More than five billion fans follow versions of football across the world. 'Football on the Brain: Why Minds Love Sport' is a new publication by Aaron CT Smith, Professor & Director at the Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Loughborough University London, that explains why football is so important to so many by revealing how the human mind provides a perfect host for the immensely powerful beliefs that accompany football fandom.
Football on the Brain argues that minds evolved with an impulsion to create, share and defend certain kinds of beliefs that deliver personal and social benefits. Football comprises the ideal content for minds that need to believe. Fans cling to football-related beliefs because, like a catchy tune, they resonate in the mind’s natural grooves. Football fandom exemplifies the heart of all human aspirations. From terrorist extremism, career progression, weight loss, spiritual commitment, and ideological passion, to love, grief, war, and identity, sporting beliefs guide our lives and to a great extent, determine our behaviour, satisfaction and happiness. Through a cognitive account, Football on the Brain explains how minds elevate certain forms of belief to sovereignty, exposing the mechanisms driving football fanaticism.
'Football on the Brain: Why Minds Love Sport’ by Aaron CT Smith, Professor & Director, Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Loughborough University London is published under an open-access license and is available for anyone to download and distribute.
A free downloadable copy is available here.
The growth of football is an understandable and logical consequence of the human mind’s natural inclination to find meaning through robust beliefs. It provides comfort and consolation in an all-purpose, omniscient, loving/punishing, answer-for-anything, turn-key package. It’s a religion as far as the brain is concerned, and like religions of the supernatural kind, football offers an interpretive belief system for making sense of life and the world.
In fact, football is a quintessential religion in all but its metaphysical content, providing beliefs, behaviours, myths, heroes, rules, rituals, and codes into one tribal bundle of faith-based commitments. If you push the comparison, you might even claim that for some of football’s greatest heroes there is also the promise of legend, if not immortality, and the odd occasion when their prowess borders on the supernatural.
Football helps fans band together, suppresses fear and anxiety,
and imparts a universal bonding belief system that allows them
to not only feel part of a group, but also feel part of a shared future.
Of course, to be a beneficiary of a football tribe’s unconditional allocation of belonging, there is a price to pay. Fans are subject to a suite of obligations, rituals, and behavioural expectations that enforce discipline and control within the fan community. Like in a church with rules of worship, fans have their own tacit and explicit rules of support. Strong fan groups show unity by virtue of their own sometimes subtle, sometimes boorish, enforcement of shared values and expectations.
From an evolutionary perspective, a cohesive group is stronger, more secure, and has a greater chance of survival from outside threats. It will be healthier, better fed and sheltered, and will reproduce faster than scattered and isolated little families and clans. But cohesion needs glue; the kind that only comes from shared beliefs, where the most powerful looks like blind faith, which in turn provides the architecture for common standards. As a consequence, deep and committed fans experience long term cognitive distortions that normalise the overriding importance of the team over the individual.
A clear set of ethical and behavioural standards promotes more harmonious and cooperative relationships between fans. The structure and meaning attached to a fan’s common belief system through rituals and communal quasi-religious ceremonies encourages interaction between members, and provides the foundation for stability and trust between them. This is why football can foster feelings of community togetherness as well as share knowledge, burdens, and responsibilities, while nurturing a group connection urging collective progress.
When a fan’s faith-based belief system includes a guarantee of lifelong belonging, they consequently exhibit a greater fighting spirit, capacity for bravery, risk-taking, and selflessness. Compared to tribes without an impenetrable belief shield, the football warrior is fiercer and more daring.
In an unpredictable world, football beliefs provide a haven of certainty. If, in addition, a fan can experience a vicarious connection to a revered team and its players, their faith becomes a treasured and irreplaceable experience.
On the surface it might seem that deep sport fandom doesn’t make sense strictly on the basis of a cost to benefit calculation. After all, committed fans make many costly sacrifices in support of their team; an investment rewarded in success and glory for only a small number of fans. However, a closer analysis reveals that the investment versus return profile that most fans experience goes well beyond basking in reflected glory. In fact, the ironic secret of strict fan groups is that they offer value for those willing to pay the price of entry. Although expensive to belong to, they offer unique social returns that cannot be duplicated without real sacrifice. It is this very sacrifice that confers committed fans with a powerful sense of purpose, meaning, belonging, and satisfaction because the cost discourages freeloaders, leaving the remaining fans to bond through a common acknowledgement of worthiness and authenticity.
