Psychological Causes of Violence in Sports Riots

June 30th, 2010 by Ravi Iyer

Recently, the Los Angeles Lakers won game 7 against the Boston Celtics and there were riots in the streets of los angeles.  Below is a video of some of the scene.

This scene is not unique to Los Angeles.  In fact, riots appear to occur with regularity when sports teams win.  There were riots in Boston when the Celtics won in 2008 and riots in Los Angeles when the Lakers won in 2009 too. This seems to counter the common sense idea that people should be happy when they win, such that they are more generous with others. Happy people tend to be generous people (though the causal relationship might run in the reverse direction), not rioters.  Shouldn’t the people in the losing cities be the ones who rampage out of frustration?  Yet there is an astonishing correlation between rioting and winning in the Lakers-Celtics series and in sports rioting more generally.

A colleague of mine dug up this study (Bernhardt et al, 1998) to explain it to me and I think it’s worth sharing. It’s been replicated by others as well.  Unfortunately, the article itself is protected by the wall of the academic journal system, but the basic pattern of results is illustrated below.

Fans of Winners Experience Testosterone Increases

Basically, fans of the winning team gain testosterone, which has been linked to aggressive behavior. Fans of losing teams lose testosterone, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Winners are encouraged to compete more…losers cut their losses.

Does this same effect extend to politics?  My gut tells me no, as politics is less primal and the results develop over months, not hours.  In fact, most of the time, we know who will win before an election and so what the winners feel is relief (an idea somewhat validated by this study).  This article (fully visible by the public, since it was commendably published in an open access journal) illustrates that for some individuals, there was indeed no testosterone increase among winners, but the same decrease among losers, in the 2008 presidential election.

Another interesting resource, for those interested in the consilience of multiple views on the subject, is Bill Buford’s book, Among the Thugs, where he lives among chronic sports rioters, fans of English football.  His explanation dovetails nicely with Bernhardt et al’s research (quote thanks to this source):

I had not expected the violence to be so pleasureable….This is, if you like, the answer to the hundred-dollar question: why do young males riot every Saturday? They do it for the same reason that another generation drank too much, or smoked dope, or took hallucinogenic drugs, or behaved badly or rebelliously. Violence is their antisocial kick, their mind-altering experience, an adrenaline-induced euphoria that might be all the more powerful because it is generated by the body itself, with, I was convinced, many of the same addictive qualities that characterize synthetically produced drugs.

For more information, here is another parallel view and a link to a more general overview of the causes of violence in sports riots (unfortunately, again, full text inaccessible without a university login…hrm!…I hope someday to be in a position to publish only in open access journals).

- Ravi Iyer

Posted in book reviews, consilience, los angeles lakers, open access, political psychology, riots in boston, riots in los angeles, testosterone, yourmorals.org4 Comments »

4 Responses to “Psychological Causes of Violence in Sports Riots”

  1. Jon Haidt says:

    I agree that the rioting could be in incidental byproduct of elevated testosterone. But I suspect that this behavior can’t be understood just via mechanisms that evolved as individual men competed with individual men. I think it reflects an adaptation from our group-selected past. After reading Jonathan Glover’s book “Humanity: A moral history of the 20th century”, and reading accounts of atrocities committed by young men during victory that are so chillingly similar across continents, i think that testosterone is just one link in a larger and more interesting story.

  2. Ravi Iyer says:

    yes, testosterone is indeed but one part of the story. The question I was interested in wasn’t actually just why people riot, but why do the victors riot rather than the losers. Any other thoughts on why victors might riot and not losers other than testosterone?

  3. jason taylor says:

    Yes actually I do have a thought as to why victors might riot. And that comes from history and sociology not science. However I would have to credit it to testosterone. The “flight or flight” mechanism does not just shut down when it is no longer needed. It requires substantial brakes otherwise it will have what might be called a “fox in the henhouse syndrome”.

    Many of the most famous atrocities in history were not caused by the ill-will of the commander’s so much as losing control of troops. It used to be an axiom of military lore that if a position is taken by storm, one could not count on the safety of anyone surrendering. If I recall that was shown in Saving Private Ryan when several Germans defending a hill at Normandy were killed at the moment of surrender. A real life example was one East India Company officer in charge of a Ghurkha unit chasing dacoits(bandit tribes). The dacoits had holed up in a tough position and the Ghurkhas had to storm them. What was interesting was that the officer boasted that none of the dacoit women had been molested. In other words he took it for granted that soldiers would lose control and thought it a matter of pride that they hadn’t.

  4. Ravi Iyer says:

    very cool convergent story, Jason. It’s nice when real world phenomena make sense when put together with semi-artificial lab based studies. Thanks for sharing.

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