With 26 seconds left on the clock, the Seattle Seahawks were one yard from a touchdown that could have made them the Super Bowl champions for the second year in a row. But when Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass at the goal line, near-certain victory turned into certain defeat; Seahawks fans were left feeling crushed and, at that moment, each and every Patriots fan felt like a champion.
And you know what champions do? They go forth and procreate.
This story actually begins with some birds (and we don’t mean Seahawks). Back in 1990 four researchers, led by John Wingfield of the University of Washington, tested a theory which showed that when two male birds competed, the winner of that contest experienced an increase in testosterone while the loser of that contest experienced a decrease in testosterone. That increase in testosterone encouraged the victor to go forth and spread his seed. And the decrease in testosterone encouraged the loser to go spend the weekend with his mother (or whatever birds do when they feel defeated).
When researchers decided to test this “Challenge Hypothesis” in humans, they found that not only did a contest alter the physiology of the actual competitors, but it also altered the physiology of the observers.
To illustrate how this theory plays out in the real world, psychologistsPatrick Markey and Charlotte Markey looked at the impact elections had on voters’ sexual appetites by comparing the volume of online porn consumed in states that had “won” a presidential election to the volume consumed in states that had “lost” the election.
Why porn? Because evidence suggests that an increase in testosterone encourages men to seek out a large variety of easily aroused sexual partners. And for men without a harem at their disposal, porn is a reasonably good substitute.
Drs. Markey and Markey found that the results of elections impacts the testosterone levels of male voters. In the 2004 election – where George W. Bush was victorious – states that voted Republican experienced a significant increase in the demand for online porn. And that states that voted Democrat experienced a significant decrease in the demand for online porn.
Voters in that election behaved in a way that was consistent with the Challenge Hypothesis. This made us wonder, does the outcome of a major sporting event have the same effect on sports fans as elections had on voters?
Prior to the Super Bowl we looked at Google Trends data (that measures changes in search terms) to see if the Super Bowl games had any effect on searching for online porn in 2014 and 2013. We found evidence that was consistent with the Challenge Hypothesis: “winning” states increased their searchers for porn terms and “losing” states decreased their searches for porn terms.
Now that Super Bowl XLIX is over, however, we can do much better. Pornhub, the world’s largest website for pornographic material, was gracious enough to send us hour-by-hour traffic statistics for Massachusetts and Washington for game day, and for the next day too. As you can see from the attached chart, traffic in the two states was very similar leading up to, and during, the big game. But once the celebrations (or commiserations, depending on which team you support) finished, traffic picked up in both states. Within hours, Pornhub traffic was up 33 per cent in Massachusetts, and the effect continued into the next day with traffic up 47 per cent late in the morning. On the Monday after the game PornHub traffic was up 17 per cent (on average) in Massachusetts and 7 per cent in Washington.
Does this evidence support the Challenge Hypothesis? Well yes, and no. The spike in traffic in Massachusetts is entirely consistent with the theory; that celebratory Patriots fans experienced elevated testosterone levels that encouraged them to consume more porn. The increase in the traffic in Washington is not, however, since the theory predicts that losing the game should have caused the testosterone levels of Seahawks fans to drop, causing them to consume less porn, causing PornHub traffic in that state to drop below average.While we don’t have a clear answer for this second result, one possible explanation is that regular consumers of online porn in Washington State were making up for valuable lost porn-watching time during the game.
Obviously any study that combines two very popular things – the Super Bowl and porn – seems interesting by itself. But the interest in this study goes beyond the subjects examined. This study indicates that sports fans are definitively impacted by the outcome of the games we observe.
For non-sports fans it is easy to claim that sports really don’t matter. The lives of sports fans are the same whether a favorite team wins or loses. But it appears sports have a bigger impact than may be commonly believed. Because sports fans are so often living vicariously through their team, the outcome of these games have the power to impact the physiology of fans. And that means when a team intercepts a pass in the final seconds of the game, biology that has developed over thousands of years of evolution encourages fans to seek satisfaction in an entirely modern way.
This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.