There are several ways in which football fanaticism delivers
rewards greater than a crisp and superficial cost to
benefit formula might reveal.
First, fans use their football beliefs to manage uncertainty and to sidestep the need to puzzle through a confronting and confusing world. It’s less effort to avoid the need for demanding explanations to life’s weird natural phenomena and random personal events. It is much easier to find meaning in something tangible and understandable. As it happens, humans tend to land on the simplest answers possible, often via heuristics supported by inherent cognitive biases.
Prosaic answers to intractable questions streamline decision-making at the cost of accuracy. Complex answers need time, so they add significant labour to decisions, adding a heavy cognitive burden in the process. Having something strong to believe in cuts through all the uncertainty. Football fandom can therefore provide the kind of decisive meaning that melts away some of the obdurate contradictions, confounding choices, competing priorities, and bleak emptiness of modern human life.
Building on fandom’s role in the suppression of uncertainty, it can also play an instrumental role in attenuating the more pervasive but less tangible anxieties that lurk in human consciousness, and which are connected to existential concerns like grief, despair, and mortality. To some extent we are all plagued with such deeper worries but generally tend to bury rather than resolve them.
Football fandom can’t sort out the human condition or substitute for religion, but it can reduce anxiety. Fan groups feel more connected and less alone in the world. Fans turn to each other for support that goes well beyond anything related to football. And, although not as psychologically laudable, fans can use their football focus to avoid questioning some uncomfortable realities, as well as distract themselves from the unpleasant, unpalatable, and unattractive.
Fandom brings reassurance, softening the impact of life’s persistent disappointments. To an extent, even fear can be quashed with an appropriate belief. It is a mental program that is linked directly to perceptual mechanisms responsible for focusing the mind on survival. Deep fandom shifts the focus to something more appetising.
Perhaps more than any other benefit, beliefs patch over uncertainty and doubt with a suppressive bandage fashioned from hope. Because uncertainty leads to worse psychological states like fear and despair, belief in something better over the horizon can distract from a sobering and uncomfortable present reality. For football fans, hope based on belief creates the illusion of predictability, which acts as a cognitive wedge propping open the door to psychological security.
This ‘cognitive wedge’ theory of beliefs helps to explain why parochial football fandom can yield far more liberal consequences. Strident belief in a team drives the wedge into doubt, in the process channelling a sliver of hope like the sun through the cracked door of a darkened room. From there a fan can peer into the brightness and the reassuring glow of its warmth. Where there’s light there’s certainty. Even for the fan whose broader life is burdened with fearsome challenges, football’s weekly illumination can offer one predictable, comforting, and uplifting flicker of confidence in a better future. Believing is like breathing; so engrained that it’s almost always unconscious, and so vital that it’s a source of life-giving oxygen.
Another personal reward associated with fandom is more humdrum, coming in the form of structure and organisation to social life. Because a person’s quality of life is influenced by their place in the social sphere, fandom can offer even the most socially marginalised person a role with value and purpose. Not only that, since the value of one fan to another is determined by their commitment and passion, a feverish fan can find social acceptance quite readily, avoiding some of the usual traps of social discrimination.
That does not mean that football fan communities do not establish social hierarchies infused with discrimination, but it is helpful that membership revolves around a transparent social order that can be achieved by any self-identifying individual so long as they exemplify certain values and display the right signals of commitment. Fandom, like religion and class, establishes and perpetuates social order, a force to support a particular view of conduct, and a social glue encouraging bonding and cooperation.
As a final word, deep football fandom therefore serves two major functions: as a system of self-maintenance, and as a system of self-transcendence, the former reinforces a fan’s personal sense of identity and importance, while the latter expands it to deliver an existential sense of meaning and belonging.
'Football on the Brain: Why Minds Love Sport’ is published under an open-access license and is available for anyone to download and distribute. A free downloadable copy is available here.
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