Good Refs Or Rotten Calls? It’s All In Your Mind

Soccer is the most widely played and watched sport in the world. It’s rules are essentially universal in every nation. But ask die-hard fans of any team about a given match and you’re likely to get differing views, depending on the outcome and which team’s fans you ask.

One well-known example of this is centered around the 2018 World Cup match between Colombia and England. After England won the game 4-3 on penalties, the respective fans had very different takes on how the game went.


Fans across South America complained loudly about what was perceived as anti-Colombia bias on the part of the officials. A petition demanding a rematch garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures in a very short time.

At the same time, England’s fan base was complaining about what they saw as an unreasonably high number of fouls from the Colombian players.

How did two sets of fans, each presumably familiar with the rules of the game and the manner of play, see the same match so differently?


Researchers at the University of York asked that same question. They think they’ve answered it by scanning the brains of die-hard football (soccer) fans with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI.)

They gathered two groups of serious soccer fans. One group who support Manchester United and one whose allegiance lies with Chelsea. Each fan had been supporting their team for at least 15 years and had seen them play at least 25 times.

The scientists mapped and compared activity in the brains of the fans as they watched their teams play each other. What they found was that the fans do see the same game, at least in the visual sense. Those brain regions involved in seeing the action showed similar activity in both groups of fans.


Other areas of the fans’ brains, however, told a different story. The scans showed that different activity in the regions of the brain connected to cognition. This suggests that identical sensory information was being interpreted and evaluated in differently by Manchester United fans than by Chelsea supporters.

Professor Tim Andrews from the Department of Psychology at the University of York, said: “When we compared the brain activity of supporters of the same team and supporters of opposing teams, we found that activity in the sensory regions of the brain were aligned in all participants — or in other words, they all saw and heard the same game.

“But, in the frontal and subcortical regions of the brain — including areas known to be active in reward, self-identity and control of movement — there was a correlation between supporters of the same team, but significant differences between the groups. This is what allows fans of rival teams to develop a different understanding of the same game.”


While being scanned by a MRI unit, fans saw a montage of highlights from games between the two teams. From the scans, it was clear the two groups “saw” things differently.

One key brain area showing the biggest differences from one group to the other was the nucleus accumbens. This area of the brain is key to the brain’s reward system. The scientists believe this connection between reward and group bias could explain the relative ease and quickness with which people form groups and begin to favor the members of those groups over other group’s members.

The findings revealed that there are multiple parts of the brain involved in how this group bias effect is manifested. Rather than being the result of a single mechanism, this group bias effect appears to be the result of interaction between a network of brain regions.


Professor Andrews added: “The results of our study offer new insight into the neural basis for group bias and the human tendency to feel comfort and reassurance when part of a group, alongside distrust of outsiders and rivals.”

“The regions of the brain that showed the biggest differences between the groups of supporters — the subcortical regions positioned in the middle of the brain — are believed to have been conserved during evolution — this supports the idea that group mentality may reflect one of the more primitive human instincts.”

This brain region network, then, may be responsible for allowing humans to connect and form social groups outside the family unit. Understanding it in this context, however, helps explain how fans of opposing sports teams can see the same game in such different ways.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Timothy J Andrews, Ryan K Smith, Richard L Hoggart, Philip I N Ulrich, Andre D Gouws. Neural Correlates of Group Bias During Natural Viewing. Cerebral Cortex, 2018; DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhy206

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