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Not on my team! Football rivalry all in the mind?

Not on my team! Football rivalry all in the mind?

  • Date29 June 2018

A recent study published by researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London and Oxford University, has found that people treat the fairness of others very differently depending on the groups they belong to.

MRI brain scan

MRI brain scans

To explore whether fairness judgments are influenced by group allegiances, Professor Manos Tsakiris and Dr Ryan McKay, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, and Dr Matthew Apps and Professor Harvey Whitehouse from Oxford, studied the behaviours of 17 individuals who varied in how ‘fused’ their identities were to the football teams they support.

Participants played a game in which other football fans either split some money fairly with them or unfairly and kept more of the money for themselves. The volunteers then had to decide whether to accept the offer or to reject it, knowing that if they rejected neither of them would get any money. The study found that participants were more likely to accept an offer – even an unfair one – from someone they recognised as a fellow supporter of their team. Participants brains were scanned using an MRI scanner to identify brain activity that reflected how fused they felt to their group, and how this impacted their view on fairness.

Professor Manos Tsakiris from Royal Holloway said: “As humans are social beings, a sensitivity to fairness would seem reasonable, however, it is fascinating to see how important loyalty is to people and how this clearly alters judgement.

“This type of behaviour is often seen amongst football fans, with supporters expressing a sense of affiliation to members of their team, and, in certain cases, hostility towards those viewed as rivals.”

Similarly, participants would be more likely to turn down an offer from a supporter of an opposing team, even if the offer was seen as fair or favourable to the participant. 

Dr Matthew Apps from Oxford University added: “It is interesting that the concept of ‘fairness’ is skewed when you see yourself as part of a group.

“It seems we judge other people to be fairer if we think they are ‘one of us.’”

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