Indians vs Tigers: Who's more Flagrant?

When the Dartmouth Indians and Princeton Tigers met on the football field in 1951, things got a pretty ugly. Princeton's quarterback, an All-American playing his last game in college, had to leave the game with a broken nose and a mild concussion. But Princeton got its revenge when Dartmouth's own quarterback was tackled in the backfield so roughly that his leg was broken. A rash of editorials decried the unsportsmanlike violence and dirty tricks on both sides. And then came two psychologists, Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, who salvaged some indispensable data from the senselessness.

In their study, reported under the title, "They Saw a Game," Hastorf and Cantril showed students of each school a video of the game and surveyed their responses. Princeton students saw twice as many infractions committed by the Dartmouth team. Dartmouth students saw their own team making about half as many infractions as the Princeton students saw them making, and rated the number of fouls about equal. The researchers also had the viewers rate the fouls as either flagrant or mild. It was two to one flagrant over mild for Dartmouth, according to Princeton students, who saw the ratio for their own team as around one to three. According to Dartmouth students, Princeton made one flagrant for every two mild infractions, while about half of their own team's fouls were flagrant.

These students, it seems, were watching two different games. The bias may seem obvious, even humorous, but it calls into question our ability to be objective when it comes to the behavior of anyone we don't consider a member of our own group. This is the driving force behind outgroup animosity--perceiving some wrongdoing committed by the other group, allowing it to become exaggerated in recall and reporting, and then vowing revenge. It happens all the time in sports.

Sports fans are an excellent illustration of what I mean by tribalism. The teams even have their own totem animals. Fans advertise group membership with elaborate adornments, which become more pronounced at games--i.e. in the presence of other tribes. And when fights or riots break out I'm willing to bet the initial act of violence is more often than not between, as opposed to within, tribes.

The link between enthusiasm for sports and tribalism raises an important question. Judith Rich Harris bases her theory of personality development on tribal dynamics, but I suspect that some individuals are more tribal than others; that is, some people are more concerned with group and personal dominance than others. The question then is whether sports fans tend to be relatively more tribal than those who don't follow sports.