Football hooligans and suicide bombers

There are good evolutionary reasons why people behave in very different ways when they share their experiences with their peer group.

Crowds of football supporters are as one large organism, each fan part of the greater entity with but one aim in mind – to will their team to victory. But fans experience of promotion or relegation is something that can override idnividual personal identity.

It has long been known that in groups of people caught up in highly charged emotional situations – soldiers, police officers, religious groups – there are those who will be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the rest of the group – and what the group stands for. There are basic similarities between football fans who commit extreme acts of violence and suicide bombers – both are motivated by the same evolutionary reasons.

A recent study carried out by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), based at the University of Tennessee, was published in the journal Scientific Reports and it makes interesting reading – particularly with a view to understanding what’s happening in the world today.

There are five theories why people indulge in extreme behaviour:

1) when shared experience promotes willingness to perform an extreme pro-group action, such as an act of violence,

2) when shared negative experiences cause individuals to contribute more than they would in the case of positive euphoric experiences,

3) when the more intense the experience, the stronger the pro-social effect,

4) when the effect of a shared experience on pro-social behaviour is much stronger where groups compete directly against each other instead of cooperating against another force, for example nature,

5) when the effects of shared negative experiences exceed those of kinship.

The study concluded that shared negative experiences constitute a powerful mechanism that promotes pro-social behaviour that, under certain conditions, can be extremely costly to the individuals concerned. In the case of football hooliganism this could lead to arrest and imprisonment, and in the case of suicide bomber, it will inevitable lead to self-sacrifice and the murder of others.

But this extreme self-sacrificial behaviour presents an evolutionary puzzle. How can a trait that calls for a person to make the ultimate sacrifice – especially in defence of a group of people who are not even related – persist over evolutionary time? Could it be be because the willingness to fight and die for a group is motivated by something psychologists call identity fusion.

But what causes identity fusion? How can we test for evidence suggesting that one powerful cause of identity fusion is the sharing of extreme and possibly painful and frightening experiences?

Perhaps a willingness to perform costly acts for the group is a behavioural strategy that evolved in human ancestors to enable success in high-risk collective activities and conflicts between different groups. Groups whose members fused together after sharing painful experiences would be more likely to prevail in inter-group conflicts, whereas ancestral groups that didn’t fuse would have been less likely to survive. In modern groups, the willingness to sacrifice for the group would be expressed only under extreme conditions.

The researchers at NIMBioS used mathematical models to generate a series of tests and found that the effects of shared negative experience can be stronger than those of kinship.

The hypotheses were tested with different groups to examine the level of identity fusion, including US Vietnam war veterans, English Premier League football fans, martial arts practitioners and twins.

The researchers recruited 752 football fans – half were supporters of the five most consistently successful and euphoria producing teams – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City. The other half of the study group was made up of supporters of the five most consistently unsuccessful football teams – namely West Bromwich Albion, Norwich, Sunderland, Hull and Crystal Palace. The team’s lack of success produced the most impatience and dissatisfaction in their fans.

The test models were intended to simulate as accurately as possible the conditions faced by our human ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. After collating and examining the results, researchers speculated that under threatening conditions, having a shared evolutionary future was probably a more decisive factor in cooperation and self-sacrifice than shared ancestry.

There have been previous studies that identified a number of paths for the evolution of cooperation, but this study has introduced a novel and very powerful mechanism – acts of extreme personal self-sacrifice for the good of the future of the group.

Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo – best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment – came up with a set of social processes that ‘expedite evil.’ They are a reminder of how we are all perched at the top of our own slippery slope.

Us and them thinking leads people to see outsiders differently. For example, when a boss tells everyone ‘this is war, we must smash the competition or bury them!’ they are creating a hostile environment in which survival (rather than just competition) appears to be the goal.

People who can mask their identity are more likely to behave in anti-social ways because anonymity allows people to behave badly. If an individual is an anonymous cog in a machine-like organisation, they feel less than human themselves, and so less governed by human decency.

Individuals swept up in mob mentality – for example a lynch mob – become capable of almost anything. Thousands of usually law-abiding Londoners became looters and arsonists during the 2011 riots because ‘everyone else was doing it.’ This mentality makes it easy for people to do what everyone else is doing and it dilutes personal responsibility.

An ‘end justifies the means’ culture, can also give permission for inexcusable behaviour. Where a perceived authority figure orders you to do something, it can be difficult to refuse, particularly if not complying carries serious consequences. There are plenty of examples in history where such disobedience has proved fatal – and also examples where blind obedience has proved to be equally ruinous – I was only obeying orders is not actually a defence – as was proved at Nuremburg. Edmund Burke said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference means that you don’t need to be a perpetrator, it’s enough to simply stand passively by.

Uncritical conformity to the norms of the group exerts a powerful influence over our behaviour, particularly if disobedience or being a nonconformist will result in you ostracised from the group or fired from an organisation. In our evolutionary past, social exclusion was tantamount to a death sentence so our instincts often force us to conform.

The common expression ‘band of brothers’ is used to describe military and other groups engaged in violent conflict. It appears that shared negative experiences can make ‘brothers’ of all members of the group and create bonds stronger than those between actual brothers.


Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.