A Mental Game: Us versus Them and the Social Psychology of Fandom

Photo by _ambrown from flickr.com

Why, with intense and organic feelings of affiliation to our teams, does it so rarely seem to matter that the teams themselves are obviously artificial constructions?   Why, in the midst of a fan revolt against an ownership group that is foreign and detached, do Manchester United fans not seem too bothered that most of their players are also ‘foreign’ (beyond Mancunians Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, United’s 18 on Saturday included 15 non-English players)?  Why, amidst the admirable growth of genuine American supporters groups, do MLS teams not seem to put much emphasis on employing local players with roots in their communities?  I’d like to suggest that the emotional intensity of fan affiliation, and the fact that it persists and even grows amidst the globalization and commercialization of the game, is less about our teams and more about our minds.

I’ve been intrigued by the noble irrationality of fan allegiance for years, with recent events in my small corner of the soccer world further piquing my curiosity—as a current Portlander who grew up in Seattle, the MLS-fed intensification of a lingering fan rivalry has been most curious to watch.  The recent tenuous claim of ‘hooliganism’ when a Portland fan was apparently choked with his Timbers scarf by Seattle fans after a pre-season ‘friendly’ was only one marker in an ongoing Pacific Northwest rivalry.

Any American reader of soccer blogs that mention the Sounders or the Timbers is certainly familiar with the phenomenon—comment threads will inevitably end up with angry references to ‘S**ttle’ and ‘Portscum,’ often including exaggerated claims as to the differences between the cities.  Likewise, at games themselves chants, songs, and signs regularly transition into personal attacks that are often demonstrably irrational.  I was particularly struck at a US Open Cup match in Portland last year where a large double posted sign on parade in front of the sold-out crowd had a stark black and white illustration of a large rifle captioned with “KELLER—DO THE COBAIN.”

Really?  Suggesting Kasey Keller should commit suicide because he had at that point played 12 games for the Sounders (about one tenth as many games as he has played for the United States—of which, despite occasional efforts to declare its own people’s republic, Portland is still a part)?  What’s more, Kasey Keller has more connections to the city of Portland than any single player on the field for the Timbers that day.  Keller was an all-American at the University of Portland, and is widely credited as the key player that allowed Clive Charles to make UP a legitimate soccer power—something the city’s soccer fans often note with pride.  Keller even played 10 games for a previous incarnation of the Timbers in 1989.  In contrast, the Timbers starting eleven that day had exactly zero players with any childhood or college roots in Portland—and at least one player on the roster who had not even heard of Portland Oregon until signing a contract.

Of course the vast majority fans, even in Portland and Seattle, don’t choke people with scarves or promote suicide—there are crazy people everywhere.  And the edginess and intensity of passionate fan allegiance is often a crucial element of what makes a great match so much fun for everyone involved.  But that doesn’t make our emotional allegiance to professional teams, which are mostly artificial ‘clubs’ oriented to making money for rich people, any more rational.

What does explain the engaging irrationality of the sports fan?

A few weeks ago I wrote about sports psychology, and the fact that in my experience it has proven less useful for enhancing performance than explaining how the game works.  So this week I’m returning to that theme and suggesting that while many factors contribute to our emotional connections to sports teams, one of the best explanations comes from social psychology.  (For an excellent alternative take in a more English football-centric direction see this recent essay by Fredorrarci.)

The basic idea, drawing off social identity theory, is that for various evolutionary reasons one of our most fundamental psychological instincts is to identify and divide the world into two groups: us and them.  Us is good; them is bad.  In our ancestral past this instinct may have been oriented by clans, but now it is up for grabs—we are constantly, unconsciously, affiliating with cities, countries, schools, political parties, genders, ethnicities, musicians, companies, teams, and whatever else becomes salient in our daily lives.  What’s fascinating about this basic ‘us versus them’ instinct is how quickly, and irrationally, it activates.  For a Portlander at a Timbers-Sounders game Kasey Keller should rationally be one of us.  But instinctively he is one of them.

There are a couple fun examples of the automaticity of ‘us versus them’ thinking that might be familiar to anyone who has ever taken Psychology 101.  The classic is Muzafer Sherif’s 1954 “Robbers Cave Experiment.”  Sherif was a social psychologist at the University of Oklahoma who was interested in group behavior, and devised a classic experiment elegant for its simplicity.  He basically just took a group of normal boys to summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park.  The trick was that the boys were randomly assigned to two separate groups and isolated from each other—adopting group names “The Rattlers” and “The Eagles” (no relation, I presume, to the Screaming Eagles “standing up for DC” United).  After an initial period of bonding, the boys learned of the other group, and the researchers began arranging for competitions on a ball field.  There was almost immediate animosity; name calling, efforts to self-segregate, raids of group camps, and, in fine supporters group tradition, the exchange of derogatory songs.  The researchers added a final phase where they created situations in which the groups had to work together, and suddenly everyone started to get along again.  It was a simple study making a profound point: there was no difference between the two groups of boys until they became groups.  Any of the “Rattlers” could just as easily have been “Eagles” in exactly the same way as, I suspect, many Manchester United supporters could just as easily have been for Arsenal or Liverpool with a few small twists of fate.

