Damian R. Murray, a psychologist at Tulane University, studies how various social circumstances and life events affect people’s political views. For instance, he found recently, becoming a parent makes a person grow 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 the political perspectives of sports fans 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 so emotionally potent, and people are so emotionally invested. The question is: What might be the downstream, real-world implications 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 actually playing in the game.
Right. As viewers, we’re experiencing the ups and downs of athletes that we otherwise have no relationship to. The material changes that we experience, whether the players win or lose, are essentially zero. But we still go along on this psychological ride.
Can you describe the research?
We did two different studies in two different populations. The first sample was of British people in England during the 2016 Euro Cup.
a monthlong tournament held every four years to determine the best national soccer team in Europe.
It’s huge over there, the closest thing to the Super Bowl, outside of the World Cup. So we sampled British people immediately after significant wins and losses in the tournament. We asked questions about their national in-group bias — which is, for example, how intelligent or charismatic they perceived a typical United Kingdom resident to be. We also asked them about what we call their financial egalitarianism.
We asked them whether they agreed or disagreed that it’s the responsibility of better-off people to help those who are worse off, and things like that. It gets at 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, La., attending Louisiana State University football games. We surveyed people before and after the games. Fortunately for us, during our study window there were two wins and two losses.
Not so fortunate for L.S.U.
Right. What we found was that after a win, L.S.U. fans had greater in-group bias: They perceived more positive characteristics about other L.S.U. people, such as that the average L.S.U. fan is more intelligent and physically strong compared with the typical American. Same as we did in England, similar results. In England, after a win by the national team, fans people felt that the average Brit possessed more positive characteristics than after a loss.
And after a win, fans in both places felt less financially egalitarian. So in both England and at L.S.U., fans were more likely to agree to statements that too much money is allocated to those who are worse off. The opposite happened after a loss — fans after losses were more in favor of financial equality in society.
So if we’re in a losing group, we might be more protective of the idea of egalitarianism because we’re aware that we could wind up on the short end of the stick?
Exactly. We like to think that our moral stances and our politics are rational, but we know from a lot of previous work that our morals are strategically calibrated. The study seems to be capturing this psychological pull that we have toward more 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 every case, the game is not influencing our livelihood, pocketbook, family life, or anything like that.
How long does this effect last? Are Chiefs fans or Niners fans going to be feeling a win or loss come November?
The emotional memories of victory or defeat will surely persist for many fans, but I would hope these small political changes are fairly temporary, and that they don’t last more than a few days. But even short-lived effects can have real consequences. One of the biggest British soccer victories came shortly before the Brexit vote. This vote was decided by the narrowest of margins. It’s a testament to how something transient, like a sporting event moving the political needle just a bit, has the potential to have big downstream repercussions.
Did you actually look at the connection between Brexit and soccer?
No, and no one else has, to my knowledge.
Still, if the Super Bowl were held in, say, late October, could that affect a November presidential election?
If I had to speculate I’d say that, yes, a late October Super Bowl could potentially influence a major election. Given how narrowly decided many states are, temporarily moving the needle by even half a percent or less of the voting majority could change the outcome of the election.
Is it healthy to get so wrapped up in a game?
It’s totally psychologically healthy, if you just remember that it’s because we love having these vicarious thrills. We love affiliating ourselves with, and putting our emotions into, these otherwise totally unrelated jerseys on a football field. After the game, though, I’d encourage fans just to leave it on the field, or on your screen.