The psychology of fanatic football fans

05 June 2018

Interview with

Sander van der Linden, Cambridge University

Why is football so popular, and why do people get so attached to certain teams, to the extent that a lost match can really ruin their day, or even lead to violence? Katie Haylor spoke with Dr Sander van der Linden, a psychologist at Cambridge University...

Sander - I think it all boils down to group psychology and identity and so people derive meaning from belonging to different groups, and we define part of who we are by the groups that we belong to.

There’s a very famous psychology experiment that was done in the 70s that was called the Minimal Group Paradigm and they were trying to figure out what were the minimal conditions for establishing group membership. And the found that using the most arbitrary criteria you can create categories of groups and people will slowly start identifying with those groups no matter how arbitrary they are.

For example, if I give half the room a red t-shirt and half the room a yellow t-shirt, people who have the yellow t-shirt will start identifying with other people who are wearing yellow t-shirts even though they have nothing in common with those individuals, and slowly start disliking the group with the red t-shirts, and this is how intergroup conflict gets started.

Katie - Okay. Does this have anything to do with our evolutionary history then this idea of being on one team and not being on the other?

Sander - I think so. People evolved living in groups and it’s very normal and these processes of characterisation, identification, and comparison are quite normal. We sort ourselves into groups, we identify with those groups, and then we start comparing ourselves with other groups. It’s just that the structural conditions of football will enhance those characteristics. So they’re wearing different t-shirts so it’s easy to spot the outgroup member versus the ingroup member. You’re sitting on different sides. You’re yelling at each other so it really drives up the ante.

Katie - I mean this can be so much fun, but sometimes you can get football hooliganism, football related violence. Why is this an issue? What’s this got to do with football?

Sander - I think football as a sport really enhances this idea of group identification, so we belong to all sorts of different groups, right. At work, when somebody says maybe something nasty about a co-worker you’ll probably think this oh, that’s not very nice, I know this person, and so on. But when you so strongly identify with a group in the moment, when somebody insults your group it’s almost like they’re insulting you personally. That’s how strongly you’ve identified with the group and so, when somebody says something bad, that’s how fights get started and everyone sort of thinks as one unit and it becomes easy to start a conflict.

Katie - So, essentially you’re not just dissing my team, your dissing a part of me?

Sander - That’s exactly right.

Katie - On a more positive note then, can being so into a football team be good for you?

Sander - I think so. People really enjoy group activities. As I said, we’ve evolved living in groups. We’ve enjoyed being with other people. Social relationships are very important. The entertainment value is very high for people. It provides some release from everyday stress. People, if you look throughout human history, people really enjoy group activities and it enhances our self esteem and our wellbeing when it doesn’t get aggressive and violent. So I think on most occasions it’s a really joyful activity for people.

Katie - Is it good for your wellbeing if your team wins then?

Sander - It depends on what your team is.

Katie - Is football more popular with men than women? Is there any research to suggest a gender difference here?

Sander - If you look at surveys, I think yes. The amount of interest expressed in football currently is higher among men, even though there’s a very substantial proportion of interest among females, but I don’t think that’s the case because of any biological reason. You see that females are just as interested in football as men - in most sports actually. I think there’s just structural barriers that include societal stereotypes that people have about football being a sort of manly sport. Biases and incentives so sponsors tend to sponsor athletes whose ratings and TV ratings are very high and so if your sport is watched less there’s also less incentive to get finances.

If you look at Wimbledon, for example, I might be quoting the year - I think it was 2007 in which the started equalising prize pay for male and female tennis players. And so I think there were a lot of structural barriers that have cause inequalities but there’s nothing that inherently suggests that there are any gender differences in sports.


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