Basking In Reflective Glory: Sounds Good Explores the Phenomenon of BIRGing

Oct 3, 2019

Die-hard fandom members, bandwagon jumpers, two-teamers - no matter how long or in what way a person supports a sports team, they all share a common characteristic: the love of BIRGing, or Basking In Reflective Glory. Murray State professor of psychology, Dan Wann, visits Sounds Good to discuss this phenomenon.

BIRGing "goes back to the 1970s," Wann explains. "Some research [was] conducted by Robert Cialdini. He was at, this time, at Ohio State [University] and was very impressed with the fervor, the craziness, that was surrounding the Ohio State Buckeyes football team - how the cheering for the team's success was such a powerful source at Ohio State then, and prior, and now, I suppose. So if you just started thinking about this, again, from the perspective of a social psychologist, how does this play within the social realm for an individuals' personality and their behavior and their emotion?"

"So, he got together with about a half dozen colleagues, and they went to some very large - at the time - powerhouse football NCAA institutions. The Arizonas of the world at the time. So these colleagues and he would go into the classes and examine the students in those classes and look to see what they were wearing. They were trying to figure out what was the proportion, what was the percent, of people who were wearing something that was identifying the university. Some type of university-identifying apparel. Whether it was the school's hat, or maybe a T-shirt, something that had the logo or the name of the school - they would just come up with a baseline percent. They then compared that to the percent of students who wore some type of university-identifying apparel on a Monday following a victory from the university's football team. As expected, that percent went up."

"Second study, they called individuals ostensibly as a part of  general university survey, but the one question they were really interested in was, 'can you tell me about the most recent football game?'" Wann continues, "they listened to how the students phrased their responses. If it happened to be a game the team won, the students tend to phrase their response with 'we:' we won, we were victorious, we were successful. So from this, Cialdini and his colleagues came up with the notion [of] basking in reflective glory, which is this ego management or identity management strategy where we have a tendency, a desire, to increase the psychological connection we have with successful others. It goes, of course, beyond the realm of sport. You can see this in politics, you can this in business, you can see it in Greek organizations, but it certainly was first identified in the sport realm and has obvious ramifications for sports fans. We tend to increase our association with these successful others because we are known by the company we keep. And more importantly than that, we know that we are known by the company we keep. So we believe that 'if I show my association with this successful other, I can then bask in the reflective glory of the successful other and, by association, look like I've done something successful, worthwhile.'" 

More recently, these studies have been replicated to account for the advancements in technology since Cialdini's initial studies. "A colleague of mine, and I don't know how many individuals he had on this publication - they must've had ten different people working on this project - they found very similar processes when they replicated [the study by going] into the classroom and seeing what's going on," Wann explains. "Others in the last ten or so years have gone the social media route - blogging, and comments, and discussion boards, and it plays out just like you would expect it to. When the team is successful, people in their post tend to jump on the bandwagon." 

The concept of BIRGing was felt by lovers of sport long before Cialdini's research took place in the '70s, but by putting a quantifiable name to this phenomenon, more opportunities have been presented to earn profit from athletic teams by exploiting this behavior. "Anybody associated with making money in sport has figured out how to make money off of basking in reflective glory. Certainly, teams understand this," Wann says. "When you see a team that's successful, the marketers get busy. They try to market that success because everyone wants to be affiliated with the winner. Certainly, broadcast companies figure this stuff out. TV rights go up in areas where the team is more successful. They can charge more to show this programming."

Wann goes on, "again, it's not something that's limited to sport. People have figured this out - 'I can make myself feel better, and I can make myself look better to others, if I figure out a way to identify with something that's successful.' Because it's such a powerful drive, people go along with it. How many people in Murray, Kentucky right now have a Memphis Grizzlies Ja Morant shirt? The Grizzlies bring Ja Morant on their caravan to a town of 30,000 people - or whatever Murray has these days - I don't imagine a whole lot of NBA teams' traveling caravans stop at towns this size. But they understand that because of the connection that this town has with Ja Morant, that's an opportunity for them, for fans to bask in the reflective glory of his success."

"I think that one of the really important points to make is that this really does impact the fan's level of self-esteem. It's not just that they're doing this because they want to look like a winner. It really does impact how they feel about themselves. They've actually done research where they assess self-esteem before and after sporting events. When the team wins, and they give individuals a chance to bask in the glory of the team's win, they actually then do report feeling better about themselves. The point I'm making here is our fandoms matter. It really does matter to who we are to the point that well, 'if I can then jump on the bandwagon, yeah, I look like a better fan, but I actually feel like a better person,'" Wann concludes.