Why rival sports fans experience the same game differently: It’s a primitive brain reaction

YORK, England — Ever find yourself mired in a heated debate with a fan of a rival sports team over the same play, and you just can’t seem to understand how anyone could see things any other way than you? A new study shows that when it comes to sports, your brain actually interprets the action differently than others, depending on who you’re rooting for.

Scientists at the University of York in the United Kingdom came away with the fascinating finding after scanning the brains of rival soccer fans watching the same highlights.

It’s a scenario that’s been played out time and time again across all sports. During the 2018 World Cup, when England played Colombia, English fans complained loudly about the number of fouls called against their team. Meanwhile, in South America, a formal petition was circulated demanding a rematch because of what Colombian fans felt was clear bias against their team by the referees.

So the York research team wanted to find out why this huge disparity existed between fans of opposing sides who watched the same game. For the study, they recruited diehard Manchester United and Chelsea soccer fans in an attempt to search for any neurological differences in the followers of these fierce English Premier League rivals while viewing the same footage. Participants were shown highlights of games between the two sides while inside an MRI machine.

The results showed that indeed when fans of both teams watched the footage, they were processing the stimuli in the same way — that is, the same regions of the brain associated with visual stimulation were active and aligned. However, there were clear differences between the two fan bases when it came to activity seen in the higher regions of the brain, particularly the regions involved in cognition. The researchers found that while the participants were seeing the exact same plays, how the brain interpreted the information differed greatly between the two sides and hinged more emotion and bias.

“In the frontal and subcortical regions of the brain – including areas known to be active in reward, self-identity and control of movement – there was a correlation between supporters of the same team, but significant differences between the groups. This is what allows fans of rival teams to develop a different understanding of the same game,” explains study co-author Tim Andrews, a professor with the school’s Department of Psychology, in a release.

The researchers say a key area of the brain’s reward system was also notably different between the opposing fans, which demonstrates how one’s allegiance to a group can stir up either positive or negative emotions for people depending on one’s affiliation. Andrews surmises that this “group bias” is actually a primitive response dating back to our early ancestors and supports our tribal instincts. It’s why we’re quick to embrace fans of our favorite team, and equally as quick to view rival fans as a threat.

“The results of our study offer new insight into the neural basis for group bias and the human tendency to feel comfort and reassurance when part of a group, alongside distrust of outsiders and rivals,” he says. “The regions of the brain that showed the biggest differences between the groups of supporters – the subcortical regions positioned in the middle of the brain – are believed to have been conserved during evolution – this supports the idea that group mentality may reflect one of the more primitive human instincts.”

The full study was published October 1, 2018 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

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