What chanting does to crowds

There are millions of fans singing their teams praises across Brazil at the moment, but how does this chanting affect behaviour?
24 June 2014

Interview with 

Daniel Richardson, University College London


England's supporters might have fallen silent at the World Cup this week, but there Football Crowdare still stadia full of fans singing their teams' praises across Brazil. Kat Arney spoke to Daniel Richardson from the Department of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain sciences at University College London about his work studying how crowds chanting together can affect their behaviour.

Daniel -   Well, chanting and synchronised behaviour is just one of the things that people do at football matches - like dressing up in their colours or painting their faces or the Swiss fans all wearing cheese on their heads - one of these things that people do that we think changes their social identity.  What it does is, we all think of ourselves as individuals.  We think of ourselves as unique people with values and principles, particularly in the west.  But what we neglect is all the social groups that we're a member of.  When we go to a football stadium, and we chant together or we're dressed the same, we're turning up the dial in that part of our own identity that's connected with this larger group.  That has all sorts of effects, both positive and negative.

Kat -   I guess this is kind of a tribal thing, isn't it?  We're saying, "I'm part of this tribe."

Daniel -   That's right, yeah and you see the sort of behaviour, chanting and singing, they're moving together across society.  You see it in churches, in concerts, people dance and they sing, and they dress the same.  But what's unique about football is, you've got two crowds of people supporting opposite teams in the same stadium.  You never go to a concert and have Metallica fans and Justin Beiber fans there at the same time.

Kat -   God, no!

Daniel -   So, it's this unique petri dish to look at all these social effects.

Kat -   And so, what do we know about football chanting in particular?  How does it influence people that are doing it?

Daniel -   Well, it's this type of sort of synchronised behaviour and we've studied this and it's popular knowledge now that if you look at two people whenever they socially interact, they become more similar.  So, just as a result of this interview, you will have picked up a little bit of my Swindon Californian accent, you would have copied my speech rate, if I scratch my head, you'll scratch your head.  You're not scratching your head.

Kat -   My hand.

Daniel -   If we get on with each other, this is on body language books, but what you have in a football stadium is that sort of coordinated activity but times by 10,000, 80,000.  What it's doing is increasing this affiliation.  So, if you think of the positive aspect of this, singing and chanting is one of the best things that you can do if you're depressed or lonely if you join a choral singing group.  It has these huge benefits, not just the social ties, but the activity that you engage in.  When you sing together, your mood goes up, your heartbeat synchronise within the group and has all these ways to strengthen the in-group bonds.

Kat -   That's absolutely fascinating.  I know friends in choirs and they say, "I love it.  I have to go to choir."  So, it's making people feel really good by being part of this activity.

Daniel -   That's right.  It increases all of these - what we call, pro-social behaviours.  So, there have been experiments where people are asked to sing "Oh, Canada" together.  And they did on headphones, sometimes they sang together, sometimes they're out of sync.  So everyone sang it, but could they hear other people singing along with them?  And then you get people to play these little economic games where they have to share resources.  If they just sung "Oh, Canada" together, then they share out resources with each other and they also punish people not in their group who didn't sing-along with them.

Kat -   So, that's singing.  Are there any other group activities that bring people together in this kind of way in terms of their behaviour?

Daniel -   Well, there's also the moving together.  So again, when people talk, they move their hands together.  If you phone up your friend in another city and you're on the phone, you'll actually start to walk in synchrony with each other.  And there's all these studies looking at how this mass coordinated behaviour can change these social bonds again.  So, one of my favourite experiments by Scott Wiltermuth in California, he asked people to walk up and down a car park outside of his lab and they either walked just ambling along by themselves in a small group or they walked in time with the experiment.  So, they marched up and down for 10 minutes.  Then he got them back in and said, "Okay, that's great.  We're doing a different study.  This is for the medical school and we want to make a protein paste and we're going to make it out of these wood lice."  And he held them a box of live wood lice.  "So, what I'd like you to do is you've got 5 minutes.  Could you just take these wood lice and throw as many as you can into this thing?"  And he got an industrial coffee grinder in his lab.  So then he closes the door and people are left with this box of wood lice and the dependent variable, what they counted was just the number of wood lice that people threw to their deaths. Actually, no woodlouse was harmed.  There was a little shoot so none was killed.  It was a fake grinder.  They all escaped to live another day.  But what he found is that if people had marched up and down with someone, they threw about 50% more wood lice into the grinder.  They're also much more likely to be the one to press the button to start killing them.

Kat -   So, that's kind of a bit weird.  So, if you're marching together then that's a kind of a negative effect on behaviour, but if you're singing and chanting together, then that's great.  So, in terms of the World Cup, we've heard a lot of chanting and lots of singing on the telly.  I hate it.  I don't watch it.  So, I assume there is chanting and singing.  What happens though if your team isn't doing so well, like England?  Does that influence people's behaviour?

Daniel -   Well, we think all of this chanting and singing, although there's positive and negative sides, it's all doing the same thing.  It's strengthening our in-group ties and also, strengthening the amount that we're negative to the out-group.  So, we bond together with the people on our side and we're more aggressive and negative towards the opposition.  So, when you get people chanting together, they may have this positive social bond with each other, but they're more likely to be abusive of the opposition because part of what the synchronised behaviour does, if you turn up the dial on the amount that we're this group, we're this one team of supporters, you're turning down their own personal responsibility.  So, people feel deindividuated.  It's the technical term.  They're more likely to be aggressive and negative, so you get the sort of - there's lots of homophobic chanting at the World Cup at the moment.  People yell things at players they would never say face to face because they feel part of this bigger group.  They don't feel themselves.

Kat -   And this doesn't sound great to me, but is there any way, very briefly, that we could harness this in a good way.  If we can get people walking down the street singing together like in the musicals, would that be good?

Daniel -   That sounds lovely.  That sounds great.  Well, it depends what you want to do.  I mean, if you think about this marching study, the person who did it, Scott Wiltermuth pointed out that every military in the world still does marching practice whereas in fact, no soldiers ever march on the battle field.  No one has done that since we had the machine gun.  It's a really dumb thing to do in battle.  But we still teach marching because it increases this obedience and this social cohesion.  So, if you want to increase social cohesion, yes, we can teach marching in school.  We can have singing in school every single morning, but you have to recognise that does have a bad side.  It'll increase the bonds within that group of people but it will make them more likely to aggress and be negative to outsiders.

Kat -   So, more nice singing choirs, fewer marching armies...


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