Political Psychology

Study on football fans finds political discrimination extends to non-partisan contexts

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Research that surveyed thousands of college football fans provides evidence that individuals discriminate based on partisanship even in situations that have nothing to do with politics. The study was published in the September 2020 issue of the journal Political Behavior.

“We have backgrounds in political behavior and we were interested, like many, in understanding the nature of partisan disagreement in the United States. We are also pretty consistent college football viewers, spending Saturdays in graduate school watching games,” said study author Andrew M. Engelhardt, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

“During a conference, we were talking about ways to try and sort out how to improve on existing work investigating affective polarization and we thought that placing politics within another contentious, but not overtly political, context would help us understand whether and to what degree people make decisions in these other areas based on political considerations — what limits exist for partisan disagreement? And given our hobbies we happened on college football rivalries as that context.”

In two studies, the researchers leveraged rivalries between college football teams to examine how partisanship influenced decisions in non-political contexts. The first study was based on the rivalry between the Auburn University Tigers and University of Alabama Crimson Tide. The second was based on the rivalry between the Boise State Broncos and the Nevada Wolf Pack.

They recruited fans of the football teams and presented them with hypothetical decisions about selling spare tickets for an upcoming game to a fictitious individual, who was described as working for either the Republican or Democratic Party.

The researchers found that Republican participants were more willing to sell their tickets when the individual was described as a fellow Republican. Likewise, Democratic participants were more willing to sell their tickets when the individual was described as a fellow Democrat.

The findings highlight that “politics can intrude into seemingly non-political decisions,” Engelhardt told PsyPost. “While a contrived situation, the participants in our studies preferred to sell a ticket to a co-partisan, even if they were a fan of a rival team, suggests political considerations can shape decisions in contexts explicitly devoid of politics and where something like football fandom should be much more relevant.”

When it came to judging the personal traits of the potential buyer, however, partisanship did not appear to have much of an influence.

“Political conflict is not necessarily about punishing opposing partisans,” Engelhardt explained. “Our results are consistent with in-group favoritism. People are preferring to benefit those with shared political proclivities. So while it’s not terribly good that politics has spillover effects, these effects are not necessarily due to out-group negativity, a more positive outcome.”

But the study — like all research — include some caveats.

“The major limitation is that we placed individuals into a hypothetical situation,” Engelhardt said. “While we intended as closely as possible to approximate a real world situation, we are not observing day-to-day behavior. We’ve thought it would be a fun follow-up to conduct a similar field study using tailgaters as participants, but we haven’t gotten there yet.”

The study, “Grand Old (Tailgate) Party? Partisan Discrimination in Apolitical Settings“, was authored by Andrew M. Engelhardt and Stephen M. Utych.