The Joy of Momentary Agony

My alma mater, the University of Michigan, has reached the Final Four of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. For those not familiar, this means Michigan is just two wins away from capturing a national championship. It’s a BIG DEAL.

I’ve followed the team all season and have watched every minute of their four NCAA Tournament games. Three have been blowouts—Michigan won big. But in one of the games, against Kansas, Michigan trailed by as many as 14 points. Even when Michigan cut the deficit to five with 15 seconds left, it looked bleak. But Michigan’s Trey Burke hit a long three-pointer to tie the game and Michigan won by two in overtime, withstanding a last-second shot by Kansas.

I watched with three other Michigan alums and we were ecstatic, jumping from our seats when Burke hit the shot. I have been pleased with Michigan’s wins throughout the season, but this one evoked a different kind of emotion. Turns out, I’m not alone.

In 2006, researchers at Ohio State University monitored fans as they watched a thrilling football game between Ohio State and Michigan. The study found that the possibility of losing makes for a more pleasurable viewing experience—provided your team wins, of course—than a game that is never in doubt.

“You need the negative emotions of thinking your team might lose to get you in an excited, nervous state,” said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, co-author of the study. “If your team wins, all that negative tension is suddenly converted to positive energy, which will put you in a euphoric state.”

This comes as no surprise to sports fans, who, when recalling their favorite sports moments, likely choose big comebacks or last-second victories. Nobody gushes over the 45-0 beat-down.

The researchers had the fans answer questions during commercial breaks to gauge their emotional state: Did they think their team would win? How suspenseful did they think the game was?

The Ohio State-Michigan game went down to the wire; though I don’t like to think about it, Ohio State won. The study revealed that the Ohio State fans who at some point were the most convinced their team would lose, were the fans who got the most enjoyment out of watching.

When watching the Michigan-Kansas game, I had my doubts that Michigan could pull it out, but I never gave up hope. It’s likely there were some Michigan fans who had completely given up and therefore experienced even more enjoyment from the victory. I’m jealous.

– Andrew Kahn

One response

  1. My high school football team was losing by 10 points in the last three minutes of a game – the game that would give them a ticket to the Class D Championship in Syracuse. I had too much faith in them. The most euphoric moment was when I convinced myself they would win with 5 minutes left in the game, not when they actually won. I also told myself they could win the championship and they did – another let down!

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