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The Quad: The psychology behind college rivalries

The USC-UCLA rivalry runs deep. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Spencer Chau

Nov. 18, 2016 4:24 p.m.

The Bruin Bear is boxed, the bonfire has been lit, and campus rings out with the sounds of the Bruin Marching Band and cries of “U! C! L! A! Fight! Fight! Fight!” as the eight clap rings out for the umpteenth time.

It’s time to get hyped for the tomorrow’s football game against USC. Whether you are a first-year student, returning student or maybe just someone living around the Los Angeles area, chances are that you all have at least some ideas or expectations about the infamous UCLA-USC rivalry. Underneath these seemingly over-the-top-traditions, there are various factors and psychological reasons that drive the intensity of college rivalries.

The UCLA-USC rivalry is undeniably one of the most intense college rivalries in the nation. Since 1929, this long-standing rivalry has induced an almost exaggerated hatred between two schools, which includes physical injuries like broken noses, $30,000 worth of stolen instruments and riots at each other’s campuses.

The first major reason that fans the flames of this rivalry is the fact that UCLA and USC are only about 12 miles apart, a distance close enough for both schools to perform whatever evil tricks they have in store for each other’s campuses, unlike many other college rivalries. With such proximity, it’s common to run into students from the rival school around Los Angeles. The outcomes of these interactions remind us how deep our rivalry is – once, I was given a 10-second-long death stare from a small group of USC kids at Santa Monica Pier while I was wearing my “I Love UCLA Transfers” T-shirt.

It is also difficult to forget our rivalry after 86 years of crosstown battle. It is the rich history of sporting battles between colleges that usher new students into the competitive dynamic.

According to Harvard assistant professor of psychology Mina Cikara, “Rivalry is fundamentally related to competition, but it’s competition over time that provides an opportunity for attitudes and emotions to become more polarized and entrenched.”

The history of our past competitions only heats up students’ emotion and the general atmosphere of the universities, as history shows how similar UCLA and USC are in terms of achievements.

Similarity plays a huge role in college rivalries. USC remains our only rival school in Southern California despite the proximity of other universities. Our similarity in sporting and academic achievement, as well as school rankings, provides a reason for students to compete and outdo each other. After all, what is there to compete against if two schools have a large achievement gap?

Another push factor for the college rivalry is the family element suggested in a Statesman article, which argues that our sense of belonging to the college family links us to our rich history and motivates us to achieve a better collective future. When we perform certain rituals, like the annual Beat ‘SC Bonfire, in the week before the big USC game, it creates a sense of intimacy through sharing of a common experience, unity against a rival collective and indelible memories which can be fondly recalled years later.

In addition, many college students are typically quite far from their hometowns and the communities they have built there. Students might thus seek a family-like connectivity that can be derived through participation in college rivalry traditions, as the Statesman article suggests.

Gaining membership into a community with shared goals and traditions generates positive feelings of acceptance. This constructed social identification as Bruin within the Bruin-Trojan dichotomy is of paramount importance to the concept of “us versus them.” A Harvard University study shows how these intense emotions escalate polarization. Not only do we derive pleasure from beating our rival, it is also emotionally rewarding when our rival team is beaten by a third party, or when our rival team fails itself.

However, college rivalries aren’t purely about having fun and devilishly trying to destroy each other. A New York University study has discovered that rivalry motivates one to put in extra effort, as the experiment shows that athletes dramatically improve their performance when competing against their rival, which actually reaches the ideal goal of competition – striving for improvement.

College rivalry, in my opinion, isn’t anything to be discouraged as long as most participants are responsible and civil. As a transfer student, I am thrilled to experience the exclusive UCLA ritual at tomorrow’s USC game and be part of the large crowd that screams collectively until we all lose our voices.

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Spencer Chau
Spencer Chau is a current Daily Bruin Blogging contributor. He writes about a wide variety of topics including about college and media culture.
Spencer Chau is a current Daily Bruin Blogging contributor. He writes about a wide variety of topics including about college and media culture.
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