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Hopes and testosterone, rise and fall with Sox

If you're rooting for the Red Sox these days, the team may be doing more than driving up your expectations. They may actually be affecting your testosterone levels, pushing them up when they win and down when they don't, changing all sorts of behaviors in the people who consider themselves part of Red Sox Nation.

A 1994 study of male soccer fans watching the Brazil-Italy World Cup finals found that testosterone levels increased between 15 and 20 percent in the Brazil fans after Brazil won, and dropped by similar amounts in the Italian fans.

One of the authors of that study, James M. Dabbs Jr., professor of psychology at Georgia State University, has also found heightened testosterone levels in athletes about to play an important game, in actors about to go onstage, and in people about to give speeches.

Dabbs notes that "we believe, as the soccer study showed, that the same effect is occurring in the observers that is occurring in the participants themselves."

These changes affect both genders. Sociology professor Allen Booth of Pennsylvania State University has tested female rugby players and found that, prior to a game, their testosterone levels rose an average of 24 percent.

So what does this rush of testosterone do to our behavior? It may play a part in everything from sales of Red Sox hats and jerseys, to postgame riots, to the buildup of muscle mass in couch potatoes watching the game, to all sorts of changes in mood and behavior. Or it may do nothing at all.

The increases, at least in men, fall within the normal range of testosterone pulses produced by the testes during the day. And the surges seen in athletes and fans are transient, lasting only a short time. "Whether variations of testosterone within normal ranges are important in determining mood and behavior is unknown," says Dr. Shalendar Bhasin, professor of medicine at UCLA.

But research supports the possibility that the euphoria of Red Sox Nation may be related to testosterone levels. High doses given to depressed men whose natural levels were low reduced their depression. Other possible effects include testosterone's well-known role in sensitivity to sexual cues, the libido, in both genders. It is also a steroid used to increase muscle mass.

This has implications even for Sox fans who sit and watch the games on TV. Bhasin gave high doses to two groups of men: a group of couch potatoes and another that lifted weights. Both gained muscle mass, though the lifters gained more.

Studies of people given high doses of testosterone also report that subjects experience "a sense of feeling better and an improved sense of well being," Bhasin says. Sound like Red Sox Nation after a big win?

Many studies have found that elevating testosterone in people with naturally low levels improves focus and concentration and raises competitiveness and aggression. But why would levels go up after a win, when the contest is over? "It makes adaptive sense that our bodies increase testosterone when we win," says Booth, of Penn State. "Winners of a physical challenge in many species are often challenged again immediately. Your body needs to be ready for the next challenge right away."

Sociologist Robert Cialdini of Arizona State believes testosterone may play a role in another set of behaviors that increase our chances of survival. "People feel victorious themselves by basking in the reflected glory of others," he says. "If your surrogate warriors win a battle, you feel like you are personally better than a member of the tribe that lost." As Dabbs puts it, "If you're not with the group that wins, you're going to be rolled over by somebody who is."

That would explain the findings of Cialdini's research on fans of major college football programs. When they described the outcome of a game, they said "WE won" but "THEY lost." "We avoid the shadow of defeat and bask in the glow of victory," Cialdini says. "Even if it's reflected glory, you still get a tan."

Dabbs admits to feeling the pull himself. "I'm not much of a sports fan, but when something important comes up in Atlanta I get kind of invested in it and identify with everybody around here. It feels very real, visceral, very physical."

But not as physical as Red Sox Nation will feel if the Sox ever do win the World Series.

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