A UNIVERSITY OF YORK study has found that supporters of the same football team engage their brains in similar ways whilst watching matches. There are also notable differences in the way that rival teams use their brains when watching a match. The partisanship of football fans is a well-worn trope of the beautiful game. Liverpool’s petition to have the 2018 Champions League final replayed because of a 50/50 challenge between Mo Salah and Sergio Ramos to see this.
The study supports the idea that two sets of fans can watch the same match, but experience it in different ways. This often culminates in a different perception about the fairness of decisions in the match or of the quality of a team’s performance.
The phenomenon can be summed up with a classic retort to any piece of sporting analysis: “are we watching the same game?!” The study mapped the brain activity of a set of Manchester United and Chelsea fans using an MRI whilst they watched a match between the two sides. They concluded that despite the old adage about not “seeing the same game”, the regions of the brain involved in sight showed similar activity in both sets of supporters with no discrepancy between the two groups in this regard.
But, as Professor Tim Andrews from the Department of Psychlogy puts it, “in the frontal and subcortical regions of the brain– including areas known to be active in reward, self-identity and control of movement – there was a correlation between supporters of the same team, but significant differences between the groups. This is what allows fans of rival teams to develop a different understanding of the same game.”
The nucleus accumbens, an area that is important to the brain’s reward system, was a particular area of difference between the two sets of supporters. The team behind this suggests that the link between group bias and reward may explain the ease and rapidity with which humans form groups and favour in-group members.
In a press release about the study, Professor Andrews stated: “The results of our study offer new insight into the neural basis for group bias and the human tendency to feel comfort and reassurance when part of a group, alongside distrust of outsiders and rivals.”
The psychology professor then added: “The regions of the brain that showed the biggest differences between the groups of supporters– the subcortical regions positioned in the middle of the brain – are believed to have been conserved during evolution – this supports the idea that group mentality may reflect one of the more primitive human instincts”.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen as to whether this will influence football fans to check their own bias. One imagines that the terraces of Old Trafford will not be musing on their own brain chemistry the next time Manchester United play, but who knows? All I can say is “group bias” will be very hard to fit into a chant.