Choked by the Foam Hand

The “We’re No. 1!” foam hand was invented by high school teacher Geral Fauss in 1978, and originally came as a wooden sign that was too heavy (and too dangerous) to be practical.

Cast today in polyurethane foam, the “No. 1” hand is one of the most popular ways for sports fans to demand the best from their teams.

But maybe sports audiences should set their expectations a little lower. Jennifer L. Butler and Roy F. Baumeister, psychologists at Case Western Reserve University, found that people often performed unexpectedly worse in front of supportive audiences than they did in front of neutral ones. (We think of it as choking under pressure.) In Butler and Baumeister’s experiments, the higher audience expectations got, the worse their performers did.

Dubner has blogged about how cheering crowds can psych out athletes, causing them to fail by focusing on not failing rather than on succeeding.

Maybe the next line of foam hands should read: “Don’t mind us.”


The results are verified by real life professional atheletes. This study of 3,619 penalty kics in the German soccer league finds significantly more chocking at home:


maybe it's time to return the foam hand to its rightful owner.


The difference in home vs. away can be attributed to other things besides crowd noise like getting to sleep at home, not traveling, familiar surroundings... On a side note I have been to several White Sox games and been astonished how little cheering they do. I went to a White Sox game on Saturday and the only chant of the game was a "Let's go Red Sox" one. The only time the White Sox fans reached that volume was wen Jenks came in to close the game. Even with quite fans they are 40-19 at home and 26-33 on the road.


This could explain why after Day 7 of the Olympics, the Canadian team has zero medals to show. The pressure on them has been enormous since the announcement of 2010 in Vancouver.


how about a foam hand with the "one fingered peace sign"?


This is interesting...two PSYCHOLOGISTS have uncovered a relationship that sports analysts, coaches and players would disagree with and would have since the inception of their respective sports.

All this time and we should have just NOT sold tickets. How could we have missed that one?

So fairweathered fans would actually work to the detriment of the team. Go Nuggets.


I wonder if Michael Phelps feels like fan pressure and raised expectations hurts him.

5 gold medals in 5 world record times in his 5 events so far would indicate otherwise.


Historically, Big 10 basketball teams have a much better record at home in front of an incredibly supportive crowd (regardless of the quality of the team) than on the road in front of a generally hostile crowd (see Eric Gordon playing at the University of Illinois last year). This is probably also true for most ACC games as well (see Duke and UNC rivalry).

Rush H

Olympic Related follow up:

I wonder if the French relay swimming team regrets publicly trash talking the US before this week's race; the Americans said it played a significant role in their victory over the higher ranked French swimmers.

What do Levitt and Dubner have to say about the effects of trash talking competitors? Does it hurt or help?

Arjun Sinha

Does any data exist on the home/away win records of LiverpoolFC - the premier league club - historically known for their passionate supporters.


home v. away is not the same as supportive v. neutral. Instead, home v. away is more like supportive v. negative or abusive. Besides, as pointed out above, home v. away has other distinctions.

A random sampling of people is unlikely to be representative of athletes--especially elite athletes.


You hear so many reports about how well teams do at home in front of their fans and that when they're away, how much they enjoy seeing their fans in the stands. I'm definitely disagreeing with this study....


This experiment doesn't accurately replicate the athletic performance condition. Many athletes desire to perform in front of supportive audiences - that's why they become athletes in the first place! Consider the high school football star whose #1 desire at this point of his life is to receive the accolades of his school, family, town, pastor, and one day the nation. This is absolutely nothing like their laboratory condition in that their laboratory actually lacks the inherent selection bias in athletics.

General rule of thumb: the bigger the crowd you have, the more likely it is that you're the kind of person who likes performing in front of crowds. Shy people who don't like attention and are prone to choking tend not to become star athletes and actors.

Is there choking in sports? Probably. But the results of this experiment probably don't translate that strongly to the real world.



not sure there is such a thing as a "neutral" audience- does the neutral audience yell YOO! or BAY! ?


Isn't the study really about how untrained people differ from trained people? Put a college volunteer in various environments versus putting a trained athlete (or musician or whatever) in their trained-for environment.

Susanna K.

I don't know... if that were true in every instance, the Gamecocks should've been #1 in the SEC for several years running.


Indeed, "supportive v. neutral" is not the same as "road v. home". The team playing on the road deals with many factors, like travel, adjusting time zones, unfamiliarity with the nuances of the playing field. The home crowd is but one more factor.

And anyway, I think fans often overestimate the value their cheering has for their team. I think it's partly a desire to feel part of the team, influencing the outcome because they were so supportive.

I wonder about this: Does this study conversely suggest that home fans might be better served supporting the visiting team while remaining neutral about their own team?

Michael F. Martin

By the time they get to be professionals, I would think most of them would be over the cheering. But maybe not at the peaks (the Olympics, the Superbowl).

I don't think we focus on the chokes at these events though. At least I am more interested in the underdogs that find their way to victory through these lapses.

Fred T.

They tested psychology students. How can that ever be correlated to sports teams that routinely perform under such circumstances?

I think with regard to sports, recent history has shown that teams prefer a supportive audience.

NFL 2007, 5 (of 32) teams with more road wins than home wins.

MLB 2008 (to 08/12), 2 (of 30) teams with more road wins than home wins.

NBA 2007, 1 (of 30) team with more road wins than home wins.

NHL 2007, 4 (of 30) teams with more road wins than home wins.

That's 12 out of 122 teams (or just under 10%) that perform better without supportive audiences. And while there's no direct correlation between home/away record and fan support (it could be the water they drink for all we know), it's certainly a better measuring stick than a small group of psychology students.



What if the foam hand said something that encouraged the team without taking trash about the other? Specifically, I'm thinking about those "We Believe" shirts that the Golden State Warriors had in the playoffs 2 years ago. That specific phrase doesn't imply that the team is better than the other; it just is an illustration of collective support for the home team.