Pitt students’ vendetta against couches explained

By Julie Percha

Pitt sophomore Alex Patterson didn’t have to rush the Oakland streets in celebration after the… Pitt sophomore Alex Patterson didn’t have to rush the Oakland streets in celebration after the Steelers’ recent Super Bowl victory ‘mdash; the riot came to him. As Patterson and his roommates played video games in their Forbes-Craig apartment, they spotted one of the most timeless campus celebrations just outside their window: a couch, ablaze in the night.’ ‘We were like, ‘Hey, there’s a couch burning right outside our window,” said Patterson, an electrical engineering student. ‘Our whole room smelled like smoke.’ But Patterson said the flaming festivities, a staple of many big-win sports celebrations at Pitt, didn’t surprise him. Still, there’s one burning question: Why torch a decent, functional sofa? Student Government Board member Max Greenwald said the practice likely began at Pitt as a means of mocking other couch-burning schools, namely Panther football’s backyard brawl rival, WVU. ‘People at Pitt originally started burning couches to make fun of the fact that WVU students did it,’ said Greenwald. ‘Clearly, as Pitt students, we think it’s beneath us.’ Pitt junior Lukas Hoffmann said he has never personally participated in the act, but thinks students do burn loveseats merely to celebrate. ‘[Students burn couches] because they’re drunk and they just want to celebrate,’ he said. ‘It adds a nice touch to the festivities.’ Pitt psychology professor Richard Moreland might not be an expert when it comes to couch burning, but as a social psychologist, he understands how individual behavior changes when people gather in a group. ‘There is considerable evidence that people misbehave more often in groups than they do when alone,’ said Moreland in an e-mail, ‘and this gap in behavior gets worse the larger the group becomes.’ When people find themselves in large groups, like big post-win riots, said Moreland, they tend to feel individually anonymous and might take on actions that they would ‘normally not dare to do if alone.’ Moreland said that sociological factors might also play a role in group misbehavior. ‘Looking back at events like those that occurred the evening of the Super Bowl, people … who were not there are horrified and disgusted because the mob behaved in ways that violated general social norms [such as couch burning],’ he said. But Moreland also said new social standards emerge for large crowds, and participants might feel the need to match up. The rioters ‘were conforming to expectations, not deviating from them,’ said Moreland. Greenwald, having run for election on a platform aimed to improve tradition on campus, said he feels passionate about Panther pride. With SGB currently without a traditions committee, Greenwald said he feels personally committed to deepening the connection between students and long-running Pitt traditions.’ But couch burning isn’t a signature celebratory custom at Pitt, said Greenwald. ‘We always pride ourselves on being more civilized than our rivals to the west and to the east,’ he said, citing Penn State University as another local institution where couch burning is popular among excited sports fans. ‘When we win, we celebrate with class.’ That class comes with a hefty price tag ‘mdash; literally. Couches are expensive items to burn, and many students do not have an extra one to spare. Freshman Alexandra Spina said that riots can be a fun way to celebrate, but couch burning crosses a line. ‘I understand the whole riot thing,’ she said, ‘but I think it’s dumb to burn something of that much value.’ Spina contended that couch burning isn’t the best approach for celebration. While it might be exciting to watch, she said, it damages the University’s image by making students ‘seem like attention-seekers.’ Individuals working in the student affairs department of WVU were unavailable for comment.