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The Psychology of Football

Introduction


There is no need to be a sports-enthusiast or to know every single player by name to enjoy this time: the World Cup has arrived and, as expected, the general consensus seems to be excitement. Football is a beloved sport all around the world so, when the best-of-the-best gather to compete for their national teams, a very specific feeling sets on most people’s minds – anticipation – heightened by the various references to football spread across town. Ranging all the way from high-budgeted advertisements to simple messages on public transportation, little aspects of everyday life are changed to further increase this feeling and a sense of community starts to grow, as well as, of course, sudden but unparalleled patriotism. The problem, though, is that sometimes such strong feelings can be dangerous. But what is the reason for this to happen? Why do football fans take it so seriously?



How can football create aggression?


Watching sports in-group usually only adds to the fun of watching the sport itself, creating an atmosphere of in-group loyalty between the supporters who are cheering for the same goal: see their team winning. However, the intensity created can also have not-so-good consequences, leading to situations marked by aggressive acts.

With this in mind, in 2015, a group of researchers from the Department of Social and Organisational Psychology at VU University in Amsterdam made an experiment where football fans had to watch a game of their favourite team being beaten by their arch-rivals.

When analysing the fans reactions, the researchers observed an increase in anger and aggressive behaviour if the results of the game were perceived as unfair, especially if they thought that the referee was to blame for said unfairness. However, if, according to the fans, the team they supported was to blame for their own loss (if they did not find any signs of an unfair game), then aggression would be considerably lower. Their observation ended up being in line with a study published by German scientists that revealed that fandom does not lead to a bias in perception of what happens on the pitch, but that retrospective judgments about the game are clearly distorted by team allegiance.



What is the physiological reason behind it?


One of the factors that may generate aggressive feelings in every individual fan (that then will translate to a shared group feeling) is the variation of certain hormones in their bodies as they experience a game. This same group of researchers had conducted another study targeting this issue, but this time it was conducted on Spanish fans during the final of the 2010 World Cup (when their national team beat the Netherlands). More precisely, they monitored the changes in cortisol and testosterone, two steroid hormones associated with stress and aggressive behaviour, respectively.

The first observation they took was that the cortisol level correlated with the level of fandom, basically meaning that fans stress more. As for the testosterone levels of fans watching the game, the study also found that they increased while “cortisol secretion among young and greater soccer fans suggests they perceived that a negative outcome of the match would threaten their own social self-esteem”.



How can Nudge fit in the picture?


Nudge is everywhere and football is no exception. Even though it may seem hard to influence fans into less aggressive behaviour, the use of Nudge Theory to promote all-around safer and better sporting events is headed in the right direction. In the current 2022 World Cup, insights from behavioural economics and psychology are being used to “nudge” towards more sustainable choices, an initiative supported by FIFA itself.


This tries to mainly improve outcomes in areas such as environmental sustainability, inclusivity, youth education and empowerment and health, safety and security for all attendees and participants. It is being achieved through a collaboration with Behaviour 4 Development (B4D), the first behavioural insights and nudge unit in the MENA region (countries in the Middle East and North Africa), founded in 2016.


In recent test tournaments, B4D had already carried out research to determine how to increase attendee recycling of materials by testing their willingness to respond to a call to action to minimise litter left near their seating (as well as their knowledge at what can be recycled). By doing this, they were able to gather data on how fans behaved in the presence of specific messaging compared to areas without messaging and the results showed that, in the areas with messaging, littering was considerably reduced (in comparison to areas without).


Conclusion


Even though football, for all it is, creates beautiful feelings between its fans, such as unity, loyalty and an overall community for all who enjoy the sport, it is undeniable that those feelings are sometimes taken to an extreme, resulting in dangerous situations. These are partly due to physical responses to a match, more specifically hormone variation, which may seem hard to change. Nevertheless, with the right incentives it is possible to create an overall safer environment.



Written by Margarida Catarino





References


Oullier, O. (2022, November 29). Neuroscience can explain football fans' behaviour. Retrieved from The National News: https://www.thenationalnews.com/opinion/comment/neuroscience-can-help-explain-football-fans-behaviour-1.751176

Sustainability Behaviour Change. (n.d.). Retrieved from FIFA: https://publications.fifa.com/en/sustainability-report/governance/transparency-and-accountability/sustainability-behaviour-change/

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