The psychology of a passionate fan

What makes a fan unique from other?

Gus and Peter have been playing basketball for more than 9 years. You can always find them playing basketball after school – they spend a lot of energy and time on it; for them, it is not just a game. It is part of their identity. They play for their high school team and love doing it. Even though they both play with passion, there is a difference – Peter knows and can decide when to invest himself in another activity besides basketball, such as social life or going for a swim with his dad every week. He feels bad for losing a game, but he can get over it and hang out with his buddies after the game. In contrast, Gus finds it hard to concentrate on anything in his life other than basketball. If he loses a match, he goes back to the court and practices. He ends up doing nothing else in his spare time other than either playing or watching old videos of Jordan or Bryant.

Their different outlook on the sport leads to a significant distinction between Peter and Gus and their passion for the sport. The type of affective experiences they both derive, from participating or witnessing the game lies in psychological factors, the same way as the difference between attending a Coldplay concert and singing along to them line by line from the front row seats.

It makes one wonder why people experience an activity, an interest, or a hobby differently than another person? What is the difference between playing the guitar and being a guitarist? Why would an ordinary person travel all the way to assemble in line outside the convention center to get Comic-con’s tickets, just to catch a glimpse of the Game of Thrones cast? There must be some psychological differences between many personalities that cultivates passion. Passion appears to be the one variable that has united the rhythm of many hearts, beating to the sounds of a single tune. There is a French maxim that says ‘wisdom lengthens life, but passion makes our lives’, and for some people that passion means religiously following every game, every album, and every episode of a show. Their perseverance and enthusiasm make them unique from those who only enjoy these activities for the sole purpose of enjoyment.

Looking into these psychological differences, a dualistic model of passion has been studied, mostly which defines passion as a person’s strong inclination towards an activity that people love, find it important and invest their energy and time into. Yet, some variables translate passion into modern-day fanaticism, where some individuals become obsessive about learning trivial personal details about their favorite celebrities, to the extent that they may be able to answer these questions better than the celebrity himself! Some sports fans can narrate any epic shot in history, play by play, because it becomes a part of their identity; but what’s interesting is how and why it becomes a huge part of their lives. Psychologists have argued that perhaps these people relate themselves with a character, an activity, or even celebrities, but they have also found tremendous differences, to say the least. How can a 14-year-old living in Bangladesh with a different cultural background, values, customs and language know every single detail about Taylor Swift’s albums and see herself in her?

The development of passion on a deeper level occurs when an individual values an activity and actually internalizes its representation in one’s own identity. For instance, if an object of interest such as collecting sports memorabilia is valued, the individual will be inclined to internalize the given object and make it a part of themselves. They will take pride in showcasing their collection and keep an eye out for the new items in the market. This harmonious blending of interest and one’s own personality results in enthusiasm, passion and in some cases, obsession with the activity or celebrities. Now, this internalization or development of such personality happens in two ways; either some sort of interpersonal pressure or environment of the family where everyone, let’s say, is always stocked about watching football. You must have experienced yourself or seen some families where everyone gets together for games or world championships, wear their jerseys and show their support to their beloved team. Growing up within these families and friends can gradually make you feel included and become a part of something bigger than yourself and consequently foster a passion for the game itself.

However, passion also develops when you hear from your friend about this new artist and you decide to check out his work and find yourself inclined towards it. In these cases, you don’t want to be a part of something bigger, you are there because you choose to follow the artist’s work and you cannot help but keep up with your personal interest. Both of these contrasting developmental trajectories tell you something important – you can become passionate about something at any age without any pressure from society or peers.

