Your favorite team has just won the championship game. You join with your fellow exuberant fans in celebrating the victory. High fives are exchanged. Chants are voiced. Perhaps a victory party is in the works.
At least that’s the way the overwhelming percentage of die-hard fans rejoice in their team’s triumph.
But for a select few, the normal celebratory practices are not enough. Instead of rehashing the game and chatting with their friends, they resort to tipping over cars, or worse, setting them on fire. Instead of a festive night on the town, they opt to riot in the town. Instead of popping the cork of champagne, they pop the windows of nearby establishments or vehicles.
Why do some people resort to this kind of behavior when their team has just reached the pinnacle of success?
Granted, losing fans sometimes resort to this behavior, too. High doses of anger, frustration and disappointment can be a recipe for violent behavior. And that’s just as disturbing. But from a psychological standpoint, the “victory violence” is more of a mystery. What exactly about the thrill of victory sets people off?
The jury still appears to be out on this phenomenon, sometimes known as sports hooliganism.
“With the excitement of winning comes a physiological arousal,” says Gayle Bessenoff, an associate professor of psychology at Southern. “But it’s still a little bit of a mystery as to how that excitement turns into violent, destructive behavior in some individuals.”
Bessenoff says that while the number of people who engage in this type of behavior is small, it is large enough so that it has become a regular scene after college and professional team sports championships. And it doesn’t seem to matter what part of the country the team is from. In fact, soccer — with its international flavor and national pride on the line – is ripe with such incidents around the globe.
“There is a mob behavior component to this where people act in ways they normally would not,” she says. “And it seems as though most of the incidents are not premeditated, but rather occur as part of a pattern of escalation that peaks at some point in the post-event time frame.”
Some point to the release of large amounts of testosterone after a big victory – especially for fans who take wins and losses personally – and speculate that it can lead to more aggressive behavior. Others theorize championships can create a sense of euphoria in which a sense of invincibility sets in.
But nobody really knows for sure. Not yet, anyway.
“There is some research on the subject, but it’s still not very well understood,” says Sharon Misasi, a professor of exercise science at Southern who has a background in sports psychology.
She recommends a 2007 article posted on the BBC website for those who wish to read more on the subject.