Football mad: Scientists detect changes in the brain depending if your team wins or loses

Chile's Colo Colo fans light fireworks during a Copa Libertadores soccer match against Peru's Alianza Lima in Santiago, Chile.
Chile's Colo Colo fans light fireworks during a Copa Libertadores soccer match against Peru's Alianza Lima in Santiago, Chile. Copyright Esteban Felix/AP Photo
By Oceane Duboust
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Football fans show different patterns of brain activation depending on a team’s success, a new study on how fanaticism impacts cerebral activity found.


Fanaticism is a phenomenon of excessive devotion to the point of being unreasonable or obsessive.

Even if it’s well-known in terms of behaviour, little research has been conducted on what it means when it comes to cerebral activity.

Researchers in Chile decided to examine the brain mechanisms behind the fanatic behaviour around football.

They enrolled 43 male fans of the two most popular Chilean football teams in a study.

The participants had a functional MRI - a type of MRI that can track and map brain activity by detecting changes in the brain’s blood flow.

"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 Francisco Zamorano Mendieta, the study’s lead author and an associate professor at the Universidad San Sebastian in Santiago, Chile, in a statement.

Participants were divided into two groups: 22 supporters of one team and 21 supporters of the rival one. They underwent psychological evaluations and completed a survey.

As the participants watched matches, researchers noticed that brain activity changed depending on whether the fan’s team succeeded or failed.

Their results will be presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

The researchers observed that the brain’s reward system is activated when the team has a success whereas a loss can trigger the "mentalisation network," which is linked to an introspective state.

"This may mitigate some of the pain of the loss," said Zamorano.

They also observed a slowdown in the brain hub connecting the emotional centre to the thinking part, which hinders the process that controls thinking and makes it more likely for someone to engage in disruptive or violent behaviour.

'Shed light on social dynamics'

In a previous study conducted in 2020 by Başar Bilgiç, a professor at Istanbul University, who also used functional MRI to study fanaticism, it was revealed that fanatic football fans have different cerebral activity than those who are not devotees.

Whether watching a loss or a win, the fans showed increased activation in a part of the brain that regulates emotional responses and decision-making.

"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," Zamorano said.

It can be more difficult, however, to study political or religious fanaticism as a lot of controversial factors such as political stances, electoral loyalties, ethnicity or identity issues also play a part.

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

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