Research explores behavior of spectators at sporting events to understand group dynamics

The philosopher Gerhard Thonhauser investigates the behavior of spectators at sports events to help him better understand group dynamics. He challenges prejudices, including claims that crowds are irrational or that emotion must be divorced from reason. This also entails consequences for politics.

Research explores behavior of spectators at sporting events to understand group dynamics
Crowds in motion can sometimes seem threatening. But emotions are an underestimated part of smart human interaction, as demonstrated by new scientific findings. Image Credit: Waldemar  Brandt/unsplash

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.” – This quote from the movie Men in Black can be traced back to precepts of the philosopher Gustave Le Bon, the recognized pioneer of crowd psychology. Le Bon describes the transition of the conscious personalities of individuals into a kind of collective soul that makes them feel completely different – which sometimes implies hysterical and irrational behavior. In a project financed by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, the philosopher Gerhard Thonhauser has set out to question this widespread notion. He chose spectators at sporting events as a model for his analysis.

The “crowd” as a hazard

Thonhauser notes that we generally find it difficult to weigh up collectives. “It seems to me that when it comes to collectives we always drift in one of two directions – either towards a fear of mass dynamics, where a crowd is something dangerous that needs to be controlled, or towards enthusiasm for crowds and their revolutionary potential as an ideal of unregimented self-rule.” While the former tendency goes back to Le Bon mentioned above, the latter is mainly to be found in Marxist streams of thought.

One can easily verify that quite a lot of our everyday assessments, but also scientific assumptions, go in one or other of these two directions. The idea of the project was to examine our thinking about collectives using a given system as an example.”

Gerhard Thonhauser, The philosopher, Austrian Science Fund FWF

Thonhauser’s choice was that of sport spectators.

Sport spectators as a model

“The concept of an audience is interesting for me because in classical theories of the public sphere, such as that of Jürgen Habermas, the bourgeois public sphere played the predominant role,” explains Thonhauser. “There is a link between audience and public sphere, as the German term for audience, Publikum, illustrates.” According to the researcher, the idea of the project was to develop concepts within the context of this model framework that help to understand participants in interaction with their material and social environment.

To this end, Thonhauser worked with researchers from a wide range of disciplines who are part of a German Collaborative Research Centre going by the name of “Affective Societies”. “I was involved in a sociological subproject in this field of research, where we worked with ethnographic methods and specifically with videos of crowds at Bundesliga games and major religious events,” reports Thonhauser. “I took part in some of the data sessions, where we analysed the videos together. It turned out that those who had less knowledge of the specific field often found it difficult to comprehend the behavior we observed. In some cases detailed explanations had to be given by the respective experts for the non-experts to understand.”

It was in this context that Thonhauser realized the need for a new approach to the study of emotions. “There is this idea that reason and emotion have nothing to do with one another, and that being emotional is a hindrance to being rational. This idea needs to be challenged,” says Thonhauser. Emotions can tell us something about a situation and how we feel about it. “That is not irrational, but a normal aspect of our interactions. Even a rational exchange has an affective grounding,” emphasises the researcher.

Thonhauser coaches a national team

Gerhard Thonhauser has a very personal link to his chosen model system, as he explains: “In my youth and student days I used to play football for years and then switched to Ultimate Frisbee.” The latter is a team sport involving Frisbees and elements of basketball and American football. Thonhauser has been the coach of the Austrian mixed national team in this sport for a few years now. Ultimate Frisbee is a special kind of sport in that it does not need a referee. The idea of fair play is deeply entrenched in this discipline, and even at World Cup level, whenever there is suspicion of a rule violation, all decisions are made by the players on the field. “This requires strong emotional control, because even in moments of extreme exertion when a lot is at stake – potentially a World Cup title – you have to communicate calmly and on an equal footing with the opposing team so that everyone can understand what has happened in a given situation and what decision should be taken.”

Thonhauser explains that he has seen spectators staying very calm so as not to influence the decision being made on the field. He finds this to be in contrast with the dynamics of football, his previous sport. “In football, it is quite normal for the home crowd to whistle and boo when decisions are taken against their own team, so as to influence the referees.” In order to understand situations like this, existing notions are not sufficient, according to the philosopher, who feels that focusing on the emotional context is crucial.

Consequences for politics

Thonhauser stresses that sport serves only as a model in his research. His analyses can also be transferred to other areas, such as politics.

Mobilization is always an affective process. We have to feel emotionally affected to get involved.”

Gerhard Thonhauser

That does not mean, however, that such involvement is necessarily irrational. One needs to focus on the interactions within the group, notes the researcher. “But to understand these interactions, you need background knowledge of the respective emotional culture.” This became particularly clear to Thonhauser when he took part in collaborative research on spectator emotions in the context of Affective Societies. Without knowledge of the respective context, even experienced researchers find it difficult to understand the various emotional outbursts. “Someone who is at a football stadium for the first time will not understand what is going on there. You can understand it only if you know the emotional codes,” concludes Thonhauser, citing an example from sport.

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