Is Sports fandom a Form of Tribalism & Are There Benefits to Mental Health for Individuals, and Society Overall, of Sports Fandom?

Torie Simmons

Department of Psychology

Evolution & Behavior

Instructor: Dr. Wisniewski

July 2nd, 2021

In any biology or genetics class, we learn the significance of DNA. We learn that genetics and environment are responsible for our behavior. We learn that deoxyribonucleic acid can be likened to the instruction booklet responsible for many, if not most, human characteristics. DNA is transcribed to mRNA and then to rRNA and finally tRNA to create proteins—proteins that become receptors in the brain, enzymes, and other essential pieces to the human puzzle. Of course, DNA does much more than create proteins, but protein synthesis is one important example of how DNA acts to relay information from generation to generation. Further, we learn that evolution is a staple of biology, chemistry, genetics, psychology, sociology, ecology, and many other scientific disciplines. Evolution was not always accepted as fact, yet today any serious scientist will agree that evolution is observable, with much data behind it. Evolution can be summed up by allelic diversity, adaptive heritable traits, and survival of the fittest. One thing that can be added to the phrase “survival of the fittest”, is survival and reproduction of the fittest; one can survive a lifetime but if they (or their family) do not procreate their genetic material will not be passed down to future generations (Kalat, 2019; Marieb & Hoehn, 2019).

In studying neurobiology, we learn that our behavior and perception stem from neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and synapses that constantly create senses and perceptions from information in our environment. Neurons with their dendrites and axons pass messages from our peripheral nervous system to our central nervous system. We learn that while genes are passed down from generation to generation, they can either be expressed or not expressed. This means that environment can essentially turn a gene on or off. There were a series of heated debates in the 70’s regarding how much influence the gene actually had on human behavior—or the behavior of any eusocial species. A book written called The Selfish Gene suggests that everything can be explained by the gene’s “selfish” desire to replicate. This idea fits well in most cases, but it does not fit well with altruistic behavior. There have been a number of different arguments as to why individuals cooperate and form groups. For instance, while the selfish individual may win against the cooperative individual, a group of cooperative individuals wins against a group of selfish individuals (Kalat, 2019; Wilson & Wilson, 2007).

Every living thing has been biologically programmed, or predisposed, to certain actions and behaviors. E.O. Wilson had a keen interest in ants. In the documentary, Of Ants and Men, E.O. discusses tribalism, evolution, genetics, and his views on the behavior of eusocial species in the light of evolution. According to Wilson, there are 19 eusocial species, most of which are insects and bacteria. Homo Sapiens is the only eusocial primate, so it turns out the E.O.’s interest in ants may have helped him in his understanding of human nature. There are “how” questions, and “why” questions. “How” questions involve mechanisms of action, and “why” questions call for ultimate answers (Wisniewski, 2021). Wilson concerned himself with many “why” questions and ultimate answers. Individual selection and kin selection provide solid explanation of altruism while keeping with the “selfish gene” theme, right? Why was Wilson so persistent in his thinking? Why was he unwilling to accept the selfish gene? E.O. would not concede because he still felt that something was missing. For instance, sports and sports fandom, he thought, could not be explained without group-selection. Group-selection was argued by some, to be part of a multi-level theory which embodied individual selection, kin selection, and group selection. This argument elucidated some of the mysteries of conflicting instincts and why the emotions and instincts of one individual can be divided and seemingly contradictory. One person holds the capacity for kindness and aggression, cooperation and selfishness, empathy and disgust, love and indifference (Wilson, 2015; Wilson & Wilson, 2007).

