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The Real March Madness: People Remember The Wins, Forget Losses

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Don't fret if your alma mater is eliminated from the NCAA Basketball tournament -- scientists say you probably won't remember it anyway.
Stuart Seeger: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stuseeger/379550719/
Don't fret if your alma mater is eliminated from the NCAA Basketball tournament -- scientists say you probably won't remember it anyway.

College basketball fans are beginning the annual rituals that revolve around March Madness. Of course, half the fans watching any game will leave disappointed, but a psychology professor in D.C. has some reassuring findings for grieving fans.

D.C. resident and Duke fan Pae Wu has a very thorough knowledge of Blue Devil basketball. She can give play by play accounts of big wins going back years -- including her team's national championship in 2010.

"As the clock started ticking down, I found myself experiencing some shaking, some mild hyperventilation," recalls Wu. "And then after Gordon Hayward's shot bounced out of the rim, there was complete bedlam."

Martin Safer, psychology professor at the Catholic University of America, says vivid memories of victories tend to stick with fans for several reasons. They may talk about wins with friends --  and buy momentos that reinforce those memories.

"Every time they see this hat, this t-shirt, pencil, whatever it may be, they're sort of reminded about the game that their team won," says Safer.

Wu -- for instance -- saved newspapers from that 2010 championship and she's kept the shirt she wore throughout the tournament.

Safer conducted an study to see if fans hold onto the memories of losses as well. He asked Yankees and Red Sox fans to recall specific details of American League championship games in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.  In one case the Yankees won, in the other case the Red Sox won.  Safer found fans have better memories of the games their teams win and tend to dismiss details of losses.

"You want to feel good about yourself and your team much more so than dwelling on the bad things," says Safer.

Wu says she can remember some details of big losses -- especially a painful loss to Kentucky in 1998.  But mostly, as a fan, she says she's learned to move on -- what Safer calls the "the wait 'til next year" phenomenon.  That may not help fans smarting from a recent loss, but could offer some hope that the agony of defeat will eventually fade away.

This story was informed in part by sources in WAMU's Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to reach out for input on upcoming stories. Learn more about the Public Insight Network.

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