By studying the emotional reactions of college football fans to their favorite teams' on-field performances, communication experts say they have gained important insights into the relationship between entertainment and human emotion.
Ohio State University researchers studied fans of two college football teams as they watched the teams' annual rivalry game on television. They found that 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.
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.
"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."
"When people think about entertainment in general, they think it has to be fun and pleasurable. But enjoyment doesn't always mean positive emotions," co-author Prabu David said.
In the past, researchers have thought of positive and negative emotions experienced in entertainment as canceling 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."
That's why the fans of the winning team – in this case, Ohio State – who felt the most sense of enjoyable suspense were also those who at some point were most convinced their team would lose, she said.
"Obviously, winning helps people enjoy a game. But we're finding that it doesn't help to have a game where you have positive feelings the whole game – negative feelings are an important part of enjoying a game," he said.
While some people may question the purpose of studying fan reactions to a football game, the researchers say the study has important implications. For one, sports provides a unique opportunity to study how emotions operate in people. "Researchers want to study the impact of emotions, but it is very difficult to create powerful emotional reactions in a laboratory setting," David said.
"This is a study that was done in the real world, and we can get a snapshot into a person's emotional state while they are actually experiencing the emotion. Sports creates emotions that are very powerful, and which matter to people."
In addition, regardless of what people think about it, sports and entertainment is a big business in America and around the world. "We need to better understand how people use entertainment in their lives, and what value they are getting from it," Knobloch-Westerwick said. "This study is just one step in that process."
Citation: The study will appear in the December issue of the Journal of Communication.
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