Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Would You Give Up Sex for a US Soccer World Cup Final?


German fans would - which may be why the Germans are so much better than Americans at the world's most popular game. A similar survey a few years back concluded that England's men also would rather see their team score a World Cup goal than have sex with their wives or girlfriends. This year, 12% of fans are willing to give up sex for a year if England wins the World Cup - and 10% would kick their girlfriend to the curb for a World Victory. Another survey says that 70% of Spanish fans prefer football to sex.

I find that sad - I have some thoughts on the psychology of this below. First, the article, then the beauty of the goal.

German World Cup Fans Prefer Soccer Success To Sex

Posted: 06- 1-10

Sports fans will give up a lot to see their team do well. In one recent survey, soccer enthusiasts said they would submit to week-long starvation if it meant their favorite country would win the World Cup. Some respondents even said they would forfeit their job.

The trend is no different in Germany, according to a new study. AFP reports that a Reader's Digest survey found only 5% of participants would choose sex over watching a German World Cup final game. Approximately 20% said that even an emergency wouldn't get in the way of their World Cup viewing.

While fans might prefer soccer to sex, it seems the two may go hand in hand. According to the article, Germany saw "a flood" of new babies nine months after the 2006 World Cup.

So far, in a Huffington Post poll, responses indicate that sex trumps soccer among their readers:

Would you give up sex for your country to win the World Cup?

Absolutely -- totally worth it.


Not a chance!


I should qualify all of this - I am a HUGE soccer fan, and I would love to see the US team have some success this year, but not enough to give up sex or dump my girlfriend - that's a little crazy.

Simply for reference, then, here are a few collections a amazing goals from the "beautiful game."

BBC's Top 10 World Cup Goals (2006):

And the Top 50 Best World Cup Goals In History (ignore the music if you can):

* * * * *

So what is the psychology behind all of this?

It's interesting how we identify with the team from our city or nation - and while women do this, too, it's largely a male phenomenon. Andrew Guest, at Pitch Invasion, a soccer blog, took an-depth look at this issue and made some interesting observations about the Portland, Oregon vs Seattle, Washington rivalry in soccer.

I’ve been intrigued by the noble irrationality of fan allegiance for years, with recent events in my small corner of the soccer world further piquing my curiosity—as a current Portlander who grew up in Seattle, the MLS-fed intensification of a lingering fan rivalry has been most curious to watch. The recent tenuous claim of ‘hooliganism’ when a Portland fan was apparently choked with his Timbers scarf by Seattle fans after a pre-season ‘friendly’ was only one marker in an ongoing Pacific Northwest rivalry.

Any American reader of soccer blogs that mention the Sounders or the Timbers is certainly familiar with the phenomenon—comment threads will inevitably end up with angry references to ‘S**ttle’ and ‘Portscum,’ often including exaggerated claims as to the differences between the cities. Likewise, at games themselves chants, songs, and signs regularly transition into personal attacks that are often demonstrably irrational. I was particularly struck at a US Open Cup match in Portland last year where a large double posted sign on parade in front of the sold-out crowd had a stark black and white illustration of a large rifle captioned with “KELLER—DO THE COBAIN.”

Really? Suggesting Kasey Keller should commit suicide because he had at that point played 12 games for the Sounders (about one tenth as many games as he has played for the United States—of which, despite occasional efforts to declare its own people’s republic, Portland is still a part)? What’s more, Kasey Keller has more connections to the city of Portland than any single player on the field for the Timbers that day. Keller was an all-American at the University of Portland, and is widely credited as the key player that allowed Clive Charles to make UP a legitimate soccer power—something the city’s soccer fans often note with pride. Keller even played 10 games for a previous incarnation of the Timbers in 1989. In contrast, the Timbers starting eleven that day had exactly zero players with any childhood or college roots in Portland—and at least one player on the roster who had not even heard of Portland Oregon until signing a contract.

