The Psychology Behind Why We Still Can’t Get Enough of Usain Bolt

And Deena Kastor. And Tatyana McFadden. And every other individual athlete, as opposed to a team.

  • According to a recent study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, there’s a reason why we tend to cheer for one person instead of a team.
  • Researchers found that people were more invested in the success of one athlete—in this case, Usain Bolt—as opposed to the success of his team.
  • In this study, 79 percent of people said they would root for his individual success in a race, while 21 percent responded they would choose to cheer on a relay team he was anchoring.

When you think of track and field, maybe you think of Usain Bolt’s gold-medal success, or you’re excited see if Deena Kastor can nab another long-distance record or if Tatyana McFadden clinch another marathon victory.

But hearing about a running club or pro team that’s crushing it? Not so much.

According to a recent study just published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, that feeling is a common phenomenon, and it’s why we might cheer for just one member of a relay team or a single runner in a marathon instead of a group.

“People want to see a dominant performance by individuals to continue more than identical performance by groups,” lead author Jesse Walker, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, told Runner’s World. “Everyone wants Usain Bolt to win another gold medal for sprinting. Not so many people want to see the New England Patriots win another Super Bowl.”

Walker and Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell University, undertook nine studies with a total of 2,625 participants. In one, the researchers asked 200 people if they would rather see Bolt win a gold medal in the individual event or in a relay event in the next Olympics. Significantly more people—158—chose the individual medal, Walker said.

To see whether this was true only because of Bolt’s fame, in another study, the researchers created a fictional trivia expert who had won a championship six times in a row, as well as a fictional trivia team that also won a competition six times. Again, a much higher number of people were ready to cheer the individual to victory instead of the team.

“There’s no reason any of our participants should have any rooting bias for the individual or the team because both the competition and the players were all fictional,” Walker said. “So, we see this effect even when we strip away the allegiance that many people may naturally have toward one competitor or another.”

This isn’t true only in sports and game competitions, either. Walker said that in one study, people felt a company driven by a singular, successful CEO deserved more market share than one led by a team of executives.

In terms of why this happens, Walker said there could be a number of factors, but most likely it comes down to admiration. It’s simply easier to be in awe of an individual, he said, and to see a winning streak as an attribute connected to talent and effort of one person versus a group.

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