Damian R. Murray, a psychologist at Tulane University, studies how various social circumstances and life events affect people’s political views. For example, he recently discovered, becoming a parent is a the person becomes more socially conservative. On the eve of the Super Bowl, he gave an interview to the New York Times to discuss another recent study, which examined how sports fans’ political perspectives can be changed by their teams’ wins and losses.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What inspired this work?
These games are so emotionally powerful and people are so emotionally invested. The question is: what could be the downstream, real-world implications for things that have nothing to do with the sporting event itself? Are there consequences for political attitudes or voting patterns, or for our group affiliations?
To be clear, we’re talking about fans, not people who actually play the game.
RIGHT. As viewers, we experience the ups and downs of athletes we otherwise have no connection with. The material changes we experience, whether players win or lose, are essentially zero. But we continue this psychological adventure.
Can you describe the research?
We were doing two different studies in two different populations. The first sample was of Brits in England during the 2016 European Cup.
a month-long tournament held every four years to determine the best national football team in Europe.
It’s huge there, the closest thing to the Super Bowl, outside of the World Cup. We therefore sampled the British immediately after significant wins and losses in the tournament. We asked about their national biases within the group – that is, for example, to what extent they perceived a typical UK resident as intelligent or charismatic. We also asked them about what we call their financial egalitarianism.
Which one is?
We asked them whether or not they agreed that it’s the responsibility of more affluent people to help less fortunate people, and that sort of thing. This shows how tolerant people are of financial inequality.
We asked similar questions of the population in our second study: people outside Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, attending Louisiana State University football games. We surveyed people before and after the games. Fortunately for us, during our study period, there were two victories and two defeats.
Not so lucky for LSU
RIGHT. What we found was that after a win, LSU fans had a greater in-group bias: They perceived more positive characteristics about other LSU people, for example, than the average LSU fan. LSU is smarter and physically stronger than the typical American. As we did in England, similar results. In England, after a national team victory, fans felt that the average Briton possessed more positive characteristics than after a defeat.
And after a victory, fans in both places felt less financially equal. So, both in England and at LSU, fans were more likely to agree with statements that too much money is allocated to those who are in a more difficult situation. The opposite happened after a loss: fans after losses were more supportive of financial equality in society.
So if we’re in a losing group, we might be more protective of the idea of egalitarianism because we’re aware that we might end up on the short end of the stick?
Exactly. We like to think that our moral positions and policies are rational, but we know from much previous work that our morality is strategically calibrated. The study seems to capture this psychological attraction we have toward more group bias and toward affiliation with winners and losers, no matter how arbitrariness the context or competition.
In the sense that we have no control over the game?
Yes. Moreover, in almost all cases, gambling does not influence our livelihood, our wallet, our family life or anything like that.
How long does this effect last? Will Chiefs or Niners fans feel like a win or a loss in November?
The emotional memories of victory or defeat will surely linger for many fans, but hopefully these small political changes will be fairly temporary and won’t last more than a few days. But even short-term effects can have real consequences. One of British football’s greatest victories came shortly before the Brexit vote. This vote was decided by the narrowest of margins. This speaks to how something fleeting, like a sporting event that moves the political needle slightly, can have big downstream ripples.
Have you really studied the link between Brexit and football?
No, and no one else has, to my knowledge.
Still, if the Super Bowl were held in, say, late October, could that affect a presidential election in November?
If I had to speculate, I’d say yes, a Super Bowl in late October could potentially influence a major election. Given how narrow the decisions are in many states, temporarily moving the needle by half a percent or less of the voting majority could change the outcome of the election.
Is it healthy to get so carried away with a game?
It’s totally psychologically healthy, if you just remember that it’s because we like to have these vicarious thrills. We love to affiliate and put our emotions into it with these otherwise totally irrelevant jerseys on a football field. After the game, however, I encourage fans to leave it on the field or on your screen.