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March Madness: Why Rooting For Losers May Save Your Life

If it's a close game, be careful driving home.

Editor’s note: Last year we told you about this study (then forthcoming). We’re posting a modestly revised version of that write-up for two reasons. First, it’s a timely read as we head into the Final Four weekend. Second, the paper is now available. We’ve linked to it below. Enjoy!

If you’re a sports fan, you want your team to win. You especially want your team to win the big games: championships, rivalry games, etc. Be careful what you wish for. A December 2011 study in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that big games with close scores are followed by a significant increase in traffic fatalities – but only for fans of the winning team.

Specifically, the researchers found that the number of traffic fatalities more than doubled following a nail-biter – but only in areas with a high concentration of winning fans (i.e., the hometown of the winning team and wherever the game was played). An overview of the study can be found here.

The study evaluated traffic fatalities following hundreds of games between 2001 and 2008, looking exclusively at college and professional games in football and basketball.

Obviously, correlation and causation are not the same thing – but it’s a pretty robust data set. The researchers, from NC State and the University of South Carolina, hypothesize that the spike in traffic fatalities is linked to alcohol and testosterone (always a popular combo at sporting events). Alcohol’s role in traffic fatalities is well known. The testosterone component, less so.

Previous research has shown that, during close games, players aren’t the only ones whose testosterone spikes – fans see their testosterone levels rise as well. When the game ends, losers slump in defeat. So do their testosterone levels. Winners jump up – and so do their testosterone levels. Since testosterone is linked to increases in aggressive behavior – and potentially, to aggressive driving – the researchers think the testosterone spike in winning fans may contribute to the increased number of traffic fatalities in areas where a lot of those fans can be found.

It adds an interesting – and scary – element to March Madness. So, if your team wins, be careful on your drive home.