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Hook 'Em or Gig 'Em?: Professor uses college football rivalry as context for research on social comparison

Jeremy Waldrop is an Aggie living “behind the burnt orange curtain,” also known as Austin.  He’s a homebuilder who drives around town in a maroon pick-up truck.  In his wallet, he carries round stickers, about the size of a silver dollar, touting the Aggie call “Gig ’Em.”  From time to time, when he spies a Texas Ex bumper sticker, he’ll slyly cover it with a “Gig ’Em” sticker.

Rachel Smith

Dr. Rachel Smith

According to a researcher at The University of Texas at Austin, Jeremy’s sly jab is an excellent illustration of the impact of college football rivalry and what conditions encourage people to adopt the social norms of their group.

Dr. Rachel A. Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies in the College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin, has used college football rivalry as one of the backdrops to her research on social comparison. 

“College football rivalries are a potent element in our society,” she says.  “Thanks to cable television and the Internet, students may keep up with those rivals long after graduation.  In fact, throughout the country, media companies reported that viewers only diverted their attention away from coverage of the Iraq War to watch college football.” 

But the real psychosocial consequences of college football rivalries are poorly understood.

Smith set out to gain some insight on whether these rivalries have a significant impact on how students perceive themselves and their classmates.  While she anticipated that the timing of her research—in the days preceding a rival football game versus a non-rival game—would likely have an effect on these perceptions, she was just as interested in how the wording of the comparison questions would influence students’ answers.

Her research methodology was simple enough.  She surveyed students at a large Midwest university with a strong in-state rivalry, using a short list of questions.  To focus attention on the upcoming game, students were asked to list how they showed school spirit. 

Two questions were asked:  “How similar are (home school) students to (rival school) students?” to assess school comparison; and “How similar do you think you are to (home school) students?” to gauge self-group comparisons.

Half of the surveys reversed the word order, or direction of comparison, asking instead, “How similar are (rival school) students to (home school) students?” and “How similar do you think (home school) students are to you?” 

The surveys were conducted at different times during the football season: on a Thursday preceding an in-state rival football game and on a Thursday preceding a weekend without a game.

During the non-game week, study participants perceived moderate similarity between students at their own school and students at the rival school, regardless of the direction of comparison.  However, when asked the same set of questions during a rival game week, students perceived less similarity between the two groups—and more important—even fewer similarities when the direction of comparison was reversed and the rival school was mentioned first in the question.

The student section at a Texas A&M football game at Kyle Field is a sea of maroon

The student section at a Texas A&M football game at Kyle Field is a sea of maroon. Commonly referred to as “Maroon Out,” Aggies all wear their maroon T-shirts to the game.

“These findings suggest that rivalry cues trigger us to think more about the unique features of one’s own school, especially on game weekends,” explains Smith.

Social Identity

“When comparing two objects, logic suggests that ‘A’ should be as similar to ‘B’ as ‘B’ is to ‘A,’” she explains.  “But psychologically, this symmetry doesn’t always occur.

“It’s a commonly accepted notion that, when doing research on self-group perceptions, the ‘self’ is typically less similar to ‘others’ than ‘others’ are to ‘self,’” Smith says.  “In essence, the more you know about ‘A’ (in this case, ‘self’) the less likely it is for ‘B’ (others at your school) to share the same features.”

She predicted study participants would have overall stronger perceptions of similarity between themselves and their classmates during a rival game week.  She suspected the similarities between “self” and “other students” would be higher when “other students” was introduced first in the survey question and lower when the direction of comparison was changed to introduce “self” first.  But a funny thing happened. 

“I was amazed to discover,” she says, “that when comparing themselves to others at their home school during a rival game week, students cited even higher perceptions of similarity than when ‘other students’ was introduced first in the question. 

“These responses go completely against the grain of what we expect from a ‘self-other’ comparison,” Smith adds.  “They underscore the potency of rivalries:  In the context of a rivalry, students’ perceptions of their social group—in this case, their home school—were even more detailed than their sense of self.

The Longhorn Hellraisers have cheered on UT's athletics teams for more than a decade.  The group's members paint their bodies and spell out 'TEXAS' at football and basketball games

The Longhorn Hellraisers have cheered on UT’s athletics teams for more than a decade. Best known for their raucous and rowdy behavior, the organization’s members paint their bodies and spell out “TEXAS” at all football and basketball games.

