Football fandom and the Association Principle

The association principle can manifest as associating with a sports team, especially a sports team that’s well-liked or performing well.

A referee voodoo doll with pins stuck in it. Next to the doll is a pin cushion with additional pins for patrons of the shop to stick in the doll.
A day after the January 20, 2019 NFL Conference Championship game where the New Orleans Saints lost to the Los Angeles Rams, I walked into a New Orleans craft store to find this referee voodoo doll prominently displayed. The store owner invited me to push another a pin into the doll. Many residents of New Orleans blame the game loss on a referee’s bad interception call.

A while ago, I was listening to a local radio station when a female caller asked a dating question. She’d been on a few dates with a guy and noticed that he is what is often referred to as a “super fan.” His apartment was covered in logos and memorabilia from a particular sports team. His clothing also was mostly for that team, down to the slippers he wore. And his vehicle was covered with stickers for the team.

Her problem? The rival team is her team.  Her question was whether he’d continue to date her when he found out.

But I think her question should have been, “Why does this guy so heavily associate with the team?”

Association Principle

The association principle is when two or more things that are not related are somehow connected in our minds to create a relation between them. For example, in Ivan Pavlov’s famous study where he rang a bell and the fed dogs, the dogs eventually connected the bell to food and began salivating when he rang the bell, even in the absence of food. They’d associated these two things with one another food + bell.

Association Principle and Advertising

Advertisers absolutely love the association principle because they can associate their product or service to another positive product or service to drive sales.

Examples:

  • Marlboro cigarettes + tough cowboy = Men who smoke Marlboro cigarettes are tough and rugged.
  • Corona + beaches = The drink you should drink at the beach or to feel like you’re at the beach is Corona.
  • Successful business person endorsement + book = Successful business people read this book. If you want to be successful, you should too.
  • Beautiful celebrity + skincare product = If you use this product, you’ll be like this celebrity.
  • National Basketball League (NBA) + Nike shoes = If you want to be in the NBA or play like NBA players, wear Nike shoes.

There’s also the fun world of negative advertising association, in which a competitor works to associate your brand with something undesirable.  For example, it’s rumored that a competitor to the Gucci brand sent Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi a Gucci handbag to make Gucci less desirable to luxury buyers.

Self-Esteem, Association Principle & Football

Yet another way of looking at the association principle is through the lens of social status and self-esteem. The belief is that if we surround ourselves with favorable people and things then that positivity will also be associated with us. One example is people with low self-esteem and low social status. In these cases, a person has a tendency to want to associate with someone or something of a higher or “winning” status.

And, as by now you’ve probably guessed, that can manifest as associating with a sports team, especially a sports team that’s well-liked or performing well. Think about some of the behaviors that sports fans exhibit:

  • Fans watching the game in a bar giving other fans “high-fives” when their football team scores a touchdown even though they didn’t physically complete the play themselves.
  • Someone becoming a “super fan” of a university football team even though they never attended that university.
  • University students saying “we won” when their university’s team wins and “they lost” when their university team loses. By doing so, they are associating themselves when the team does well by using “we” and distancing themselves when the team does poorly by using “they.” (Cialini et al. 1976)
  • A fan believing “their team” won’t win if the fan doesn’t wear a certain shirt or eat a certain food during the game.

While enjoying a sports game can be a fun hobby and someone with a favorite team doesn’t necessarily suffer from low self-esteem, it’s interesting to look at the most extreme examples of sports fandom and try to understand the potential motivation behind it.

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