This is a very different mentality than you are likely to find at an MLB, NFL, or NBA game - maybe even an NHL game (although these fans are a little more rowdy). The question, then, is why soccer fans are so damn rowdy (and loyal - Steven Wells notes that Philadelphia soccer fans, although Philadelphia doesn't yet have an MLS team have scarves, songs, chants, replica shirts and flags - "they're fans of a team that doesn't yet exist") while most other American sports fans "sit sipping pissy beer and munching tasteless hot dogs or nachos slathered in fake cheese while some blandroid on the PA makes all the noise."

One of the great things about watching international soccer is the fans. They stand for most of the match, they chant team songs, the heckle the opposing team, they beat drums. Clearly, American soccer fans have been paying attention all these years - and despite the MLS effort to make soccer a "family friendly" sport, the fans are generating their own forms of team support.

But why such loyalty? The players seldom have any ties to the city in which they play. This is even more true in the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, or Italy's Serie A, where most of the players are from other nations entirely.

Irish writer Fredorrarci (Sport Is a TV Show) cites an old Seinfeld bit to show just how silly this team allegiance really is:
Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify, because the players are always changing, the team can move to another city... You're actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it. You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city.
This is true even in the NFL and other pro sports. When I first became a Pittsburgh Steelers football fan, back in the 1970s, I was a Terry Bradshaw fan, a Lynn Swann fan, a Franco Harris fan, a Mean Joe Green fan - and when they had all retired (4 Super Bowl titles later) I was still a fan. I am a fan today, even though I live in Tucson, AZ, and have never been to Pittsburgh.

So am I just a fan of the uniform? Maybe. I am also a Pittsburgh Penguin fan, but I am late comer to hockey, so I am mostly a Sidney Crosby fan. We'll see how this plays out over time.

In-Group/Out-Group Psychology

In a classic experiment, Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment (Muzafer Sherif, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, Carolyn W. Sherif, 1954/1961), took two groups of boy to a summer camp - they were normal, healthy, socially well-adjusted boys from similar economic, ethnic, and religious family backgrounds. Prior to the experiment, none of the kids knew each other.

Upon arrival, the two groups, kept separate, were divided into two groups, The Eagles and The Rattlers, and were engaged in a series of bonding experiences before being told of the other group. They were then pitted against each other in various competitions.

The bonding exercises produced these observations:

When the individuals interacted in a series of situations toward goals with common appeal value which required interdependent activity for their attainment, definite group structures arose. These groups developed stable, but by no means immutable status hierarchies and group norms regulating experience and behavior of individual members.

More concretely, a pattern of leader-follower relations evolved within each group as members faced compelling problem situations and attained goals through coordinated action. As group structure was stabilized, it was unmistakably delineated as an "in-group." Certain places and objects important in group activities were incorporated as "ours." Ways of doing things, of meeting problems, of behaving under certain conditions were standardized, permitting variation only within limits. Beyond the limits of the group norms, behavior was subject to group sanctions, which ranged from ridicule, through ignoring the offender and his behavior, to threats, and occasionally to physical chastisement.

And when the groups were pitted against each other in mutually frustrating the group cohesion increased even more:

When two groups met in competitive and reciprocally frustrating engagements, in-group solidarity and cooperativeness increased. Toward the end of intergroup friction (Stage 2), in-group solidarity became so strong that when the groups were taken to a public beach crowded with outsiders and affording various distractions, our groups stuck almost exclusively to activities within their respective in-groups. Psychologically, other people did not count as far as they were concerned. In the presence of so many people and distractions, this intensive concentration of interests and activities within the group atmosphere would have been impossible had the groups gone there before attaining such a high degree of solidarity.

This heightened in-group solidarity and cooperativeness were observed at the very time when intergroup hostility was at its peak, during the period when the groups asserted emphatically that they would not have anything more to do with each other. This can only mean that the nature of intergroup relations cannot be extrapolated from the nature of in-group relations. In-group solidarity, in-group cooperativeness and democratic procedures need not necessarily be transferred to the out-group and its members. Intergroup relations cannot be improved simply by developing cooperative and friendly attitudes and habits within groups.

