to be in a great mood during the whole game if you really want to enjoy it," said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, co-author of the study and associate professor of communication at Ohio State University.
"We found that negative emotions play a key role in how much we enjoy sports."
The study will be detailed in the December issue of the Journal of Communication.
Researchers studied 113 college students as they watched the 2006 football game between the Ohio State University Buckeyes and the University of Michigan Wolverines. While the game has always been a bitter rivalry, the stakes were particularly high that year: Ohio State was ranked number one in the country and Michigan was ranked number two, with the winner going to the national championship game.
Ohio State ended up winning the game 42-39, in a dramatic finish.
"Ohio State was winning easily in the first half, but the good thing for our study was that Michigan really tightened the game in the second half. It turned out to be a great game," said Prabu David, study co-author and associate professor of communication at Ohio State.
Students from Ohio State, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State University participated in the study. Before the game, they completed questionnaires about which team they were rooting for, and how committed they were to their favorite team.
They then watched the game on television from wherever they wanted, and logged onto a website during the 24 commercial breaks to answer questions about the likelihood that their favorite team would win, how suspenseful they thought the game was, and how positively or negatively they were feeling at the moment.
The results showed how important negative emotions were to enjoyment of the game.
"When people think about entertainment in general, they think it has to be fun and pleasurable. But enjoyment doesn't always mean positive emotions," David said.
"Sometimes enjoyment is derived by having the negative emotion, and then juxtaposing that with the positive emotion."
Results showed that positive feelings during the game had the greatest effect on suspense, but negative feelings also played a substantial role.
In the past, researchers have thought of positive and negative emotions experienced in entertainment as cancelling each other out, David said. But this research suggests that both positive and negative emotions act independently and together to contribute to entertainment and enjoyment.
"You need the negative emotions of thinking your team might lose to get you in an excited, nervous state," Knobloch-Westerwick said. "If your team wins, all that negative tension is suddenly converted to positive energy, which will put you in a euphoric state."