Sports fans may owe the referees of the world an apology. In fact, a lot of us may owe a lot of people apologies. A recent study suggests that the outrage behind a “bad call,” and the all-too-common dead certainty that our team outperformed the other, is more than just loyalty. It’s a product of our brains perceiving events incorrectly based on our affiliation with the team.
The researchers found that subjects observing two arbitrarily chosen teams in a simple contest of hand speed reported members of their own team to be faster than an opponent, even though the speeds were identical. More chilling though, is the fact that the subjects’ brain activity suggests that’s what they unconsciously perceived as reality.
Dr. Pascal Molenberghs of the University of Queensland, who led the study, said he expects the same misperception could extend to other, weightier social arenas, such as people observing others of their own gender or race as opposed to another.
In the study, members of randomly assigned teams "red" and "blue" were asked to watch and report the performance of people on their team versus the opposition. Researchers monitored subjects’ brain activity using a functional MRI scanner, and found that when groups were displaying bias toward their team, a specific region of the brain lit up. And most importantly, that brain activity was present during observation, but not during conscious decision-making.
In other words, the results suggest they saw their teammates outperform the opponents, and they believed it. Keep in mind, this isn't the delusion of a lifelong fan, these subjects had just been randomly assigned a color.
In-group bias has been well documented since the 1950s, when it became clear in research that people have an overwhelming tendency to think of members of their own group more positively — be that racial identity, blue eyes versus brown eyes, or a football team. Social categories have a powerful way of skewing beliefs and recollections. The evidence of this brain activity, however, suggests that these social constructs actually influence the neural mechanisms of observation.
The phenomenon Molenberghs reports appears to be related to the way we quickly associate with people we perceive to be in our group, and imitate, or “mirror” their actions. The part of the brain that fired when the subjects displayed bias is the same part associated with those behaviors. Aside from that, it’s not clear why subjects perceived their teams’ actions as faster, Molenberghs said.
The researchers will next look to how perceptions differ, not in arbitrarily assigned groups, but in relation to actual sports teams.
In the meantime, if you find yourself this Sunday filled with rage at the Patriots’ unjust treatment, take a deep breath, put down your beer, and consider whether it’s just your inferior parietal cortex talking.
Reference: Molenberghs, Halasz, Mattingley, Vanman, and Cunnington. 2012. Seeing is Believing: Neural Mechanisms of Action–Perception are Biased by Team Membership. Human Brain Mapping. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hbm.22044/abstract