We Won. They Lost.

A slightly different version of this post (pertaining to college basketball) was originally blogged at IonPsych on 3/29/2011. I’ve decided to re-post it from the archives today with some tweaks in honor of the Olympic Games. You can see the original post here.

Let’s start off this post with an exercise in imagination.

Imagine that we happen to be big fans of the same team.

First, imagine that our country’s team is the underdog in a major sports competition – say, the Olympic Games. People didn’t really expect that we’d win anything. Yet we manage to snag gold, and we’ve never been prouder of our country or our athletes.

Now imagine a different scenario: Our country’s team actually placed first in the qualifying rounds, and they’re heavily favored to win gold. Experts said that the road to victory was basically paved for them. But in a jaw-dropping upset, they made several key mistakes and failed to earn any place at all on the medal podium.

What jumps out at you about those two scenarios?

One tells the story of underdog triumph, and the other talks of stunning defeat.

But there’s something you may not have noticed that signals just as much of a difference in the tales –

The pronouns.

WE'RE #1When people talk about their favored sports teams, they can choose one of two pronouns – “we” or “they.” It’s fairly common to hear either one, so you may not have noticed the difference in the descriptions above because they both sound so natural.

Yet research shows that people tend to systematically differ in when they use “we” vs. when they use “they.” People who talk about their teams after a victory are more likely to group themselves in with the winners. “We didn’t miss a shot!” or “Our rebounding was amazing!” But fans reflecting back on a loss aren’t quite so eager to associate themselves with their failed, beloved teams. Even when sticking up for them (“They were just having an off night!”), you’re still more likely to see that disconnected “they” emerge.

These processes are referred to as BIRGing and CORFing. Though they may sound like gross bodily functions, they actually stand for Basking In Reflected Glory and Cutting Off Reflected Failure. We want to be grouped with people, teams, and things that do well… and we want to separate ourselves from those that fail.

So when your team loses, “they” tanked. When they win, “we” really pulled it out!

Think this only applies to sports? Not exactly.

Liars are more likely to use pronouns like “he” or “they,” and less likely to use “I,” “me,” or “my,” to distance themselves from their bad, evil lies. If you’re using third-person pronouns, you’re cutting yourself off from the reflected “badness” of the lie.

Obama ran an incredibly successful presidential campaign in 2008, galvanizing legions of voters by encouraging them to bask in his reflected glory – “Yes We Can!” How successful would he have been if he didn’t encourage his voters to bask along with him? (“Yes I Can”? Not nearly as inspirational).

Finally, how many people attempt to ‘bask’ in the reflected glory of a famous public figure? How many of Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard classmates have probably claimed that they DEFINITELY sat next to him in a class once, or TOTALLY know his sister/father/second cousin?

There are plenty of examples all around us – when people or teams succeed, we want to be grouped with them. When they fail, we avoid the association.

So go ahead – ask some Olympics fans how they feel about this year’s Games. I’m sure that if their countries recently won, you’ll hear a whole lot of “we”s. But as for those USA men’s gymnastics fans… well, “they” might not be quite as pleased.


ResearchBlogging.orgCialdini, R.B., Borden, R. J., Thorne, A., Walker, M.R., Freeman, S., & Sloan, L.R. (1976). Basking in reflected glory: Three (football) field studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34 (3), 366-375 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.34.3.366

Newman ML, Pennebaker JW, Berry DS, & Richards JM (2003). Lying words: predicting deception from linguistic styles. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 29 (5), 665-75 PMID: 15272998


Gold Medal is a stock photo available in the public domain. Frown Face image by SonicWiki via Wikipedia. Foam Finger image by diebmx via Flickr. “Yes We Can” image by Sage Ross via Wikimedia Commons. Mark Zuckerberg photo by Guillaume Paumier / Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-3.0

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3 responses to “We Won. They Lost.

  1. Pingback: London 2012: The psychology of the Olympic Games | PsySociety

  2. Maximum Learning

    I’ve just linked to this via my Twitter post. I love love love this from Cialdini!! : I teach it to my organisational behaviour students and hound my football fan friends with it :)

  3. Pingback: Seeing psychology everywhere: The case of Gangnam Style | PsySociety

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