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Unraveling a crowd's reckless turn

When a crowd of euphoric Red Sox fans became an unruly mob Wednesday night, it may have seemed inexplicable to some, but psychologists say the dangerous behavior is rooted in the psyche, culture, and human biology.

"Could you imagine kids Christmas morning being so excited they finally got what they wanted that they then went to burn down the Christmas tree?" asked Daniel Wann, coauthor of "Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators."

"That's basically what we're seeing," Wann said.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino blamed the sudden switch from jubilance to violence on "knuckleheads" and alcohol, but those who study sports and spectators say alcohol is only a part of the problem.

"What we found is that people's adrenaline fuels some of the aggressiveness, because when you're riled up and you combine it with alcohol and the need for attention, people do ridiculously idiotic things," said Allyce Najimy, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.

When fans streamed into Kenmore Square late Wednesday night, their hearts were probably racing from the excitement and tension of watching the game -- and adrenaline, mixed with alcohol in many cases, was probably flowing through their bloodstreams, specialists said. A few people, seeking to continue the excitement from the game and release their pent-up emotion, may have started to act rowdy and incited others to join them.

And their moods can spread fast, from a few to tens of thousands of people in a matter of seconds. Sociologists call it contagion theory. Just as an entire stadium of sports fans can catch onto a single idea like "the wave" in seconds, reckless behavior is literally contagious, and can infect a mob almost instantly.

Then a mob mentality kicks in, and people begin to feel like anonymous members of a crowd, no longer responsible for their actions. Alcohol, which lessens people's normal inhibitions and impairs judgment, contributes to this feeling.

"They're so euphoric about the victory that they literally feel this sense of empowerment and they have this belief that they're invincible, they're on such a power trip," Wann said.

The response is particularly strong in Boston, because fans identify so closely with their beloved Sox. Whether they're in the stands or watching from home, they may feel that each Red Sox hit is a personal victory and each mistake a devastating blow delivered personally by Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez. In psychology, "identification" occurs when being a fan becomes part of a person's social persona. "Highly identifying fans" may yell at the television, jump up and down cheering, or clutch their heads in anguish when things aren't going well.

Boston, "a drinking town with a baseball problem," is a place where there seems to be rampant overidentification with the sport of baseball, said Len Zaichkowsky, head of sports psychology at Boston University. "People in this area are really locked into [the Red Sox]," he said. "They're totally absorbed as fans, they don't just sit back and watch a game."

Anti-Yankee feelings are particularly potent, due in part to the fights among players on the field that have been replayed repeatedly during broadcasts of the games.

"Certainly we know from research, the more the players hate each other, the more fans hate each other. If players fight, fans more frequently fight. They feed off each other," Wann said.

Fans also react to rampant negative fan behavior, reinforced by the media. When a television camera shows up, "people start screaming and yelling, adrenaline is flowing as they show off in front of the camera," Najimy said.

On Wednesday night, people tried to scale the wall at Fenway and climbed onto the awnings of buildings of the Fenway area. Later, an Emerson College junior was fatally shot in the eye by a pepper-pellet projectile fired by police seeking to disperse revelers.

To prevent future tragedies, sports psychologists call for a new code of sportsmanship under which athletes and the media work to stem violent behavior. They call on fans to police themselves, athletes to set good examples, and a barrage of public-service announcements reminding people to be good fans.

"Some people believe being a loud-mouthed jerk is being a good fan. But respecting good play and cheering good play, even if it's the other team, means a real sports fan," said Zaichkowsky.

It seems unlikely that dedicated Sox fans will cheer for the St. Louis Cardinals during the World Series, but sports psychologists think the games and their aftermath may be inherently safer because the opponent isn't the Yankees -- Red Sox fans haven't had decades to hone taunts against the Cardinals.

"Hopefully, they've gotten it out of their system," Wann said.

Carolyn Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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