UF Study Backs Suspicions: For Some, Sports Really Is Better Than Sex

Published: May 7 1997

Category:Florida, Health, Research, Sciences

GAINESVILLE — Some would say that for die-hard Gator fans, seeing their favorite team in action is better than sex. Now, University of Florida researchers have scientific evidence supporting it.

Researchers examining how people react to their emotions showed subjects a variety of photographs while recording their physiological and subjective responses. People categorized as extreme Gator sports fans showed stronger positive reactions to pictures of Gator sporting events than to erotic pictures.

“We were able to show that people who claim to be diehard Gator fans actually had the physiological responses to back it up, compared to the non-Gator fans,” said Charles Hillman, a graduate student of sport psychology at UF and author of the study.

Hillman’s research into emotionally motivated responses of identified sports fans is part of a larger study being done at UF’s Center for The Study of Emotions and Attention. Bruce Cuthbert, associate professor of clinical and health psychology at UF, said sports is just one of many applications for the research into emotions.

Although it seems natural that people who identify themselves as emotionally involved with their favorite team react strongly to its images, UF scientists say that in order to study fan behavior, it’s important to be able to show these effects in a laboratory setting.

In the experiments last spring and summer, 50 subjects were ranked by their fan level — low, moderate and high.

After wires and sensors to machines monitoring the brain and heart were hooked up, subjects were asked to sit back and view slides on a screen, using a joy stick to rate their responses to each photo on two different scales. One scale ranged from very unpleasant to very pleasant; the other from excited to calm.

Included with Gator and non-Gator sports pictures were photos of people in amorous situations, pictures of aggression and violence — for example, animal attacks and victims of mutilation — and neutral photos of things such as household objects.

Among the three categories of fans, the research turned up no significant difference in responses to non-Gator sports photos. But the die-hard Gator fans showed significantly higher physiological reactions when they viewed scenes such as Gator wide receiver Ike Hilliard catching a pass in the end zone at Florida Field, or UF quarterback Danny Wuerffel giving thanks after another Florida touchdown.

To test just how absorbed in the football photos the Gator fans were, researchers threw into the mix what they call a startle probe. When viewing the photos, subjects would hear an occasional loud but brief noise, like a short burst of static. While the noise burst causes brain wave activity, that activity is reduced when subjects are busy with the picture.

The startle prompted less brain activity in the most extreme Gator fans when they were seeing pictures of their favorite team. In contrast, more brain activity occurred during the startle when these subjects viewed the other pictures.

“This showed that these people were highly engaged in the Gator pictures,” Cuthbert said. “You could say that there were fewer brain resources available for the noise when the Gator pictures were on the screen.”

Hillman’s study will be submitted to a sports psychology journal and he now is working on a second study that looks at the physiological responses in extreme Gator fans and equally intense fans of rival school Florida State University as they view pictures of football games involving only the two teams.

“We are showing each person pictures such as Gators scoring against FSU as well as FSU sacking the quarterback or causing a fumble,” Hillman said. “The difference with this study is the two very distinct kinds of fans. There won’t be any people who simply feel sports are OK and can take it or leave it.”

Hillman, who incidentally received his undergraduate degree from the University of Miami and is a Hurricane fan, said he has eliminated the risk of intercollegiate unpleasantness: All subjects are brought in for the experiment separately.


Karen Meisenheimer

Category:Florida, Health, Research, Sciences