Another favorite example comes from several decades ago when an Iowa school teacher named Jane Elliot created a brilliant demonstration of the power of us versus them as a way to address racial discrimination with her elementary school students in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.  One morning she simply told the students that they were going to do a little demonstration where they would be divided up for a few days by the color of their eyes.  First the blue eyed kids got the privileges, while the brown eyed kids put on colored scarves marking their out-group status (and the next day it was reversed).  By recess time that same morning the kids were brawling on the playground because us started mocking them for having brown eyes.  In Jane Elliot’s words: “I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating, little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.”  Substitute “sports fans” for “children,” along with “ninety” for “fifty,” and the quote still works quite well.

Further, in the classroom situation, not only did simple and substantively meaningless group distinctions based on eye color create anger, the kids let their group membership shape their performance on school work—on a flash card task the same kids either excelled or flailed depending on whether their group was assigned superiority for the day.  Our ‘us versus them’ instinct can make kids seem stupid, and I suspect it can also allow ostensibly intelligent and educated soccer fans to end up choking people with scarves.

A laboratory for groupness

It turns out that soccer and supporters groups are nearly perfect laboratories for stimulating ‘us versus them’ instincts.  According to Judith Harris’s accessible, if controversial, summary of the scholarly research, some of the key ingredients for making group membership psychologically significant include:

  • Socially defined membership that necessitates more of an internal than external commitment, along with shared experiences and an emphasis on commonalities within the group (according to the Timbers Army web-site, to be a member “If you like your sports passionate instead of passive – if you’re proud of the Rose City — if you appreciate the Beautiful Game – YOU are Timbers Army. No membership, no initiation, no rules, no fuss. Just wander into the North End of PGE Park and join the fun!”)
  • Competition and an emphasis on points of contrast from other groups (when the European Football Weekends site waded into explaining the Sounders-Timbers rivalry across the pond, the comments were inundated with defensive comparisons from both sides: a relatively tame example from an anonymous Sounders fan, “you may wonder why Timbers fans are commenting on an article about the Sounders. They are a funny lot whose entire supporter culture revolves around jealousy of and irrevocable obsession with the Sounders. They rarely know the names of their own players, but they will mark their calendars months in advance for a match against us. If you spend time in person with a Timbers fan, you will hear more talk about the Sounders than their own team.”).
  • Proximity (it is no coincidence that many supporters groups mark themselves explicitly by the section of the stadium where they sit—the “The 107 Independent Supporters’ Trust is the machinery behind the Timbers Army” and is named after the stadium section where they sit during games, while the Sounders group Emerald City Supporters have their numerical sections (121-123) and their street (“Brougham Faithful”) featured on their logo.)
  • Group goals and/or a common enemy (at the Sounders-Timbers match at least one Vancouver Whitecaps correction: San Jose Earthquakes supporter came to Portland bearing a sign with the message “The enemy of my enemy is my friend!”).
  • Photo by Bjørn Giesenbauer from flickr.com

    Explicit markers of group identity (scarves are virtually ubiquitous across the soccer world because they are such an efficient marker of group identity—one of the Sounders’ marketing coups was to provide ‘free’ scarves to season ticket holders, automatically cementing a social identity while also bearing an eerie resemblance to the scarves Jane Elliot used to mark the “inferior” group in her classroom).

  • Implicit norms and expectations (some Sounders supporters groups, such as Gorilla FC, distinguish themselves by trying to explicitly avoid the stereotypes of “ultra” groups: “One more belief of Gorilla FC, besides the love of the party, is that this group will share the same spirit as the fans of FC ST. PAULI!! WE ARE ANTI-RACIST, ANTI-FACIST, ANTI-SEXIST, AND ANTI-HOMOPHOBIC, BUT PRO-PARTY!! It seems bizarre to have to post that, however we want to establish that our friends are dedicated to building a love of the Sounders free from ignorance. A thinking ethic! We also will be active in supporting various community organizations. Gorilla FC is more than just a supporters club!!”)

As that last example makes clear, creating a sense of ‘groupness’ is not necessarily a bad thing—however artificial, the social identities of sports fans have just as much potential to influence pro-social as anti-social norms.  In fact, the Timbers’ 107ist Supporters Trust includes not just tifo and game travel but also charitable works among its ‘basic purposes.’  Likewise, when social marketing campaigns such as ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ work it is likely due largely to re-framing social identities—remaking the group identity to include ‘soccer fans fight [rather than endorse] racism.’

But what team rivalries and fan allegiances all over the world illustrate most of all is that the ‘us versus them’ instinct plays fast and easy on our minds.  As much as FIFA folks like to spin platitudes about the game bringing people together, it can just as easily tear people apart.  As much as the World Cup presents opportunities to display national identities, our local allegiances and teams (so often composed entirely of outsiders) display how contrived all our social identities can be.  And, at the same time, how meaningful.


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