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Part of sports fans’ brains shut down when their team loses

Fans of the Chilean football club Colo-Colo
Supporters of the Colo-Colo club were among the Chilean football fans who took part in the research - Nelson Almeida/AFP

Part of your brain shuts down when watching your favourite sports team lose, a study has found.

The section of the organ responsible for controlling how people respond is said to be switched off by defeat, which increases the likelihood of a person acting in irrational and aggressive ways.

Losing, it seems, is a trigger for a mental mechanism that leads to explosive tendencies in the most hardcore fans.

In more moderate followers, however, the response to a loss is less violent and more introspective.

MRI scans were done on the brains of 43 Chilean football fans, 22 of whom supported Colo-Colo and 21 that were fans of rival team Universidad de Chile.

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Participants answered a questionnaire to gauge their level of fanaticism and then were shown images of goals for and against their team while in a scanner.

Dr Francisco Zamorano Mendieta, from Universidad San Sebastián in Chile, said: “When their team wins, the reward system in the brain is activated.”

A loss activates a “mentalisation network”, he said, which makes the individual feel introspective as a possible way to cope with the pain of defeat.

Supporters of the Chilean football club Colo-Colo
Participants were shown images of goals for and against their team while in a scanner - Nelson Ameida/AFP

“We also observed inhibition of the brain hub that connects the limbic system with frontal cortices, hampering the mechanism that regulates cognitive control and increasing the probability to fall into disruptive or violent behaviour,” he added.

The findings explain the extreme attachment people have with their sports team and the subsequent hooliganism and tribalism that these emotional investments can create.

The scientists hope to build on the study to see if the results hold true for other walks of life, including politics.

“This study aims to shed light on the behaviours and dynamics associated with extreme rivalry, aggression and social affiliation within and between groups of fanatics,” Dr Zamorano said.

“Understanding the psychology of group identification and competition can shed light on decision-making processes and social dynamics, leading to a fuller comprehension of how societies operate.

“Sports fandom, on the other hand, presents a unique opportunity to analyse how intense devotion affects neural activity in a less contentious context, particularly by highlighting the role of negative emotions, the related inhibitory control mechanisms and possible adaptive strategies.

The study was presented at the 109th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

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