Passionate football fans are not only more likely to be hostile to rival supporters but also more likely to show kindness, challenging some of the stereotypes about hooligans, new research suggests.
The study found the more fused (or close) an English football fan felt to their club, the more likely they were to have been hostile towards rival supporters in the past.
And men were more likely than women to have been hostile towards rivals.
However, when analysing altruistic behaviour like hugging, stopping to help and giving emotional support towards fans of the same club, those who were more strongly fused were most likely to demonstrate this behaviour.
Researchers also found that women were significantly more likely than men to be altruistic to fellow fans.
Encouragingly, the results published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology also reveal that strongly fused fans prioritised altruism towards fellow fans over hostility towards rivals.
This suggests violence and negative behaviour are not a primary consideration for fans, researchers say.
The paper’s author, Martha Newson, who is based at the universities of Kent and Oxford, said: “These findings challenge some of the long-standing myths and stereotypes around football hooligans in the UK.
“We have strong evidence that passionate football fans can have a positive impact at games, not only on their fellow fans which we’ve known for some time, but also with fans of rival teams.
“Research like this could be utilised by clubs to strengthen their fan communities, creating opportunities such as volunteer programmes that fans can get involved in and help others, as we’ve seen in the joint efforts between Liverpool and Everton’s food banks.
“The psychology we find in football fans is not unique of course, and there’s potential for similar inter-group intervention work in higher conflict groups who share a common goal, such as encouraging dialogue between gangs who may not share a postcode but do share a city.
“Focusing on what fans can do to affect positive change in their communities is one way to change the narrative, and hopefully create more positive environments at games both at home and away.”
The researchers investigated identity fusion – a visceral sense of “oneness” with the group – in 497 British football fans.
They were asked what team they supported, and questions about how strongly they felt they belonged to a fan group.
Additionally, they were asked questions about hostile and altruistic behaviour.
Altruistic behaviour towards rival fans was investigated in a second study.
It found that despite having a higher propensity for hostility towards rivals, strongly fused fans were also more likely to behave altruistically to their rival fans than fans who were not strongly fused to the club.
Women, once again, were more likely to display these behaviours.
There was also a trend for younger fans to desire this altruism, compared to older fans.
Dr Newson will be at the British Science Festival in Leicester, hosted by De Montfort University, discussing the ancient origins of tribal behaviour in football fans and other modern groups.