Scientists finally discover why some people are so obsessed with football

Scientists finally discover why some people are so obsessed with football

For some, football is life (Picture: Getty)

If you can’t understand why some people love their football team quite so much, it may be because their brain works differently to yours.

This makes them famously passionate about the sportsometimes to extremes.

A team of scientists based in Chile not only found that different parts of football fans’ brains are activated by scoring or conceding a goal, but losses also blocked the hub that regulates control, increasing the likelihood of violent behaviour.

The researchers say the findings could extend beyond sports fanaticism into other areas of life, such as politics.

‘This study aims to shed light on the behaviours and dynamics associated with extreme rivalry, aggression and social affiliation within and between groups of fanatics,’ said lead author Dr Francisco Zamorano Mendieta.

To better understand how and why football fans react as they do to their team’s wins and losses, the researchers recruited 43 male volunteers who support Chile’s two most popular teams – which are also archrivals.

First, participants completed a survey to determine a ‘soccer fanaticism score’ and underwent psychological evaluations.

Then, they watched a compilation of matches containing 63 goals while their brain activity was measured using a functional MRI (fMRI).

Losses activate a different part of the brain (Picture: Getty)

The results showed brain activity changed depending on whether the fan’s team scored or conceded a goal.

‘When their team wins, the reward system in the brain is activated,’ said Dr Zamorano. ‘When they lose, the mentalisation network can be activated, taking the fan to an introspective state – this may mitigate some of the pain of the loss. 

‘We also observed inhibition of the brain hub that connects the limbic system with frontal cortices, hampering the mechanism that regulates control and increasing the probability to fall into disruptive or violent behaviour.’

The findings may also shed light beyond the realm of just football, and into everyday life.

‘People inherently crave social connections, be it through membership in a running club, participation in a book discussion group, or engagement in virtual forums,’ he said. 

Clashes between football fans can often turn violent (Picture: Dursun Aydemir/Getty)

‘While these social bonds often form around shared beliefs, values and interests, there can also be an element of persuasive proselytism, or “group think”, which may give rise to unreasoned beliefs and societal discord.

‘Understanding the psychology of group identification and competition can shed light on decision-making processes and social dynamics, leading to a fuller comprehension of how societies operate.’

Dr Zamorano added that there may be useful comparisons to be made between football and other fanaticism, given arenas like political stances, electoral loyalties, spirituality and identity issues are frequently mired in debate, making efforts to measure the pure neurological causes harder to pinpoint.

‘Sports fandom, on the other hand, presents a unique opportunity to analyse how intense devotion affects [brain] activity in a less contentious context, particularly by highlighting the role of negative emotions, the related inhibitory control mechanisms and possible adaptive strategies,’ he said.

The study is published by the Radiological Society of North America.

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