The Science Behind a Sports Fan’s Reactions to Stunning Upsets

A sports fan reacting to a surprising football result, representing the neuroscience behind such reactions.

Have you ever pondered the profound psychological and neurological reactions sports enthusiasts undergo when witnessing the unexpected triumph of an underdog in a high-stakes game? This piece delves deep into the heart-pounding moments of football and reveals the cognitive processes that a sports fan experiences, particularly when the odds are defied.

Read more: The Science Behind a Sports Fan’s Reactions to Stunning Upsets

The Unpredictability of Football

Football is a captivating sport, particularly when it’s your cherished team playing in a high-stakes match, be it a finale, relegation battle, or knock-out round. Intriguingly, football’s allure often lies in its unpredictable nature. Despite expectations, teams can pull off jaw-dropping upsets. This unpredictability, vividly portrayed in the book “Corners Must Be Taken Short”, underscores that football, at its core, is a game of chance. Goals, though precious, can be erratic and elusive, with clubs pouring millions into ensuring these rare moments. As football legend Cruyff instinctively understood, consistent unpredictability defines the sport. Miracles are, indeed, part and parcel of football. A quintessential example? The 4-0 triumph of Liverpool over Barcelona on May 7, 2019, during the Champions League semi-final. Need a refresher? Check this clip: [].

The Brain’s Response to Thrilling Matches

What exactly transpires in a fan’s brain during nail-biting games like Liverpool vs. Barcelona? A ground-breaking study by Antony James W, titled “Behavioral, Physiological, and Neural Signatures of Surprise during Naturalistic Sports Viewing”, sheds light on this. Researchers at Princeton keenly observed 20 basketball aficionados watching the gripping last five minutes of nine matches from the 2012 NCAA March Madness men’s tournament. Utilizing specialized cameras to trace eye movements and fMRI scans to gauge neural activity, the choice of basketball was strategic. The sport’s frequent scoring presented abundant opportunities to scrutinize how brains react to changes. Events like the NCAA tournament are captivating and quantifiable, making them a perfect realm to examine cognitive processes like memory in tandem with emotional responses.

Surprising Moments and Neural Activity

Most surprising moments, like last-minute three-pointers, triggered rapid pupil dilation in viewers. Alongside, there was a shift in neural activity patterns, particularly in higher brain regions like the Prefrontal cortex. Researchers deduced that avid sports fans possess an intuitive version of win-probability graphs in their minds. Fluctuations in these internalized graphs result in enhanced memory of specific game segments and influence pupil reactions. Additionally, activations linked with dopamine, enjoyment, and long-term memory were observed.

Combining Literature with Neuroscience

While Antony James W’s research doesn’t explicitly provide recommendations, it showcases that during thrilling matches, humans continuously update win-probability graphs. Merging this with insights from “Corners Must Be Taken Short” reveals an intricate task. The lower the odds of success, the more luck the underdog needs to pull off an upset. When teams are evenly matched, luck and the day’s form dictate the outcome, making bookmakers’ odds for both teams nearly equal.


Revisiting our introductory query: In football, the favored team wins just over half the time. In handball, basketball, and American Football, the favorites clinch two-thirds of all matches, while in baseball, it’s a solid sixty percent. Perhaps this unpredictability, where any outcome is possible, is the very essence of sports’ massive appeal.


Anderson, Chris, et al. Corners moet je kort nemen : de statistieken bewijzen het. Houten: Spectrum, 2013. Print.

Behavioral, physiological, and neural signatures of surprise during naturalistic sports viewing,” by James W. Antony, Thomas H. Hartshorne, Ken Pomeroy, Todd M. Gureckis, Uri Hasson, Samuel D. McDougle and Kenneth A. Norman appears in the Jan. 20, 2021 issue of Neuron, published online Nov. 25 (DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2020.10.029). The research was supported by a CV Starr Fellowship to J.W.A. and Office of Naval Research Multidisciplinary University Research Initiatives grant N00014-17-1-2961 to K.A.N. and U.H.

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