Throughout the 2022 FIFA World Cup, we’re publishing a series of blogs about the intersection of behavioural insights and football. This is the third in the series and looks at tackling discrimination in sports crowds.
Attending a live sporting event is uniquely energising. In the stadium, you might find yourself acting in ways you wouldn’t if you were watching alone. Imagine, your team scores a goal and immediately you’re on your feet – euphoric, chanting in celebration with thousands of other fans who are just as excited as you are.
These charged social situations can produce a phenomenon called ‘deindividuation’, where people lose their self-awareness to the collective identity of the group. Deindividuation can correlate with positive behaviours, like dancing as if nobody’s watching (because everyone else is dancing).
But when paired with feelings of diffused responsibility and anonymity, deindividuation can support harm. For example, a study in the Netherlands found an average of about one incident involving physical violence occurring per match during the 2014–2015 Dutch football season.
More recently, The UK Football Policing Unit also reported that arrests in the 2021–2022 season were 59% higher than pre-Covid years, and 20% of offences were violent. Just from these two examples we can see this deindividuation is not specific to one geography or demographic.
In these moments, we can apply what we’ve learned over the past 15 years in the field of behavioural science to promote positive social outcomes.
Behavioural insights interventions for live sports
One impressive example of a positive application of behavioural science is at the Levi’s Stadium in California. By measuring real-time feedback from fans in the form of happy/sad faces at locations around the arena, they are able to better optimise people’s experiences by making targeted changes to areas of the stadium with lower satisfaction.
This personalisation and attention to human behaviour in turn improves revenue. Implementing changes to areas of the stadium with lower satisfaction in real-time means fans have more fun and the stadium is rewarded because of it, a true win-win.
Viewed through a policy lens, this real-time experience optimisation makes it clear that live sport presents an opportunity to influence behavioural change at a level that has not been seen before.
An estimated two million people attend events at NFL stadiums across the US every gameweek. For the UK football premier league, that estimate is 400k people per gameweek. Substituting happy/sad face buttons with another type of intervention that raises awareness of societal issues, such as discrimination or prejudice, has the potential to respond to these problems at a massive scale.
One simple, affordable example is using mirrors in the crowd sections of stadiums. Mirrors may be more effective than security cameras (which many stadiums already have) at discouraging behaviours that violate social norms. Unlike noticing a camera, seeing oneself in a mirror causes an immediate physiological reaction – a spectator can regain self-awareness that may otherwise have been lost in the crowd through deindividuation.
Approaches like those above could be highly targeted to sports that suffer from particular prejudices, stadiums where serious polarisation takes place or regions where discrimination is rife. Interactive touch points could also be used to address a wide variety of issues such as homophobia, gender inequality and racism. They could be presented to hundreds of thousands of sports lovers weekly or on an even larger scale at international events like the Olympics or football World Cup.
Sport as an avenue for social impact
Behavioural science is already being used to bring people together around the globe (a good example of this seen in our blog on deliberative processes for social media). Moreover, international sport already unites fans across cultures. Applying behavioural science in arenas could help leverage the naturally diverse nature of these events to address prejudices in environments where people are already feeling unified and optimistic.
The stakeholders and incentives for implementing these approaches would likely vary between sports and events. International events may benefit from government funding while local stadiums may be more driven by industry revenue or politically through public relations.
Motives aside, the wide reach and opportunity for significant change through sport and behavioural science exists – we just need to take a shot at it.
Non-governmental organisations have raised various human rights issues related to this year’s World Cup. For further reading on these issues and calls to action, see here.