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June 17, 2016

The Emotional Intensity of Sports and the Arts

Encouraging Emotional Intensity: Sports vs. the Arts [Image]

Photo by melissalambeau / CC BY-NC 2.0

When was the last time you attended a live sporting event? Did you yell and scream yourself hoarse for your team? Did you dress up in your team colors, talk trash about the opposing team on social media, or perform any rituals based on the superstition that it would help your team win?

Why do people feel such emotional intensity in their experiences with sports? And what can we do to encourage this level of emotion during arts experiences?

Emotional intensity of experiences in sports

Wide World of Sports is credited with the famous phrase “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” and this is a great example of the extremes of emotion that sports often bring both participants and spectators. But there are several other factors at play:

  • Competition is an integral part of sports. There is a chance to “win” and “lose,” and there are potential benefits and consequences based on who you are rooting for (at least socially, if not monetarily).
  • Spectators may feel that the intensity of their response has some effect on the outcome of the game. (I remember blasting my trombone loudly in my high school band whenever the opposing team was receiving a kick, in the hope that the player would be distracted and drop the ball).
  • Loyalty to a particular team is often so intense that it becomes part of a person’s self-identity, and is often deeply rooted in pride in a geographic area or group of people.
  • Children are often exposed to the excitement and family loyalty to a particular team early in life. This creates many opportunities to bond and have emotionally charged experiences with other family members, in a socially acceptable way.
  • The intensity of affection and loyalty one has for a team is rewarded socially, and is often its own form of competition between people supporting different teams.
  • Being excited and showing it physically (yelling, jumping around, etc.) is socially acceptable, and feels good (and is likely a lot safer than some of the crazy ways people seek pleasurable endorphin release).

Sadly, not all of these factors are available to us in the arts. For example, you don’t often get to scream in a symphony hall, with a few exceptions. And let’s face it, yelling and jumping around is fun.

We also don’t get the competition factor… either as supporters of a specific “team” or in the opportunity to “win” or “lose.” I’d pay good money to see fans of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company become rabid and scream doom and gloom to opposing theater companies, but sadly I don’t think it will happen.

But we do have some of these factors available to us, and we could be doing more to suggest them to our patrons.

Emotional intensity of experiences in the arts

For one, the arts arguably have an equal opportunity for intense emotional experiences. You only have to sit in on a touching performance on stage, hear the beautiful harmonies in a complex symphonic piece, marvel at the grace of the human body in motion, or get lost in a compelling piece of visual art to be moved deeply. Many people ride roller coasters to feel fear. I argue that many people also experience the arts to adjust their emotional state. To feel joy, or sadness, or wonder. Or perhaps to escape from an emotion they are feeling in the “real world.”

The arts also have the potential to tap into self-identity and repeated positive emotional experiences with family. Many people experience the Nutcracker year after year because they experienced the story when they were young, with their family (and Nutcracker productions drive the budgets of many ballet companies).

In my work with marketing staff at arts organizations, I often help the team to implement marketing and audience-engagement experiments that tap into emotional intensity. When it is done right, you’re not marketing at all. You’re just making it easier for people to connect to the emotional experiences they are already seeking. And the results can be valuable and meaningful for both organization and patron.

So, while the arts will probably never have something like the Terrible Towel, we do have the potential to create deep and rewarding emotional experiences for our patrons. When an arts experience allows us to know more about ourselves, understand complex issues more deeply, and empathize with the perspective of another, everybody “wins.”


“Chocolate Snorting Appears Safe From Feds”. US News & World Report. N.p., 2016. Web. 17 June 2016. []

“This Conductor Just Started Plain Yelling In The Middle Of Scheherazade”. Classic FM. N.p., 2016. Web. 17 June 2016. []

“Terrible Towel”. Wikipedia. N.p., 2016. Web. 17 June 2016. [