The Science of Football Fandom

by Edward Love

Picture the scene: the lads are huddled around the TV swigging beers, eating crisps and taking good-natured swipes at the referee. The football is on and the home side is leading when, out of nowhere, the ref blows. Penalty for the opposition. The crisp bowl goes flying, leaving a trail of orange dust, and beer is spilled as John, Greg and Alan scream at the television.

By day they’re accountants and lawyers and bankers in shirts with stiff white collars, so why the sudden transformation? The science of football fandom gives us many of the answers – a field of study Dr Susan K. Whitbourne has spent years researching. “[When watching football with friends], you feel less responsible for your own actions and go along with whatever everyone else is doing. Your normal social inhibitions become loosened and all bets are off when the crowd around you acts in a disinhibited manner.”

The phenomenon is called “deindividuation”, and while violence can erupt from it, football doesn’t lead only to ills – far from it. Football can also give us a sense of community that extends beyond the stadium or the couch. “Identifying with your team, particularly your local team, enhances your mental health by allowing you to feel a sense of community and integration with the group,” Whitbourne says.

It is, however, a high-stakes game of Russian roulette – with our emotions in the firing the line. Wind the clock back to 2006, when Germany hosted the World Cup, and you discover that Bavarian men were three times more likely to have had heart problems when their team was playing.

So why do we take it so seriously?

Well, for one thing, winning means that our brains light up with excitement. We literally release chemicals that make us feel good. A win also means we’re validated in our support for our team. Cue the ego boost.

But another explanation might lie with the macaque monkey, which shares several traits with humans. The American Psychological Association reports that, in the 1990s, scientists discovered something amazing: “[I]ndividual neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys fired both when the monkeys grabbed an object and also when the monkeys watched another primate grab the same object.”

In other words, the macaque monkeys were experiencing what it was like to be in the shoes of their counterpart. Many scientists hold the belief that we humans have the same neurons in our brains, and that these messengers are firing all the time. A player in tears on the pitch after the match? We’ve felt those emotions before – despite not being on the pitch with them – and we feel our heart strings get that tug. A player singing the anthem with passion? We get up and sing just as loudly.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to watch human beings engaged in competitive, high-stakes action and not feel something; it’s hard not to put yourself in their shoes.   

The next time you wonder why John, Greg and Alan are getting so invested in the match, remember this: they probably can’t even help it. Turns out that a lot of us are suckers for competition, and during those 90 minutes, our brains are lighting up like a Christmas tree.


About the author

Edward Love is a writer and sports fanatic who consulted with Dr Susan K. Whitbourne to learn more about the science of football fandom.


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