Der Ball ist rund.
–Josef “Sepp” Herberger*
More than any other event, the World Cup brings out what is known as ingroup-favoritism. In plain English: There’s rabid, visceral, irrational cheering for one’s national soccer team. The range of emotions is great. Fans feel joy, pride, and awe when things are going well, and they feel fear, anger, sadness, when they aren’t. They may even feel a kind of collective shame when their team does not perform as expected. With most emotions finding some play in fútbol-induced favoritism, the self-conscious sentiments of guilt and regret may be among the few that do not. Fútbol favoritism is passionate; it is more limbic than the stale preference differential that passes as evidence for ingroup bias in the typical laboratory study. Cognitive neuropsychologists will surely demonstrate that the amygdala light up at kick-off. During the World Cup, the ingroup team becomes the carrier of personal identity (rather than the self becoming a carrier of social identity–although this is perhaps too subtle a distinction).
With passionate ingroup bias kicking in with speed and force during the tournament, it is interesting to observe its pathetic derivatives. What happens when one’s team is eliminated from the tournament, which is the eventual fate of most fans? Direct ingroup-favoritism is no longer possible as passion gives way to grief. Still, fans may feel they are obliged to have (and profess) a preference for a team in the remaining matches. In each of these matches, both teams are outgroups, so the self cannot be directly involved in the choice. Yet, soccer fans find it difficult to say they don’t care about a match’s outcome, that all they want to see is a good game. There is social pressure to make a prediction about which team will win and to declare a preference for a winner. Statistically minded fans can back the team with the better record and socially minded fans can back the team favored by their social circle. There is, however, another psychological need, namely the need to blunt the insult to one’s ingroup-favoritism resulting from the elimination of one’s own team (or its failure to even qualify for the Cup, as is, for instance, a habitual experience for the Austrians). Fans can address this need by several indirect means. The result is a pathetic, indirect, form of ingroup-favoritism. Let’s consider the psychological context of Brazilian fans the day before the final of the 2014 Cup between Argentina and Germany, the final that they themselves had expected to play and win at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro.
The first option for the Brazilians was to cheer for the team (Argentina) opposing the one that eliminated their own team. This is the perspective of justice. The second option was to support the team (Die Mannschaft) that defeated their own team because if this team was victorious again, their own defeat could be more easily attributed to the strength of the winner and less to the weakness of one’s own side. This is the perspective of attribution. The third option was to support the team that was most easily included in a broader ingroup (e.g., geographical, cultural, linguistic; i.e., Argentina). This is the perspective of social categorization. Finally, Brazilian fans could turn against the team most seen as a historical rival and support whichever team opposed her (Germany). This is the perspective of victory by proxy. With two perspectives pulling in one direction (support Argentina) and two pulling in the other (support Germany), the Brazilian fans had a dilemma. Yet, if the team they chose to support lost, they could easily think of reasons they had really supported the other. Since for either choice, two perspectives were perfectly confounded with each other, it is difficult to find a definitive answer to the question of how most Brazilians made their choice, but data gleaned from Facebook suggest that the Brazilians cared more about attribution or victory by proxy, than about justice or social categorization. That was a boost for Die Mannschaft.
Most of the academic research on ingroup-favoritism misses the emotional power and subtle rationalizations so easily observed during competitive encounters between groups. The typical research strategy, which I share in my own work, is to study ingroup-favoritism light in the laboratory, where institutional review boards help ensure that no one gets offended. Yet, when we find evidence for ingroup-favoritism, we use it as a weapon against our research participants, for they have shown a bias, which, from a moral point of view, they should not show. This creeping moralism seems to be uniquely linked to contexts of ingroup-favoritism. Favoring one outgroup over another outgroup seems comparatively benign, a matter of mere preference, and where would we be without preferences?
Here may be two related clues why ingroup-favoritism tends to become a moral issue. Ingroup-favoritism is always–by definition-linked to the self. It is consistent and predictable, and it points to basic (‘base’ in moralistic terms) needs. In other words, the structural ease of demonstrating systematic choice, preference, or favoritism is confounded with the involvement of the self. It is harder to find a comparably potent conjunction of consistency and need in preferences among different outgroups. If there were, say, a consistent preference for larger groups (and there might be), it would not become a moral issue.
~ The attentive reader has noticed the traces of ethnocentrism in this essay.
Dict, pre and post
Psychologists and other social scientists are painfully aware of the difficulties of forecasting. In a complex, multivariate, stochastic world it is hard to predict single events. Predicting the outcome of an election with two contenders is relatively easy, though even this scenario poses challenges. Predicting the winner of a World Cup tournament is forbiddingly hard. Of course, many prognosticators try, and when their algorithms do well we celebrate their success; when they fail, we gloat and look to the postgnosticator (the neologism du jour) for greater wisdom.
The triumph of Die Mannschaft at the 2014 World Cup brought out the difference between pre- and postdiction. Nate Silver predicted Brazil to win, given their home turf advantage, Neymar, and their historical record of excellence. Many Germans predicted Germany to win, mostly because of an ingroup-favoristic sense that die Mannschaft was due to succeed after a second-place finish in 2002 and two third-place finishes after that. When Germany did win after a rather tight game against their Patagonian archrival, the postdictors had a field day reviewing Germany’s decade-long quest for the cup as a triumph of re-organization, experimentation, and innovation. There is much truth in such analyses (I read one on Salon Magazine and another by a professor of management in Yale Opinion). Germany did reform, perhaps revolutionize, its way of developing talent, preparing for a tournament (e.g., by building their own compound), and meticulously studying the tactics of other teams when devising their own. David Bach, a professor of management at Yale, concluded that Germany’s fourth star was a triumph of management – move over Mario Götze. Again, there is much truth in such analysis, but let us not forget that these essays would be in the trash folder had Gonazalo Higuaín not been offside or if Mario Götze had not so very perfectly volleyed the ball. I think that die Mannschaft played a beautiful tournament and won deservedly, but the adverb “deservedly” should melt on the tongue with an appreciation of the uncertainties that pervade our world. Indeed, if World Cups were to become highly predictable, we would stop watching.