Skip to content

Study: Sports Team Losses Can Trigger Violent Behavior In Fans

Research reveals how losses affect cognitive control and increase the probability of disruptive behavior.

Sports teams losing can trigger violent and irrational behavior in fans, according to a new study.

Researchers in South America analyzing the brain activity of football fans found that reward systems were activated after their team emerged victorious from a derby.

However, losses to a loyal fan’s team instead resulted in a loss of cognitive control – increasing the probability of them falling into “violent or disruptive” behavior.

The new research also found that fans were able to activate a state of ‘introspection’ in their brains to mitigate the pain of a loss.

The new research also found that fans were able to activate a state of ‘introspection’ in their brains to mitigate the pain of a loss. PHOTO BY CRISTIAN TARZI/UNSPLASH 

The study, based on fans of two rival football teams in Chile, could even extend to other areas of fanaticism including politics, spirituality, ethnicity and identity.

The Chilean researchers behind the ground-breaking study, which will be presented next week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) in Chicago, Illinois, sought to identify the positive and negative reactions in the brains of fans whilst they watch their team play.

The research also focused on the behaviors associated with fierce football rivalries between fans, such as the Scottish Old Firm derby between Celtic and Rangers, Spain’s El Clasico of Barcelona against Real Madrid, or the Superclasico of neighboring Buenos Aires teams Boca Juniors and River Plate in Argentina.

These passionate clashes frequently erupt in violence, with some derbies harboring religious and geographical hatred which extends far beyond the full-time whistle.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Francisco Zamorano Mendieta, an associate professor at the Universidad San Sebastián in the Chilean capital of Santiago, said: “This study aims to shed light on the behaviors and dynamics associated with extreme rivalry, aggression and social affiliation within and between groups of fanatics.”

The conflicting emotions of fans during derbies ebb and flow throughout the match; wildly celebrating when their team scores and becoming infuriated by reckless challenges or calls against their team from the referee.

To gain some insight into these brain mechanisms behind the behavior of fans, Dr. Zamorano and his team recruited 43 healthy male volunteers who are supporters of Chile’s two biggest rival football teams to participate in a functional MRI (fMRI) study.

The Super Clásico between Santiago teams Colo Colo and Universidad de Chile, first played in 1938, is the most important derby in the Chilean football calendar.

Participants in the study comprised of one half each of supporters of either club – 21 supporters of one club and 22 of the other.

Each participant completed a survey to determine their football fanaticism score and underwent psychological evaluations.

They were each presented with a compilation of matches containing 63 goals.

The study, based on fans of two rival football teams in Chile, could even extend to other areas of fanaticism including politics, spirituality, ethnicity and identity. PHOTO BY JC GELLIDON/UNSPLASH 

Whilst they watched this highlights reel, their brain activity was measured using fMRI; a non-invasive imaging technique which detects changes in the brain’s blood flow.

These scans demonstrated how fans’ brain activity changed when their team either succeeded or failed, conceded or scored.

The researchers’ results showed that reward systems in the brain were activated when their team was successful.

But losses for each participant’s team made them more likely to exhibit violent behavior.

“When their team wins, the reward system in the brain is activated,” Dr. Zamorano explained.

“When they lose, the mentalization network can be activated, taking the fan to an introspective state. This may mitigate some of the pain of the loss.

“We also observed inhibition of the brain hub that connects the limbic system with frontal cortices, hampering the mechanism that regulates cognitive control and increasing the probability to fall into disruptive or violent behavior.”

Dr. Zamorano believes these results could also be transferred to other areas of fanaticism, such as party politics, ethnicity, spirituality and identity issues.

However, due to these areas often being mired in controversy, it’s difficult to identify the neurological foundations of extreme allegiances, such as those exhibited by football fans.

Dr. Zamorano believes the zealousness of some sports fans can serve as a compelling example of intense emotional investment, occasionally aggressive behavior and impaired rationality.

In this way, sports fanaticism could provide an insight into how our societies function.

“People inherently crave social connections, be it through membership in a running club, participation in a book discussion group, or engagement in virtual forums,” Dr. Zamorano continued.

“While these social bonds often form around shared beliefs, values and interests, there can also be an element of persuasive proselytism, or ‘group think,’ which may give rise to unreasoned beliefs and societal discord.

“Understanding the psychology of group identification and competition can shed light on decision-making processes and social dynamics, leading to a fuller comprehension of how societies operate.

“Sports fandom presents a unique opportunity to analyze how intense devotion affects neural activity in a less contentious context, particularly by highlighting the role of negative emotions, the related inhibitory control mechanisms and possible adaptative strategies.”

Produced in association with SWNS Talker

“What’s the latest with Florida Man?”

Get news, handpicked just for you, in your box.

Check out our free email newsletters

Recommended from our partners