Photo: Chris Carson

“When there is a social rival, such as between college football teams,” Smith says, “individuals may forgo their individual preferences and adopt the social norms of their groups.” 

This may explain why some college students across the country demonstrate more extreme fan behavior, such as streaking, painting their bodies or shaving their heads in the name of school spirit.

Rivalries Define Us: Some More Than Others

So it’s fair to say that we often define ourselves in the context of our rivals.  Certainly this is true in the case of the longtime Longhorn-Aggie football rivalry—perhaps more so on the Aggie side, which seems to revel in demeaning the longhorns:  What other university’s rival is the focus of half its fight song (“The Aggie War Hymn”) and is traditionally followed up with the verse, “Saw Varsity’s Horns Off.”

Second Verse of “The Aggie War Hymn”

Good-bye to Texas University.
So long to the Orange and White.
Good luck to the dear old Texas Aggies,
They are the boys who show the real old fight.
The eyes of Texas are upon you.
That is the song they sing so well,
So, good-bye to Texas University,
We’re goin’ to beat you all to —
Rough! Tough!
Real stuff! Texas A&M!

During Texas A&M's 'War Hymn,' Aggies sing 'Saw Varsity's Horns Off' while locking arms and swaying side to side

During Texas A&M’s “War Hymn,” Aggies sing “Saw Varsity’s Horns Off” while locking arms and swaying side to side.

The Longhorns, too, mention their longtime rivals in their fight song, to a lesser degree however.  “Texas Fight” (better known as “TAPS”) is the official fight song of The University of Texas and is played following touchdowns and extra points at Texas football games.

“Texas Fight”

Texas Fight, Texas Fight,
And it’s goodbye to A&M.
Texas Fight, Texas Fight,
And we’ll put over one more win.
Texas Fight, Texas Fight,
For it’s Texas that we love best.
Hail, Hail, The gang’s all here,
And it’s good-bye to all the rest!

Despite their distaste for each other, Longhorn and Aggie fans know that some of the cherished traditions that contribute to both of their identities are the result of history and this historical rivalry.  

It’s the longtime rivalry that prompted the annual Aggie bonfire (which was discontinued after it collapsed in 1999, killing 11 students and one former student).  The 55-foot-tall bonfire, started in 1909, symbolized “the burning desire of Aggies to beat the University of Texas in the annual football game.”

“At the very top of the bonfire we perched an outhouse painted orange with ‘t.u. frat house’ written across to represent UT,” explains Ross Epstein, president of the Capital City A&M Club in Austin.

In the context of a rivalry, students' perceptions of their social group--in this case, their home school--were even more detailed than their sense of self. --Dr. Rachel Smith“It used to be that in the weeks leading up to the game you couldn’t find roadway signs in Bryan-College Station with the word ‘Austin’ on them,” he adds.  “It was tradition for freshmen to remove these signs and toss them into the bonfire.  Eventually, the Texas Department of Transportation tired of replacing the signs and just gave them to students.”

Despite having been discontinued—and in a move that underscores the feelings about this tradition—some current and former Texas A&M students are organizing an unofficial, non-sanctioned bonfire off campus this year.  According to a university spokeswoman, this event has no ties to the university and cannot feature the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band, the Corps of Cadets, yell leaders and other elements featured in official bonfires of the past.

One of the Aggies’ more bizarre traditions paying tribute to the rivalry is a burnt orange poop-collecting wheelbarrow that follows the Parsons Mounted Cavalry around the field with “t.u.” scrawled on the side.  This wheelbarrow is used at all Aggie football games, no matter the opponent.

The Torchlight Parade is the annual spirit event held at UT to show support for the Longhorns before the Red River Shootout

The Torchlight Parade is the annual spirit event held at The University of Texas at Austin to show support for the Longhorns as they go on to play the University of Oklahoma Sooners in the Red River Shootout in Dallas, Texas.

Photo: Chris Carson

More recently, Aggies have started sporting either a longhorn sticker with the horns cut off or an inverted longhorn sticker on their vehicles.

Not to be outdone, the Longhorns have their own traditions reserved for Aggie football games.  The annual Hex Rally, which began in 1941 when a group of University of Texas students asked a palm reader to place a curse on the Aggies and end a University of Texas losing streak, features thousands of Longhorn fans burning red candles near the steps of the Main Building to hex the Aggies.

