Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Football Fans, Political Partisans, and Evolutionary Forces

What do football fans and political partisans have in common?

CC0 Creative Commons at Pixabay
Source: CC0 Creative Commons at Pixabay

It’s football playoff time, and the football crazies are out doing what they do. Otherwise known as “fans” (short for “fanatic,” which is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a person exhibiting excessive enthusiasm and intense uncritical devotion toward some controversial matter”), these folks do things like sitting outside for hours in freezing temperatures watching their team play and painting their bodies in their team’s colors.

Now, it’s not just those crazy football fans who engage in this kind of resolute behavior. People engaged in more serious endeavors, such as politics, also fall victim to their passion for their team.


Dave Schmitz and I just published an article on how political partisanship can distort perceptions of political leaders. A long history of public opinion on presidential approval shows that co-partisans are much more likely to approve of a president from their party than out-partisans. For example, Democratic voters are more likely to favorably evaluate Democratic presidents and less likely to do the same for Republican presidents.

Anyone who pays even the slightest attention to politics knows this isn’t particularly surprising. But the consistently high ratings of co-partisans shown in the graph, above 80% except for the turbulent Vietnam War and Watergate years, and low ratings of out-partisans are attention grabbing and suggest there may be some “uncritical devotion” in the way people evaluate political leaders.

Gregg R. Murray
Source: Gregg R. Murray

Dave and I think this devotion may be partially motivated by evolutionary forces that affect people’s behavior. In early human history, our ancestors who joined in coalitions with others were more likely to survive and reproduce because they were more capable of acquiring vital resources like food and mates. As such, a preference for group membership evolved, and this preference has been tied in research to self-esteem in the sense that “my team is better than your team” so, therefore, “I’m better than you.”

Steve Hart, Relevanza
Source: Steve Hart, Relevanza

Similarly, our ancestors who had physically formidable allies who could help them acquire those vital resources and protect them from opponents were also more likely to survive and reproduce. Following this reasoning, Dave and I argued that partisan citizens would overestimate the perceived formidability (more specifically, height) of their party’s presidential candidate compared to the opposing party’s presidential candidate.

To do this, Dave collected data from student samples around the 2008 presidential election (Barack Obama v. John McCain) and 2012 presidential election (Obama v. Mitt Romney). Specifically, he asked them to estimate the height of each candidate (presidential and vice presidential) as well as to draw a picture of the candidates meeting (for related posts, see "Do We Really Prefer Taller Leaders?" and "Are You Sure We Prefer Taller Leaders?").

Generally (data rarely turn out perfectly in research), what we found is that co-partisans substantively estimated their candidate was taller (e.g., Democrats thought the Democratic candidate was taller) and the opposing candidate was shorter (e.g., Democrats thought the Republican candidate was shorter).

 J. David Schmitz
Source: Source: J. David Schmitz

And they drew their candidate as taller than the opposing candidate (see the stick figure drawings). What’s really interesting about this, though, is that this happened even though presidential candidate Romney is actually taller than Obama (6’2” v. 6’1”) and vice presidential candidate Joe Biden is taller than Sarah Palin (6’0” v. 5’5”). Yes, 58% of the Republicans drew their female vice presidential candidate as taller than their oppositions’ male candidate even though the actual difference is seven inches and even though most people’s daily experiences are that the typical male is much taller than the typical female.


This research suggests that partisanship is so powerful it even distorts our perceptions of an objectively measurable characteristic of our political leaders—their height. It’s no wonder, then, that people often fall back on their political loyalties when they’re called on to make subjective evaluations of complicated issues (e.g., immigration, health care, taxes, national security, and I could go on and on).

And, of particular interest to Caveman aficionados, it suggests the power of partisanship may be rooted in evolutionary forces, which can help explain some of the “uncritical devotion” exhibited in political attitudes such as public opinion on presidential approval.

As for watching your football team in icy weather or painting your body to look like a multi-colored viking, let’s just say there are such things as evolutionary maladaptations…


J. David Schmitz & Gregg R. Murray. 2017. "Demonstrating the effect of evolved psychological mechanisms on partisan identification using perceptions of political leaders." Politics and the Life Sciences 36(2): 60-79.