Professor in Evolutionary Psychology, Work and Organizational Psychology


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FC Sapiens: What Soccer (Football) Can Tell Us About Human Nature

FC Sapiens: What Soccer (Football) Can Tell Us About Human Nature


Soccer is a ritualized form of tribal warfare.
International soccer can be a peacemaker in today's world.
Soccer offers a great platform to test hypotheses about our tribal psychology.
Can soccer be a peacemaker in a world of conflict? As discussions are taking place in international soccer bodies like FIFA and UEFA (as well as the International Olympic Committee, or IOC) about opening up international tournaments to teams and athletes from Russia and Belarus—the aggressors in the Ukraine war—it's a timely question to ask.

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FIFA's recent decision to strip Indonesia of organizing the under-20 youth World Cup soccer because of this country's intended boycott of the Israeli national team suggests that sports and politics do not mix very well. Yet this begs the question if soccer, as the most popular game in the world—or indeed any other high-profile sport—could not be used more effectively as an instrument to promote international peace.

Soccer as a substitute for warfare
The famous writer George Orwell once wrote, "Football is war minus the shooting." Dutch soccer manager and total football inventor Rinus Michels went a step further: "Soccer is war." Well, they were both partly right.

Soccer is undoubtedly rooted in human warfare. The game and its rules were invented in boarding schools in England in the middle of the 19th century to increase young men's physical and mental toughness to prepare them for a role in protecting the British overseas interests. Yet the roots of the beautiful game lie much deeper. According to historians, early versions of the game were seen in Ancient China, Greece, and Rome as exercises for warriors before going into battle.

In recent times, international soccer has become a substitute for warfare. Soccer has emerged as a powerful peacemaker in recent history. The most notable example was during World War I when football matches emerged spontaneously between the two opposing sides, the Brits and Germans, during the Christmas Truce. The Christmas Truce is a heartwarming story showcasing soccer's power to unite people regardless of their affiliations. The soldiers shared a love of soccer, which allowed them to put aside their differences temporarily until the generals intervened. In the 1960s, the Biafra war was raging in Nigeria, yet the conflict was halted for a few days when the famous Pelé (who recently passed away) visited the country to play a game of soccer.

Soccer taps into our evolved psychological instincts for small-scale tribal warfare. Yet these tribal instincts are channeled in such a way on the soccer pitch that it creates a level playing field for the involved parties, making it a great substitute for deadly conflict. Regardless of the size of the tribes, the game pits 11 players against each other under the guidance of a neutral referee in a narrowly defined battleground, the stadium, and with a time limit of 90 minutes to try and achieve victory. A draw is also allowed, and this is, of course, better for maintaining the peace.

Note that my analysis is slightly different from that of the well-known zoologist and writer Desmond Morris, who argued that soccer is rooted in ancestral hunting practices, with the ball as the weapon to bring down the prey. Yet Morris' analysis does not sit comfortably with the strong ingroup-outgroup psychology activated when teams play on the pitch and fans battle each other in the streets.

Soccer and evolutionary psychology
Soccer can be used to test many different hypotheses about the evolutionary psychology of intergroup behavior.

Unrealistic optimism: Ancestral warriors would probably not go into battle if they were not optimistic that their tribe would emerge victorious and they would not get killed themselves. International survey data collected during Qatar's latest men's World Cup confirms this pattern. When the Netherlands played Argentina in the quarterfinals, about 75 percent of the fans of the Dutch team and 80 percent of Argentina fans thought their team would win the match. Even the experts, the soccer pundits, were quite convinced their tribe would win.

Basking-in-reflected glory (BIRG): People associate themselves with successful tribes. Earlier studies on university sports in the US (Wann & Branscombe, 1990) already established that students were more likely to wear their team's jerseys and insignia when their teams were doing well in the league and die-hard fans were most likely to BIRG. In the World Cup in Qatar, we saw the same effect; the most successful national soccer team in history, Brazil, had the largest fan base in the stadiums. The opposite effect is also true: Fans gladly dissociate themselves from losing teams. It is called cutting-off-reflected failure (CORF). Especially fair-weather fans distance themselves quickly from their team after a loss, talking about the team in terms of "they" and "them" rather than "we" and "us."

Winner-loser hormonal effects: In ancient times, there was no distinction between the individuals doing the fighting and the audience. Everyone was involved to some extent and the outcomes were consequential for every member of the tribe. This explains the so-called winner-and-loser effects that we see in soccer fans. Fans show a surge in testosterone when their team is winning and their psychological self-esteem gets a boost especially among male fans. This is in accordance with the male warrior effect. Cortisol, the stress hormone, rises during the game for both fans of the winning and losing teams and the diehard fans show a greater spike in cortisol. There is even a more implicit way to test winner-loser hormonal surges. According to data from Pornhub, there was an increase in website visitors from countries whose team had just won a match in the men's 2014 World Cup in Brazil, suggesting a link between victory and sexual interest, which is probably modulated by the hormone testosterone.

Symbolic tribal language: Soccer pundits frequently use expressions from the battlefield as metaphors. When a team gets a corner kick, the "air force steps up." The enemy's goal is "bombarded with shots." Outstanding players are referred to as great "hunters and warriors." There appears to be also a hint of racial bias in the soccer commentaries. Black soccer players are more often referred to in terms of their physical strength, while white soccer players are often portrayed as agile and intelligent.

Home advantage: We know from biology that in a fight between animals, the animal defending their territory has an increased chance of winning. The explanation is that animals fight harder to protect their territory than to gain more territory—a similar asymmetry in motivation can currently be observed in the Ukraine-Russia war. Home advantage is also commonly observed in international soccer. The home fans probably play a crucial role here. If you can muster a larger tribe in the stadium, then the chances of victory grow because the fans can influence the referee's decisions. As a critical test of the home advantage effect, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the soccer stadiums were empty, and the statistics show that the home advantage effect temporarily disappeared.

Team psychology: The expression "united we stand, divided we fall" seems quite appropriate for the importance of team cohesion in soccer. Countries currently engaged in internal or external conflicts, be it Iran, Serbia (hassle in Kosovo), or Brazil (contested elections), performed less well in the latest World Cup in Qatar, for example. The same was true for countries like Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, who were facing strong internal opposition at home to the World Cup in Qatar.

A final piece of evidence that soccer taps into our evolved tribal psychological instincts comes from looking at the FIFA ranking list. When you correlate the position of a nation on that ranking list with the military spending of that country (as expressed in terms of the percentage of GDP), a negative correlation emerges. This means nations that do better in international soccer are more peaceful, or alternatively, countries that spend more on their defense do less well in soccer. A worse FIFA ranking also correlates with a stronger fear of war as expressed by citizens filling out the the World Values Survey.

To conclude, international soccer offers more than just a great platform to test predictions about human social psychology. As soccer channels our tribal psychological instincts in a socially desirable way, it can be a force for good in the world. The former FIFA boss, Sepp Blatter, once proposed the Middle-East Cup in which Israel, Palestine, Iran, and Iraq would compete annually on the soccer pitch. Maybe the time will come eventually to propose a Black Sea Cup in which Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia, and neighboring nations will participate on an equal playing field with a cup for the winner. To go one step further in our thought experiment, perhaps it is about time that the Noble Peace Prize goes to FIFA, which would be a great way to restore its reputation for corruption.

Suppose you want to learn more about what soccer can tell us about human nature. In that case, we gladly refer interested readers to our new book FC Sapiens: What Soccer Tells Us About Human Nature (currently only available in Dutch).

Copyright © 2012– Mark van Vugt