Win or lose, watching a World Cup together can be a uniquely positive experience

by Fergus Neville

When the 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia it promises to captivate not only the globe’s football fans, but social psychologists too (although these two categories are not mutually exclusive: our laboratory with a large projector screen will be suspiciously booked during match times).

One of the issues most commonly associated with international football crowds is that of ‘hooliganism’. This could be particularly true for the forthcoming tournament given the conflict between Russian and English fans during Euro 2016 in France, exposés of Russian ‘hooligans’ preparing for the World Cup and the deteriorating political relationship between the UK and Russia which has included the expulsion of the British diplomat responsible for football fans. Moreover, Russian police reportedly witnessed the unruly behaviour of a section of English fans in March’s friendly match in Amsterdam.

This last observation is important because perception of the ‘other’ in intergroup contexts shapes the ways that groups treat each other and can create self-fulfilling prophecies.

We have seen previous examples where authorities expect (English) football fans to be violent and therefore treat them antagonistically which, in turn, provokes a violent reaction.

This behaviour is then taken as confirmation of the group’s violent nature resulting in a dangerous spiral of mistrust and conflict. That is why UK authorities have tried to stress to the Russian police that the behaviour in Amsterdam was atypical, while at the same time setting clear limits to travelling fans about behaviours which are incongruent with the norms of Russian society.

The larger point here is that violence arises out of interactions between groups and that is critical to understanding how, why, when and where is happens (and hence preventing it).

It is also why attempts to explain violence by simply looking within the crowd will never prove satisfactory. In particular, accounts based simply on the presence or absence of ‘hooligans’ are insufficient.

Violence often does not occur when they are present. It often does occur when they are not. And even when ‘hooligans’ do start fighting, this generally becomes noteworthy to the extent that others join in. So, certainly there may be some in the crowd who are intent on violence but it is the processes and limits by which collective violence spreads which demand our attention.

Having said that, there is a danger in paying too much attention to violence or else the possibility of violence. If we only pay attention to crowds when they are unruly (as the media, the politicians – and perhaps the funders too – are prone to do) we both distort our understanding of the phenomenon and miss other, more positive stories.

football fans

There is something uniquely powerful about the collective experience of watching international football. This doesn’t have to be live in stadiums, but applies equally to bars, offices and living rooms across the world.

Why have public screenings been organised throughout England for people to watch the matches together?

Our research suggests that the collective experience of watching football can lead to two fundamental psychological transformations.

1. When people feel that others around them share their social identity – for example as England supporters – this can have a profound effect upon their social relations.

Shared identification can give a sense of intimacy and togetherness which is often absent in everyday life.

Just think how people interact in crowded train carriages compared to a football crowd. In the former, the mere presence of others is largely unpleasant, and when they press against you, aversion is liable to become disgust.

In the latter you can talk easily to strangers under the presumption of shared consensus regarding the match. People smile at you and acknowledge your presence. A sweaty stranger will hug you in in jubilation at a last minute goal and you will return the embrace rather than feeling repulsed. There is perhaps something unique to these collective sporting experiences which allows people – particularly men – to be legitimately intimate with one another and express their emotions so freely.

2. This transformation in emotional experience is the second theme which comes from our research. While it’s often hard to tell how other people – especially strangers – are feeling, in a football crowd emotions are clearly embodied.

In unison, fans of the same team bite their nails with nerves, hold their heads in frustration or pogo with joy as events on the pitch unfold.

Our research suggests that when fans see their own emotions reflected back at them by fellow group members, this can lead to an amplification of emotional experience. Victories are sweeter and defeats more bitter when experienced together. Note however that these processes only operate when crowd members see each other as belonging to the same social group. Emotions and behaviours do not spread indiscriminately.

These experiences are not just ephemeral.

We have preliminary evidence that national sporting experiences can have enduring effects beyond the final whistle.

Diary and survey data from the 2015 Rugby World Cup suggests that New Zealanders enjoyed a newfound freedom in talking to strangers at bus stops and local shops in the days following their victory, safe in the knowledge that almost everyone in the country watched the final and shared their experience of it.

The good news for England fans is that they do not have to win a tournament to enjoy the positive collective experience. For supporters who travel to Russia or watch the matches back home, the intimacy and emotion of collectively watching their team will likely far outweigh any conflict and violence that does occur.

Fergus Neville 150Dr Fergus Neville is a Research Fellow at the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews. He is currently employed on an ESRC-funded project examining the process and limits of behavioural spread in crowds. He previously completed an ESRC studentship (MRes and PhD) investigating the experience of participating in crowd events. His work broadly concerns the relationship between social identities, norms and group behaviour, with a particular expertise in crowd action and experience. He is currently an Editorial Consultant for the British Journal of Social Psychology.

You can follow @fergusneville and @beyondcontagion on Twitter.



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