Damian R. Murray, a psychologist at Tulane University, studies how various social circumstances and life events affect people’s political opinions. For example, he recently discovered that becoming a father means a person becomes more socially conservative. On the eve of the Super Bowl, he sat down for an interview with The New York Times to discuss another recent study, which examined how sports fans’ political perspectives can be altered by their teams’ wins and losses.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What inspired this work?
These games are very emotionally powerful and people are very emotionally involved. The question is: What might be the downstream implications, in the real world, 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.
Good. As viewers, we are experiencing the highs and lows of athletes we would otherwise have no relationship with. The material changes we experience, whether players win or lose, are essentially zero. But we are still on this psychological journey.
Can you describe the research?
We did it two different studies in two different populations. The first sample was from the British in England during the 2016 Euro Cup.
This is the month-long tournament held every four years to determine the best national soccer team in Europe.
It’s huge there, the closest thing to the Super Bowl, outside of the World Cup. So we sampled Brits immediately after major tournament wins and losses. We asked questions about his national bias within the group, which is, for example, how intelligent or charismatic they perceived him to be a typical UK resident. We also asked them about what we call their financial egalitarianism.
Which is it?
We asked them if they agreed or disagreed that it is the responsibility of better-off people to help those who are worse off and things like that. It 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 survey people before and after the games. Fortunately for us, during our study period there were two wins and two losses.
Not so lucky for LSU
Good. What we found was that after a win, LSU fans had a greater within-group bias: They perceived more positive characteristics about other LSU people, such as the average LSU fan being smarter and physically stronger compared to the average American. typical. The same thing 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 win, fans in both places felt less financially equal. So at both England and LSU, fans were more likely to agree with claims that too much money is allocated to those who are worst off. After a defeat the opposite happened: fans after losses were more in favor of financial equality in society.
So if we are in a losing group, might we be more protective of the idea of egalitarianism because we are aware that we might end up on the short end of the stick?
Exactly. We like to think that our moral stances and politics are rational, but we know from much prior work that our morals are strategically calibrated. The study seems to capture this psychological attraction we have toward greater group bias and affiliating with winners and losers, no matter how arbitrary the context or competition.
In the sense that we have no control over the game?
Yes. Also, in almost all cases, gambling has no influence on our livelihood, pocketbook, family life or anything like that.
How long does this effect last? Will Chiefs or Niners fans feel a win or a loss in November?
The emotional memories of victory or defeat will surely linger for many fans, but I expect these small political changes to be fairly temporary and not last more than a few days. But even short-lived effects can have real consequences. One of British football’s biggest victories came shortly before the Brexit vote. This vote was decided by the narrowest of margins. It’s a testament to how something transitory, like a sporting event that moves the political needle a little, has the potential to have big repercussions later.
Did you really look at the connection between Brexit and football?
No, and no one else has done it that I know of.
Still, if the Super Bowl were held in, say, late October, could that affect the presidential election in November?
If I had to speculate, I would say yes, a Super Bowl in late October could potentially influence a major election. Given the narrow margin of decision that many states have, temporarily moving the needle by even half a percentage point or less of the majority of voters could change the outcome of the election.
Is it healthy to be so absorbed in a game?
It’s totally healthy psychologically, if you remember it’s because we love having these vicarious emotions. We love to affiliate and put our emotions on these jerseys on an otherwise unrelated football field. However, after the game, I encourage fans to leave it on the field or on the screen.