BIRGing: Basking in reflected glory

You feel fantastic when your favourite football team or tennis player has a great result.  It’s as though you have triumphed personally.

You wear your club’s shirt throughout the weekend, read all the newspaper and internet match reports, watch Match of the Day and initiate conversations about the game with both fellow and rival fans.

This is known as ‘Basking in Reflected Glory’ (or BIRGing). It is the process through which we let the world know that we are associated with a successful club while experiencing a warm glow as we mentally revisit the experience.

Robert Cialdini and his colleagues illustrated the BIRG phenomenon back in 1976. In one study they visited seven USA campuses and simply counted the number of students who were wearing university clothes and badges on the Monday after a weekend game. Far more students whose teams had won were found to be wearing logos reflecting their affiliation with the university than those whose teams had lost.

These investigators then carried out an even more revealing study. They gave students fake feedback about their performance on a general knowledge test. When then asked to describe the outcome of a recent game, those who had been told they had done badly on the test were more likely to use the pronoun ‘we’ when describing a victory and ‘they’ when recounting their team’s defeat.  This provided further evidence that people use their association with a team to feel good and repair a damaged self-esteem.

The question remains:  why do so many people continue to support an unsuccessful team that does not give them the benefit of pride by association?

It appears that some people’s identity is so intertwined with their team that the recurring pain of defeat is worth the benefits of feeling part of a group, showing others that their loyalty knows no bounds, and having a ready-made topic of conversation in social gatherings.

Dropping their team because it doesn’t give them boasting rights is as unthinkable as losing other key aspects of their identity.  Thus there is a lot more to being a fan than BIRGing.

Read a related article from the July 2012 issue of the Psychologist, the British Psychological Society's monthly publication.

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