Mind & Body

Rival Sports Fans Experience the Same Game Completely Differently

If you're a diehard fan of a particular sports team, then chances are you've had at least one terrible night watching your guys suffer a defeat at the hands of their biggest rivals. Even worse, the other side probably racked up a number of fouls that the refs never said a word about. And neither did your lousy brother-in-law, who roots for the other side. Were they even watching the same game? Well, yes — and no.

Blind Team Love

When England played Colombia in the 2018 World Cup, the European team was victorious — but no one was happy about it. More than 250,000 fans of Colombia signed a petition calling out the referees' obvious bias and tendency to award penalty kicks to England, ultimately costing them the game. Meanwhile, England fans were in an uproar over those fouls as well. Their complaint? Colombia was playing a dirty game. So what actually happened? Was England the beneficiary of biased refs eager to call foul play in their favor? Or was Colombia playing dirty and reaping the rewards of their own underhanded tactics?

We'll confess, we don't care much about what really happened at that particular game. What interests us is the fact that fans on either side of an ocean could apparently be watching the same game and have such different experiences. That was the matter that psychologist Timothy Andrews and his team set out to understand in their new study on how members of certain groups — like sports team fandoms — visually experience the world as it relates to their relevant experience. All they needed was some Manchester United fans, some Chelsea supporters, a highlight reel of the teams playing each other, and an MRI machine.

Same Game, Different Outcomes

There are a lot of feelings on both sides of the Chelsea vs. Manchester United rivalry. So it stands to reason that fans of either side would feel very differently about the highlights reel that the researchers put together, which featured both teams getting the better of each other at various times. When the teams' respective fans were exposed to the reel while having their brains scanned in an MRI, the parts of their brains associated with visual perception largely matched up with each other. That means that their eyes were processing the same exact data — they were certainly seeing the same gameplay.

But as you might have guessed, they felt very differently about it. The frontal and subcortical regions of their brains, which are associated with reward, identity, and movement control, were about as different as the visual cortices were the same. The greatest difference was in the nucleus accumbens, which is central to the brain's reward system. Members of rival fandoms would have virtually opposite responses in their nucleus accumbens, whereas members of the same fandom matched up about as well as the visual areas matched up across the board. It's an important lesson in how group dynamics and in-group bias form in the brain, even as we all see the same events play out in the real world.

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Ever wonder why some people are diehard fans of franchises that just ... aren't good? Check out humorist Joe Queenan's "True Believers" for a witty and heartfelt look at some of the most tragic sports fans out there. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 20, 2018

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