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What makes sports fans -- like Canucks fans -- riot, eh?

Rich Lam / Getty Images

People run out of a Hudson Bay Co store with merchandise on Wednesday in Vancouver, Canada. Vancouver broke out in riots after their hockey team the Vancouver Canucks lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Wednesday night's riots in Vancouver over the Canucks' lost to the Boston Bruins in the last game of the Stanley Cup finals may seem shocking to Americans who view Canadians as our mild-mannered polite cousins. But there's a long tradition of hockey-related civil disturbance in the Great White North, dating at least as far back as 1955, when Maurice “The Rocket” Richard was suspended for 15 games, setting off rioting in Montreal. 

Of course, the sports-related riot is practically an American tradition -- just ask Ohio State campus police and the LAPD -- and European soccer is known as much for its off-the-pitch violence as it is for FC Barcelona’s skill on it.

But why? What causes otherwise presumably sane and rational people to go nuts? 

“People invest themselves, their identity, very much in the sports clubs,” explained Professor Ervin Staub, a psychologist and the founder of the program in Psychology of Peace and Violence at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “There is evidence that when a team loses, fans get a little depressed and when the team wins, they get a little high.”

In fact, research over the past 25 years has shown that men especially suffer a drop in testosterone when they, or a sports team they love, lose a contest. This is also true for elections. In a study conducted during election day of 2008, scientists from Duke University and the University of Michigan found that male McCain voters suffered a significant drop in testosterone leading them to feel “significantly more unhappy, submissive, unpleasant, and controlled.”

Such biological effects, Staub explained, are directly linked to behaviors. Losers feel “diminished” and “powerless,” he said, and people then become tempted to “use destructive means rather than constructive means to regain one’s sense of effectiveness.” So they lash out. (Maybe the team lost, but I can bust a department store window!)

Winners, on the other hand, can feel so high and empowered they “feel they have the right to do anything. They feel ‘I am special!’” Staub said.

Combine these psychodynamics with the fulfilling sensation of acting in concert with a large crowd, which enhances one’s sense of power and effectiveness, “and the usual inhibitions about behavior and the social norms that guide us get lost,” Staub said. “You lose yourself to the group.”

You can toss in a little alcohol to suppress the brain’s judgment, but contrary to what most people think, you don’t need booze to get a riot.

Staub, author of the book “Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict and Terrorism,” published this year, said that “those who would allow themselves to lose their individuality in a sports riot by smashing windows likely [hopefully!] have strong values and beliefs” that would prevent them from engaging in mass killing. Still, the same psychological forces that drive the sports riot can evolve into genocide and terrorism committed in the name of nation, clan or religious sect.

Think about that the next time your team loses. Or wins.