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Penn State: Insight For A Maize and Very Blue Nation

Dr. Billi Gordon PicIt took 4 overtimes for Michigan to finally snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory in the Wolverine’s 43-40 loss to Penn State.   There were at least a dozen events in the game that could have changed the outcome for Michigan.   However none of those possible scenarios occurred and at the end of the four-overtime day Michigan came up short.

Not surprisingly, some in Wolverine Nation have jumped on the blame game train. Losing a football game causes grief.  Adding blame to grief is not useful, but it’s less painful than processing your true feelings.

Why is that? Social Identity Theory explains how self-esteem can be enhanced by identifying with another’s success.  It’s called BIRGing.  Birging is “Basking In Reflective Glory”

BIRGing is why people show “team pride” after a big win.  I remember when I was an undergraduate at Michigan.  After a win almost everybody on campus was wearing Michigan gear. After a loss almost nobody was. Like wise when Michigan loses, people say “they lost”.  When they win people say “we won”.  BIRGing is why we all felt the great high after the Notre Dame game.

The great high came from attaching ourselves to the success of Michigan players and coaches. Technically, we did nothing tangible in that success, like coach, or play on the team.  That is why it is called Basking In Reflective Glory. By attaching ourselves to Michigan football, their success becomes ours, thereby elevating our self-esteem. But so what? That’s how fandom works.  That’s why spectator sports are a multi-billion dollar business.

Humans BIRG because it makes us feel better.  It makes us feel better because a win by “our team” increases dopamine, serotonin and endorphins—all feel good drugs for the brain.  That’s why the Notre Dame victory had us reeling for a week.   It is also why losing to Penn State has us feeling lower than the price of pork in Tel Aviv. It’s an occupational hazard for those who BIRG.

The degree of psychological involvement with a team dictates the degree to which a person can distance him or herself from that team when failure occurs and the team loses.  That’s why some people can say “a tough loss” and move on, whereas others lose sleep.

When team allegiance is really strong it is difficult for the person to distance him or herself because their self-esteem is too dependent on the team’s success. So when the team loses, as a defense mechanism we attribute the loss to other aspects of the game as opposed to the team itself to protect our self-esteem.

This is known as Cutting Off Reflective Failure (CORF).   There are various ways to CORF. Most commonly people say, “they lost”.  Others just avoid the football groups and sports blogs.  Boarding The Blame Train” is another way people CORF.  By blaming the coaches, their decisions, or specific players you can successfully preserve the integrity of the Michigan team as a whole and your self-esteem in the process. It’s easier than facing the fact that Penn State beat Michigan.  It hurts to type it, and it hurts to read it.  But in the BIRG game such pain is an occupational hazard.

There is nothing wrong with BIRGing, people do a lot worse things to feel better—and who doesn’t need to feel better in this life.  That’s why we love Michigan sports, and in particular Michigan football, because it has made us feel better, many times.  However, life is driven by a differential engine—without the lows the highs become meaningless because we have nothing to compare them to.

This weekend was a low.  Regardless, it is not a valid reason to attack individual team members or coaches, whose tangible efforts are the reason there is a team.  We all want Michigan to win every game. But all teams lose, even the great teams, and Michigan is the winningest football team in collegiate football history making it the greatest.  So we, the alumni and fans, in the Maize and Blue Nation, have to be equally great.  That does not mean failing to manage our emotions and lashing out at the team members or the coaches because we need to CORF.  That means understanding our interoceptive awareness (how we feel what we feel) when it comes to Michigan Football, and moving forward accordingly with the integrity, dignity, insight and positive attitude that is  “The Michigan Difference.”  HAIL!

Dr. Billi Gordon

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