Smith suggests, “The rivalry cues must be present to make a person’s social group identity come to the forefront.  It would not be surprising if some of the more poignant examples of school rivalries, and their effect on individual behavior, occur when alums live in proximity to the rival university.” 

Case in point:  Bill Birdwell, former president of the Brazos Valley Texas Exes Club, who runs a dental practice in Bryan, Texas says it’s rare to see a Texas Exes car decal in Bryan-College Station.  “It’s just too risky. It’s like asking to have your car keyed,” he says.

This self-described ostentatious longhorn adds it’s probably easier doing business as an Aggie in Austin than it is for a Texas Ex in Bryan-College Station.

“There are some people who simply refuse to do business with Texas Exes.”  He jokingly adds, however, “Lucky for me, there are enough Aggies who don’t brush or floss to keep me in business.

“Seriously though, I admire the Aggie traditions.  I have a lot of respect for them.  And where else can you live where you can provoke an Aggie every day.”

At the Hex Rally each year before the post-Thanksgiving football game, thousands of Longhorn fans light candles and converge on the steps of UT's Main Building to hex the Aggies

At the Hex Rally each year before the post-Thanksgiving football game, thousands of Longhorn fans light candles and converge on the steps of The University of Texas at Austin Main Building to hex the Aggies.

About this time each year, Birdwell starts wise cracking and making bets with his Aggie friends and patients about the annual face-off.

 “We have a great time of it,” he says.  “I’ve even written poems to friends about Texas winning the game.

“Back when the Southwest Conference existed and we shot for the Cotton Bowl each post season, I used to plant bluebonnet seeds in the front yards of some of my Aggie friends to suggest that they’d be going to the Bluebonnet Bowl instead of the Cotton Bowl,” Birdwell recalls.  (The Bluebonnet Bowl was a less prestigious bowl game.)

“Although the presence of a rivalry may motivate people to assert their group loyalty and group norms, people need some social support from their group to do so,” suggests Smith.  “A lone A&M student may not face a crowd of UT fans, but get a couple A&M fans together—and now they have enough support to ‘fight’ the rival.”

It can be intimidating for Longhorns to live in Bryan-College Station.  With a population of about 133,500, nearly half of whom are students; the prevailing color is maroon. (Austin has a population of about 656,500—nearly five times the size of Bryan-College Station—which may dilute the potency of the Longhorn presence here.)

“I hate to say it, but many of our Texas Exes have become closet longhorns, with only 75 to 100 showing up at our annual scholarship banquet,” Birdwell says.

Conversely, the Capital City A&M Club, with about 1,400 dues-paying members, is one of the strongest in the nation with more than 250 events each year.

Parsons Mounted Cavalry wave their 12th Man towels after a Texas A&M win over Texas Tech University

Parsons Mounted Cavalry wave their 12th Man towels after a Texas A&M win over Texas Tech University.

“Living in Austin, we’re constantly bombarded by all things burnt orange,” says Epstein.  “So we rally around each other through dozens of activities each month, such as breakfast meetings, golf tournaments, fish fries, etc.  We seek each other out wherever we are.”

Societal Applications and Broader Contexts

While Smith’s research on group behavior in the context of college football rivalries and the rivalries themselves are captivating, her findings have deeper societal applications.

In fact, she recently returned from Namibia, where she does HIV prevention work as part of an ongoing research project.

“We must understand when individual preferences and group practice collide, what makes a person choose one over the other,” she says.  “If social norms pressure a woman to breastfeed her children, than a mother living with HIV may feel greater pressure to continue breastfeeding her babies, even though she knows that she may transmit HIV to her child.  If we did not understand these social pressures, then we could design a persuasive campaign focused on mothers’ individual preferences, when that’s not the issue.

“The more we understand about social pressures, such as social norms, even stigma, and the relative weigh of these social pressures in decision making, the better we can design interventions to change social pressures when that needs to be our focus.

“People may think, feel or behave based on their group identity or social norms,” Smith says.  “The key to accessing this group identity may be group identifier, or the presence of those ‘not like me,’ but, instead, the presence of the enemy.”

Erin Geisler

Photo of Dr. Smith: Marsha Miller

Photos from The University of Texas at Austin: UT Sports Photography

Photos from Texas A&M University: Office of University Relations

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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