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Sports fan or fanatic? Study reveals the brain activity behind fanaticism

A new study reveals fascinating insights into the brain activity of soccer fans, shedding light on the neural dynamics of fanaticism. The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

The research delves into the emotional and behavioral responses of fans during a soccer match, highlighting how different patterns of brain activation are linked to both positive and negative reactions.

Dr. Francisco Zamorano Mendieta, who led the study, is a researcher in the Department of Imaging at Clínica Alemana de Santiago, and associate professor at Facultad de Ciencias para el Cuidado de la Salud, Universidad San Sebastián, Santiago, Chile.

Focus of the study 

“This study aims to shed light on the behaviors and dynamics associated with extreme rivalry, aggression and social affiliation within and between groups of fanatics,” said Dr. Zamorano. 

The investigation was focused on the brain mechanisms of 43 male football fans in Chile, where team loyalty and enthusiasm are particularly strong. The volunteers were devoted supporters of Chile’s two major rival soccer teams. 

While watching a compilation of 63 soccer goals, the brain activity of the participants was measured using fMRI, a noninvasive imaging technique that detects changes in the brain’s blood flow. The results showed that brain activity changed when the fan’s team succeeded or failed.

Critical insights 

“When their team wins, the reward system in the brain is activated,” said Dr. Zamorano. “When they lose, the mentalization network can be activated, taking the fan to an introspective state. This may mitigate some of the pain of the loss.” 

“We also observed inhibition of the brain hub that connects the limbic system with frontal cortices, hampering the mechanism that regulates cognitive control and increasing the probability to fall into disruptive or violent behavior.”

Group think

According to Dr. Zamorano, the findings may shed light on social dynamics in all walks of life.

“People inherently crave social connections, be it through membership in a running club, participation in a book discussion group, or engagement in virtual forums,” he said. 

“While these social bonds often form around shared beliefs, values and interests, there can also be an element of persuasive proselytism, or ‘group think,’ which may give rise to unreasoned beliefs and societal discord.”

Intense emotional investment 

Dr. Zamorano believes that the zealousness found among some sports fans can serve as a compelling example of intense emotional investment, occasional aggressive behavior and impaired rationality.

“Understanding the psychology of group identification and competition can shed light on decision-making processes and social dynamics, leading to a fuller comprehension of how societies operate.”

Unique opportunity 

Dr. Zamorano pointed out the challenges of researching fanaticism and partisanship, especially in areas like politics, ethnicity, and identity, where controversy often obscures the neurological underpinnings of extreme allegiance. 

“Sports fandom, on the other hand, presents a unique opportunity to analyze how intense devotion affects neural activity in a less contentious context, particularly by highlighting the role of negative emotions, the related inhibitory control mechanisms and possible adaptative strategies,” said Dr. Zamorano.


Fanaticism is a fervent, often uncritical devotion or zeal towards a cause, idea, or group. It’s characterized by intense and sometimes irrational enthusiasm, frequently leading to uncompromising and extreme behavior. 

This level of devotion can be directed towards various areas, including sports, politics, religion, or cultural phenomena.


The psychology behind fanaticism is complex and involves several aspects of human behavior and social dynamics. Key factors include a strong need for identity and belonging, where individuals align themselves passionately with a group or cause that they see as an extension of their identity. 

This alignment often leads to a strong in-group versus out-group mentality, where fanatics may develop a deep loyalty to their group while being hostile or dismissive towards others.

Social reinforcement 

Another aspect is the influence of social reinforcement. In groups of fanatics, certain behaviors and beliefs are often reinforced by peers, leading to a solidification of extreme positions. This can also lead to an echo chamber effect, where only the views of the in-group are heard and valued, further entrenching the fanatic’s beliefs.

Extreme outcomes 

Fanaticism can have a psychological impact on individuals. It can provide a sense of purpose, community, and even euphoria, especially when the group or cause experiences success or gains recognition. 

However, it can also lead to negative outcomes, such as alienation from those outside the group, impaired judgment, and in extreme cases, aggression or violence, especially when the group perceives a threat or experiences a setback.

The study of fanaticism, particularly through the lens of neuroscience and psychology, provides valuable insights into how and why these intense beliefs and behaviors form, offering potential pathways for understanding and addressing the more harmful aspects of fanatic behavior.

The research will be presented next week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America

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