04/08/2015 08:07 am ET Updated May 14, 2015

Inside The Mind Of A Superfan

Andy Lyons via Getty Images

After Duke pulled out a victory over Wisconsin in the NCAA championship on April 6, ending the Badgers' March Madness run, Wisconsin fans were understandably disappointed. Photos circulated online of defeated Wisconsin fan dressed in a Teletubby costume, seemingly on the verge of tears.

“For certain fans, ones who have a very strong connection to a team, that role of team follower is very central to their overall identity,” says Daniel Wann, a sports psychology professor at Murray State University.

Wann developed the Sports Spectator Identification Scale (SSIS), to identify superfans, or what psychologists refer to as “highly identified fans” in the late '80s (it was published for the first time in 1993). The SSIS included questions such as:

1. How important to YOU is it that the team listed above wins?
Not important 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Very important

2. How strongly do YOU see YOURSELF as a fan of the team listed above?
Not at all a fan 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Very much a fan

3. How strongly do your FRIENDS see YOU as a fan of the team listed above?
Not at all a fan 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Very much a fan

Where a respondent falls on the scale determines whether she is a low-, moderate-, or highly identified fan. While research shows that being a fan, especially a fan in a like-minded sports community (a Red Sox fan in Boston or a Yankees fan in New York), is linked to happiness and higher levels of well-being, being a superfan can have negative implications, too.

“It’s a major part, for some fans, of how they define themselves,” Wann says. “So when you get that wrapped up, that connected emotionally, to anything, the consequences of that thing are going to be felt personally.” For example, a putdown aimed at the Atlanta Braves might not phase a fair-weather Braves fan, but if a highly identified Braves fan hears the same putdown, he’s more likely to take the comment personally and be move to (sometimes physical) action. In fact, one of the best predictors of aggression among fans is a high level of team identification, as shown in this 2014 study of Iranian soccer fans.

While Wann says the vast majority of highly identified fans are well behaved, the stereotypical fan in the crowd screaming profanities while covered in blue body pain is probably a highly identified individual. "It just means that much to them," Wann says. Despite being psychologically invested in the game and seeing the players as extensions of themselves, fans can't physically impact the outcome of the match. “It’s as if in your mind, you’ve experienced the same thing that the players have done. And in some ways, actually the experience might even be more intense, because at least the players can do something about it. They have some control in the outcome,” Wann says.

Still, the fact that sport can bring highly identified fans to tears might actually be a good thing for a demographic that isn't necessarily associated with sensitivity. As Wann explains, sociologically speaking, for an institution such as sport to be viable in society, it has to benefit society, and sports fandom gives fans a socially acceptable way to be emotional. "Grown men will cry at sporting events," Wann says. "They won’t cry at their own daughter’s wedding, but they’ll cry at a sporting event."