This could just as easily be Arsenal fans and Man U fans, or Yankee fans and Red Sox fans - the grouping are arbitrary, the loyalties have no foundation in blood or previous knowledge, but the in-group/out-group rivalry is powerful.

Social identity theory attempts to understand how and why in group/out group interactions function. Henri Tajfel and John Turner(1) were working to understand the social-psychological basis of intergroup discrimination their theory is composed of four elements:

  • Categorization: people often put others (and ourselves) into categories. Labeling someone a Muslim, a Turk, a Gimp or a soccer player are ways of saying other things about these people.
  • Identification: people also associate with certain groups (ingroups and outgroups), which serves to bolster our self-esteem.
  • Comparison: people compare our groups with other groups, seeing a favorable bias toward the group to which we belong. Young people sometimes stereotypically divide themselves into social groups like jocks, goths, and hoodies
  • Psychological Distinctiveness: people desire our identity to be both distinct from and positively compared with other groups[2].

As it was formulated by Tajfel, social identity theory is a diffuse but interrelated group of social psychological theories concerned with when and why individuals identify with, and behave as part of, social groups, adopting shared attitudes to outsiders. It is also concerned with what difference it makes when encounters between individuals are perceived as encounters between group members. Social identity theory is thus concerned both with the psychological and sociological aspects of group behavior.

When people identify with an in-group, the commonality of shared experience (as fans) seems to boost self-esteem, providing a (vague?) sense that we belong to something greater than ourselves. Opposing fans are no longer seen as friends or equals - they become the enemy. Fans of one team never socialize with fans from the other team - to do so in some situations is a serious violation of norms (I have no intense loyalties, so I socialize with opposing fans, which has not always gone well). In-group vs. out-group animosity is encouraged.

Sometimes, this animosity leads to violence, especially among soccer fans, as a quick Google search reveals:
If people are willing to commit violence in the name of their teams (and my guess is that alcohol plays a role, as well as crowd psychology, when individual norms are sometimes subsumed by the group), it's not a great leap to see that men might prefer seeing their team win a game rather than being with their wives/girlfriends.

I have no doubt that the increase in male confusion about their roles in the world, and especially in relationships, have made feel insecure, especially about interpersonal relationships - so ways of escaping that feeling and increasing self esteem are likely to be embraced. David Wexler(2) looks at the issue in terms of faulty attachment, leading to shame issues:
A metaphor from self-psychology, the broken mirror, is particularly helpful in understanding the dynamics of male shame. This sensitivity to shame—to feeling incompetent, not valuable, unloved, unneeded, unimportant—is often governed by the psychological relationships with mirroring-self objects in our lives. It works like this: the response from others serves as a mirror, reflecting an image that governs our sense of well-being. Sensitivity to mirroring-self objects and broken mirrors isn't gender-specific, but men are more vulnerable to experiencing these mirrors as referenda on their performance and personal value. When the mirror image is negative (or is perceived as negative), the reflection can reactivate a man's narcissistic injury and deliver a blow to his feeling of competence. There's no more potent a mirror for a man than the one reflected by his intimate partner. If she (or he, in a gay relationship) is unhappy, he's failed. If she offers even a normal, nonabusive criticism, it's as if she's yelling at him: "You've failed at making me happy." And the shame-o-phobic man, vulnerable to broken mirrors and narcissistic injuries, will hear that message whether it's unintended or not.
Again, if so many men are having this experience, and it seems that they are, then of course they would rather watch sports than be intimate with their partner.

As I said at the top - this is sad - and it need not be the case. As I learned for myself, a good therapist can make all the difference.

References :
(1) Tajfel, Henri; Turner, John (1979). "An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict". in Austin, William G.; Worchel, Stephen. The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Monterey, CA: Brooks-Cole. pp. 94–109. ISBN 0818502789. OCLC 4194174.
(2) Wexler, D. (2010).
Shame-O-Phobia: Why men fear therapy. Psychotherapy Networker; May/June.

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