LSU football fans once had their collective intensity recorded on a seismograph, and an unfortunate few have had their post-game blood alcohol content measured by area police departments. This season, the school is finding out just how much the Tigers own their fans’ hearts.
Or, at least, their heart rates.
When LSU defeated Mississippi State 19-6 on Thursday, Sept. 15, about a dozen students were connected to a computer that recorded how their pulses sped and slowed as they watched the game on television at the Manship School of Mass Communications. The plan is for such monitoring to continue for the remaining televised out-of-town games.
Why? Not so much for what it tells LSU about its fan support, but about its own ability to discern how media images please or displease viewers.
The study is a joint project of the Manship School’s Public Policy Research Lab and its Media Effects Lab. The former group does telephone opinion polls, focus groups and other surveys, information for which businesses and political entities pay. The Media Effects Lab has a lot of cool testing capabilities, and LSU is interested in seeing if it can create a market.
“We thought, ‘What kind of data would businesses in Baton Rouge be interested in?’” said Michael Climek, operations manager for the Public Policy Research Lab. “The one thing we came up with is that everyone in Baton Rouge is interested in LSU football. If there’s someone who isn’t, well, I’m suspicious of them.
“We can do a lot of physio-testing, we can do heart-rate testing, we can do sweat-gland testing, so we thought, all right, we’ve got to do one of those tests on an LSU football game and get an academic paper out of that, and also bring that data out to businesses and say this is some of the capabilities we have.”
The idea is that political campaigns and businesses could test their messages to see how people respond.
“As long as there is some type of message involved, we can test it,” said Meghan Sanders, deputy director for the Media Effects Lab.
Thursday’s game was a test run to make sure the equipment worked as it should. Each student was hooked up just before the game began and was asked not to stand up or move around except at halftime, when wires were removed so people could stretch and go to the bathroom. The test subjects also were provided with food and soft drinks.
It’s not exactly the same as watching a game with friends or at a bar, they said.
“It’s a little more uncomfortable,” said Scott Cornelius, a sophomore marketing major from Baton Rouge. “I can’t be as active as I’d like to. It’s not a terribly exciting game, but it’s an interesting game. It’s definitely holding my attention.
“I don’t think it affects my enjoyment of the game. I wouldn’t have had quite as much food, though, and probably a little more alcohol.”
Sanders and Climek followed the reactions on a computer monitor that displayed each fan’s heartbeat on a separate line. Faster heart rates indicated excitement; slower rates indicated the fans were paying closer attention. As Cornelius noted, the game was not especially dramatic, especially compared with the 7-6 win in the 1988 Auburn game, when fans’ reactions to the winning touchdown shook the Geology Department’s seismograph.
Sanders and Climek also noticed their reactions to commercials, elevated crowd noise coming through the television speakers and reactions to the officials’ whistles or random moments in the game.
“On that offsetting penalty, there was a short burst of this,” Climek said, moving a hand up and down to indicate what the monitor was showing. “That was entertaining.”
Each student filled out a questionnaire indicating his or her level of fan enthusiasm, which the study team will compare against what the heart rates indicated. There’s no question which information is more credible.
“Sometimes on questionnaires people can’t really quite convey what they’re feeling, what they’re experiencing,” Sanders said. “Here, they don’t have a choice. We can see it on the screen. They can say, ‘You know, it was a nice play. It was pretty exciting.’ But if their heart rate is going through the roof, we know that it was much more than just pretty exciting for them.”
And not just about football.
At one point in the game when neither team was generating much offense, Climek and Sanders noticed that two of the fans had higher heart rates than the rest. They looked up and discovered it was a man and woman talking to each other.
“So, it was picking up their attraction,” Sanders said.
For a while, anyway. It also may have confirmed a certain gender-based stereotype, at least based on the following:
The woman’s heart rate while talking with the man — 160 beats per minute.
The man’s heart rate when LSU’s Morris Claiborne intercepted a Mississippi State pass — 160 beats per minute.