You can’t root for both teams

November 20, 2018

ANN ARBOR – Ever meet someone who is an enthusiastic fan of both the Michigan Wolverines and The Ohio State Buckeyes? No? The answer may lie in how we’re evolutionarily wired.

A recent study by Institute for Social Research scientist Daniel Kruger tested for a social norm that a person can’t simultaneously root for competing groups or teams.

He hypothesizes that this may be because for much of our evolutionary history, competition between groups was a prominent aspect of life. Someone with mixed group loyalties would be a potential defector and thus a danger to the group.

“The threat is very real,” Kruger says. “The War of the Roses was nearly won by King Richard III, but a group with mixed loyalties intervened at the last minute and changed the outcome of the battle. This act completely changed the history of the English-speaking world.”

Kruger and his students devised four studies to test this social norm. In the first study, a male member of the research team strode around a shopping mall in Toledo wearing University of Michigan apparel, Ohio State University apparel, and mixtures of U-M and OSU. Other students followed behind, watching for reactions.

The students observed reactions in 1,327 individuals and recorded whether the individuals glanced, stared, did double-takes, directed their companion’s attention or made a verbal or nonverbal comment or gesture. Reactions were more prevalent in the mixed loyalty conditions: individuals were about three times as likely to react beyond a brief glance when the person was wearing both OSU and U-M gear.

In a second study, the researchers wanted to see if the reactions were driven by the mixed loyalty display. So they recruited 31 Toledo-area residents—18 men and 13 women. The researchers asked what the residents thought of matching loyalty displays, and then what they thought of the mixed loyalty display. Their responses confirmed the interpretation of the mall-goers’ nonverbal reactions: “I feel like I want to punch him,” said one resident regarding the mixed loyalty display.

To bolster their findings in the first two studies, Kruger and his students surveyed 325 undergraduates from U-M and Bowling Green State University in Ohio, 81 percent of which were from Michigan and 19 percent from BGSU. Here, they found that mixed loyalty displays provoked greater surprise and confusion than matched loyalty displays, and similar levels of anger and disgust with the rival image.

Finally, a Facebook advertisement gave the research group the opportunity to test mixed loyalty out in the wild. A Pringles and Cheez-It ad committed a grave sin in the eyes of football fans, a table setting with a bowl featuring a block M and a cup with a Buckeyes logo. The Facebook comments reflected what Kruger and his students found in their previous studies: that mixed loyalties were befuddling and attracted considerable attention.

“Who on earth would have a *ichigan bowel and an Ohio State cup?!” said one commenter. Another commenter wrote, “There’s no freaking way that these two things could coexist in the same house.” One comment was simply, “House Divided.”

Kruger believes that these reactions are part of our evolved coalition psychology.

“Even four-year-olds will prefer someone who stays in a losing group to someone who changes loyalties to join a winning group,” Kruger said. “Any individuals expressing mixed loyalties may be seen as a possible threat, not a true in-group member, and may be shunned or excluded.”

Consider this before slapping on a Buckeyes hat with Wolverines sweatpants. Your friends might just send you packing.


Catherine Allen-West, [email protected]

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