Yet, there remains a mystery about certain personalities, which make you follow something the way you do. Taking sports as an example, those regular spectators sitting in the stands become so passionate about their teams that they cry when their team loses, they yell if there is a foul, they cheer and even pick fights with the crowd supporting the opponent team. It genuinely affects their well-being if a match is lost. These ardent sports fans hold onto their teams no matter what, even if their faith is tested repeatedly and things are not going well for their teams. They will always find a justification for their bad performance, but what makes them so dedicated? Social psychologists believe that fans or their unique personalities experience things emotionally; may it be a concert or a game, they build a psychological connection with the athletes and singers. Perhaps it is the identification with the nationality, gender, or ethnicity of a certain athlete that makes them feel self-relevant or it is the personal journey of the celebrity himself.

Take Jenny, who is a diehard fan of Taylor Swift since she was 11 years old. Her love and passion for Taylor and her music grew as she started collecting her albums, her tour merchandise and almost any product she released. Now a 17-year-old, Jenny still waits the whole night for a new song release, her passion, if not more, is still the same for Taylor’s music. Her room’s walls are covered with posters and if there is a concert anywhere near her city, she forces her friends and family to take her. But what kept Jenny’s love and passion consistent from other TSwift fans around her age, who grew up and removed the posters from their walls? We believe its Jenny’s emotional and psychological attachment. It is perhaps her need to belong and form an affiliation with the fandom, where she may find other people with a similar love for Taylor and her music. By lending themselves to a larger crowd, they build a connection; not only with the celebrity, but those who love them the same way. What is more interesting is that these fans also feel more passionate if their favourite celebrity has the same struggles or similar background as them. For example, Taylor Swift making it out of a small town or if she shares her personal struggle with an eating disorder, it will showcase her personality as more relatable to the fans and thus build a stronger and humane psychological connection.

Even though the relationship between a fan and a celebrity starts off as a quest to build a connection, interact with others sharing the same passion, or in some cases, a sort of escape valve, it can easily turn into an obsession. However, not every passionate fan can be obsessive. It’s the certain personality traits that can turn a passionate fan into an obsessive fan. Those individuals with less adaptability, who only feel a positive emotion when their team wins, tend to internalize the interest so deeply that it can even interfere with their practical life. Their fascination with an athlete’s journey and his struggles or career can become the centre of their existence; acquiring information about them is not just a hobby anymore, it gives them a purpose. There are so many fans out there who run blogs and sites about their favourite celebrity icons and share every personal and professional detail about them. They experience profound love for their icons and dislike, or even hatred, for those who disapprove of them – may it be another celebrity or an ordinary person. From curiosity to passion to obsession, the relationship between a fan and their favourite celebrity is processual and can easily turn from healthy to pathological.

In any case, even your passion appears as obsessive to others. For instance, knowing every detail about an artist’s upcoming album, every dialogue of your favourite actor’s TV show, or going to every game of your favourite team, regardless of the trouble it causes you; these fans are fulfilling some deeper needs to experience the rush or any positive emotions.

Besides a need for belongingness and purpose, ardent fans, especially sports fans, know that there is a 50/50 chance that their team may not win and yet they still buy expensive tickets for the best seats, only for an emotional experience. The rest of the devoted fans regardless of their countries, race and language will wake up at 4:00 am in the morning to watch a live match. You may think that those sitting in the stadium will yell at the referee or a player, but instead, those sitting in front of their televisions are no less. Whereas, half of the world is found scratching their head and wondering, what’s the big deal about watching someone kick a ball for hours and spend a fortune on it? The big difference is one’s excitement and commitment to chase the thrill of the unpredictability of sports.

When you look at someone wearing the same jersey in the stadium you automatically build a connection with them. You bask in the reflected glory of your team when they are doing well and say the words ‘we’ won. The closer you start identifying with them, the more likely it is that you find yourself internalizing their victories and feel heartbroken when they lose. These personality differences and needs are what made Gus and Peter different from each other. This dedication, interest, passion and excitement is what also makes a strong marketing tool where sports stores or marketing managers know how to tap into a fan’s love for the game and make the profit. Therefore, the psychology of diehard fans has a number of fascinating angles which remain the same over the years – whether it is the news of The Beatles breaking up or the news of England winning the World Cup, it makes their lives worthwhile!

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