Are you still thinking about it? Do you see New England’s Malcolm Butler knocking Ricardo Lockette out of the way to steal that pass (and the Seahawks’ hopes for a second straight Lombardi Trophy) over and over, like a .gif that’s been uploaded to your cerebral cortex? It’s almost been five days since Super Bowl XLIX ended, and I’ve barely begun to let it go. Part of the problem is that I listen to sports talk radio every morning, and ohmygod they won’t shut up about The Play, dissecting it over and over, from every angle imaginable. I’m convinced that if Mitch Levy could crack open Pete Carroll's skull and interview the coach's brain, he would.
But the real problem is that this is something I always do, particularly with sports. I’ve followed the University of Iowa football team religiously, almost since birth (thanks, Mom and Dad!), so I’ve had plenty of heartbreaking losses to pick apart, play by agonizing play. And what’s common to every one of those situations is the visceral feeling that if I think about it enough—if I figure out why it happened or, more important how it happened—I can wind back the clock and fix what went wrong. So any time over the last 96 hours that I’ve told myself to turn off the radio, to shut out the noise, to just let it go, I hear Jack Shephard screaming, WE HAVE TO GO BACK!
I’m sick, I know, but I’m not alone. Just Wednesday morning, Sports Radio KJR’s Jason Puckett was talking about biting his nails and tapping his toes while rewatching the Super Bowl on Monday—as if somehow in the intervening hours the world had righted itself and this time the game would end with Marshawn Lynch crashing through the Patriots’ defensive line and into the endzone for a game-winning touchdown. (Followed, of course, by a triumphant, yet tasteful crotch grab.) Having company in my misery wasn’t enough to silence my mind, though, so I had to ask an expert: What the hell am I doing to myself?
“It’s called rumination.” That’s Dr. Kevin King, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington. As you can probably imagine, rumination is not a healthy method of coping with loss, and King drove home that fact by citing research conducted by the recently deceased Yale professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. “She found that it’s actually related to depression and prolonged anxiety,” he said. “You’re like a hamster in a wheel, going around and around and around again.”
I had to try to ignore that King basically called me a rodent in need of Prozac because there was still a lot about this particular mental deficiency of mine that I didn’t understand. For starters, why does this loss hurt so much? I mean, yeah, it’s the Super Bowl. But even if Doc Brown had shown up in the DeLorean on Friday and told us that the Seahawks were going to lose, it’s hard to imagine being this devastated by the news. So next I turned to the Seattle University psych department. (Fun fact: I emailed the department chair and asked her to suggest some professors who could answer my questions. Several didn’t respond because they just couldn’t bear to relive the loss. Uh, guys, you’re literally surrounded by shrinks. You just have to knock on your neighbor’s door to talk about your feelings. Go cry it out.)
According to associate professor Dr. Kathleen Cook, one of the brave souls who was actually willing to pick herself up off the couch and answer my questions, we’re more likely to engage in counterfactuals—or imagine alternative outcomes—when we believe that an event should play out a certain way. Think about it: If the Seahawks had been 7-point underdogs and lost, a lot of us would have been bummed, but the fact that the game ended the way it was “supposed to” would have tempered the disappointment. (Sort of.) Instead, we believed, without question, that they would win. And we'd so completely convinced ourselves of that outcome that it had become our reality; as a result, the loss just didn't compute. “This is why silver medalists are typically more upset than bronze medalists,” Cook told me via email. “The silver medalist thinks, ‘If only X, I would have won.’ Whereas the bronze medalist is left thinking, ‘If only X, I wouldn’t have medaled at all.’”
It’s not only an unexpected outcome that can affect our response, though. Sometimes it’s the unexpected way in which that unexpected outcome plays out that screws with our heads. “I think the worst thing that most people had in mind would be that the Patriots made a goal-line stand; maybe they just stopped the Seahawks,” said Dr. Randall Horton, also an associate professor at Seattle U. “But throwing an interception from the one-yard line? This enters nobody's mind.” Throw in the fact that the game turned on one play—not only did the Seahawks lose the ball on that interception, the Patriots won—and you’ve got a recipe for unmitigated anguish. “If you see somebody else enjoying that goal that you wanted for yourself,” Horton said, “sometimes that can be enough to tip you over the edge.”
Is there any good to take away from this, though? Can I blame biology for my obsession with replaying that interception on an endless loop in my mind, dreaming of all the other, more positive ways the game could have ended? Or am I just losing my mind? “The wider literature does suggest that there is an evolutionary—what we call sociobiological—benefit,” Cook wrote. “It is important to learn from our past mistakes to prevent such an outcome in the future—don’t tangle with a mastodon with a dull spear; it will win—and such learning could be vital to the survival of our genes.”
In other words, my Ice Age ancestors were sharp enough to dodge attacks from now-extinct animals just so I could fixate to the point of distraction on a pro football game that I watched on TV while eating homemade chili (for which I didn’t personally have to kill anything) and sitting in a room that was a comfortable 71 degrees on the first day of February.
They must be so proud.