It was July 2010, and Spain and the Netherlands were facing off in the FIFA World Cup Soccer. Fifteen million people in Spain watched the match. Among them a Dutch researcher, Leander van der Meij of the VU University, Amsterdam. Not to watch the final, but to investigate how the event was affecting hormonal responses in those watching the game.
Van der Meij and his team convinced 50 Spanish football fans to take part in their study. Some watched the game at home (39), others in a public space (11). Before, during and after the match they asked the participants to fill in questionnaires and to provide saliva samples. Also there was a control measurement, 16 days after the final.
The researchers found that the testosterone and cortisol levels were higher when watching the match than on a control day. The increase in testosterone was not related to participants’ sex, age or “soccer fandom”. However, the rise in total cortisol levels did differ among the fans. Especially men, younger fans and fanatic fans were more stressed during the game. According to Van der Meij, older individuals have more life experience, and as a consequence they can cope better with stressful situations.
The researchers argue that – from an evolutionary point of view – the increased testosterone and cortisol levels are preparations to defend or enhance social status. In other words, these hormones prepare soccer fans for the impact a poor outcome may have on their social standing. So, the reason you get excited while watching a soccer game is not because you anticipate winning. It’s because you anticipate the possibility of losing.
Van der Meij says their interest is purely theoretical, but are suggesting one possible practical application of the results:
“Of course you have a lot of violence around soccer, especially in Holland. Many fans engage in riots. Our research could help us understand why those people get into riots, and if you understand why they get into those riots – because perhaps of their physiological and psychological response – then you can better target an intervention.”
Photo: Steve Rhodes / Flickr