The emotional highs and lows of sports are ultimately driven by community. Fans feel like they are a part of their favorite teams, and share in their successes and failures. They also may revel in the losses of their teams’ rivals. As such, sports like baseball provide a good starting point for researchers to investigate the us-against-them mentality that characterizes so many of our social and political groups.
Using functional MRI (fMRI) to image the brain, Harvard psychologist Mina Cikara, along with her colleagues Matthew Botvinick and Susan Fiske at Princeton University, considered the brain activity of 11 Red Sox and seven Yankees fans as they watched schematic baseball plays involving both teams.
The scientists generated plays using screenshots from ESPN to create animations, which showed the outcome of a single pitch. Each fan watched hypothetical scenarios in which their team succeeded against their rival, failed against their rival, and one in which their rival failed against a third team, the Orioles.
When fans of either team watched their own team succeed, there was increased activity in the ventral striatum, a region of the brain associated with learning and reward. They not only self-reported pleasure upon seeing their own team win, but also when their rival team did poorly, regardless of whether the rival lost to their own or a third team.
Cikara noted that “people who said they had that much more pleasure watching their rival fail were the same people who exhibited that much more activity in the ventral striatum.” In other words, the amount of pleasure people reported upon observing a baseball outcome correlated with a reward response in their brain.
In addition to reward, the ventral striatum is associated with reinforcement learning. Cikara wanted to know if the pleasure fans reported upon seeing their rival teams lose would reinforce negative behavior toward rival fans. “If watching your rival experiencing misfortune is constantly accompanied by the experience of pleasure, it’s possible that that pleasure is teaching you that you like these kinds of events.”
Two weeks later, Cikara sent surveys to all the study’s participants asking how likely they would be to exhibit aggressive behaviors towards rival and Orioles fans. Comparing the results of these surveys to the brain activity she observed in fans, Cikara found that those who said they were more likely to harm rival fans also experienced higher activation of the ventral striatum upon seeing their rival team lose.
For Cikara, these results indicate how identifying with a particular group can affect our interpretation of certain events. "I’m not really a baseball fan at all, and so I watch these plays and I don’t feel anything. But for my Red Sox and my Yankees fans, they feel something very specific—they feel a pleasure response to their rival’s misfortunes.” But do feelings lead to actions? It remains unclear whether the reward response associated with seeing a rival lose directly impacts aggressive actions towards that rival.
In a more recent study, Cikara collaborated with New York University psychologist Jay Van Bavel to look into how ingroups and outgroups are represented in the human brain. Via a coin toss, they divided participants into two teams: the Eagles and the Rattlers. The researchers then examined brain activity while participants read descriptions of people belonging to various groups.
Cikara and Van Bavel found similar patterns of brain activity when people read about fellow Eagles or Rattlers as when they read about fellow Democrats or Republicans. According to Van Bavel, this result may be indicative of how we think politically. “Our tendency to divide the world up into us vs. them even over something arbitrary like a coin flip is also part of the way that we think about the political world around us. That we start to identify with a team even on a trivial basis, and that changes how we think about them.”
Identifying with a group can affect how we process information that contradicts our group identity. In a 2016 study, researchers at the University of Southern California used fMRI to look at the brain activity of participants as they considered opposing political opinions. Some of these participants exhibited higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region associated with our fear response and other intense emotions like anger. Those with an increase in amygdala activity were also less likely to change their minds about the topic at hand, choosing instead to stay aligned with their group.
How we align ourselves with groups, whether they be a book club, a political party, or a baseball team, can affect our perceptions of people both alike and different from us by influencing our brain activity. The connections we make with others can change the connections in our brains.
Researchers highlight the role of group formation in the success and survival of early humans. “Humans are pretty flimsy creatures, and throughout evolutionary history, we wouldn’t have survived on our own,” notes Van Bavel.
Though humans may have formed groups as a way to ensure protection from environmental threats, they also gained resources by working together. “We’re group organisms for a good reason. Our ancestors who were able to identify and cooperate with fellow group members reaped numerous benefits,” Cikara says. Our tendencies to flock to and collaborate with people similar to ourselves, then, are mostly likely vestiges of humankind’s beginnings.