The idea that natural selection works both on the individual and on the group, provides insight that, according to some, cannot be explained by the necessity of a gene to replicate. Tribalism is one of the most valuable and deeply innate humanistic characteristics we have. In tribalism we find belonging, joy, peace, and security. Tribalistic nature can be associated with politics, religion, sports, clubs, and even sports fandom. From an evolutionary vantage point, this makes sense. Tribes have been around for thousands of years, competing against each other, instilling a sense of loyalty and cooperation in tribe members. Of the coalitions, those that were most cooperative and worked best together would have survived longest while also acquiring land and resources from those they conquered, allowing prolific reproduction. Loyalty, commitment, cooperation, coordination, and inclusion were important to success. These ideals and traits were sought after and praised in group members and those who did not embody them would have been ostracized and excluded; this provides some enlightenment as to why depression and other negative emotions have been linked to exclusion while positive emotions have been linked to inclusion. Of course, it is easy to draw the parallel between a sports team and a tribe—but a sports fan? Enjoying the occasional basketball game is not necessarily tribalistic behavior. To what extent must one go in order to liken fandom to tribalism, and is fandom good for an individual’s mental health? There are different levels to which an individual may enjoy sports. If an individual closely identifies with a specific team and connects with other individuals or team members because of this commitment, it is no stretch to imagine this behavior as tribalistic (Clark, et al., 2019; Mirer, et al., 2018; Wilson, 2015).

To some, it may seem odd to show such loyalty to a sports team, but is it detrimental to mental health? To the contrary, evidence suggests fandom can be healthy and even lead to higher satisfaction in social life, and maybe even personal life. In fact, one study showed that sports fandom was a way for individuals with developmental disabilities to make friends and find inclusion (Southby, 2013; Wann, et al., 2011). Further research evidenced that social connections made via sports fandom are a powerful tool in improving mental health prospects. A framework for understanding relationships between mental health and sports fandom was developed in order to better identify the extensiveness of the psychological connection an individual has with a particular sports team and the resulting mental health benefits. The Team Identification—Social Psychological Health Model hypothesizes that team identification mental health benefits stem from the strengthened social connections fans create with one another. This would suggest improved happiness in one’s social life, but not necessarily their personal life. It was hypothesized that team identification would improve an individual’s satisfaction with their social life, and sports fandom in general would improve satisfaction in an individual’s personal life. Interestingly, study results indicated that team identification was not only a predictor in social life satisfaction, but also personal life satisfaction. It was expected that, because team identification would cultivate meaningful and lasting social connections, it would therefore improve satisfaction with one’s social life; there was no expectation of enhanced satisfaction with an individual’s personal life. As expected, results indicated that general sports fandom did not predict enhanced satisfaction in one’s social life, possibly due to lack of ease in cultivation of meaningful relationships based on common team identification. This leaves researchers wondering why team identification served as a predictor for enhanced personal life satisfaction, when past studies indicated otherwise (Wann, 2006; Wann, et al., 2011). A (2009) study by Wann, et al., indicates identification with a local team, not fandom alone, was positively correlated with enhanced social well-being. Moreover, Brasher, Thomas, Scheuchner, and Wann (2015), found that local team identification was a strong predictor of social well-being, while sport fandom, in general, was not. According to Wann, et al., (2011) there may be simple explanations as to why team identification was found to predict personal life satisfaction, albeit misaligned with past research. Potentially, participants in the study could alternatively be naturally inclined to join group functions and socially engage or be highly affiliated; this is what they refer to as “joiners”. Research suggests that individuals with a predisposition, or high motivation to forge relationships and affiliate themselves, are more often satisfied with their social lives. This propensity to affiliate is correlated with a heightened sense of “belonging”, which is further correlated with a positive sense of well-being (Wann, et al., 2011; Theodorakis, et al., 2012).

While more research is necessary, it is certain that varying levels of fandom can be beneficial to one’s social life, personal life, and overall mental health. This suggests that we really have evolved to rely and take comfort in tribal behavior. It can be said, however, that in-group bias is common, and this does not benefit between-group relationship dynamics. While the cooperative spirit and heightened sense of well-being may generate in-group support, this may or may not have a positive effect on out-group members. Nobility within a tribe has been shown to fuel bias as individuals strive to belong and show commitment. For instance, political bias and selectivity are a reality. An individual may choose to affiliate with a particular political party and therefore selectively expose themselves to news sources that most align themselves with their brand or party. This is a risk and potential reality in any tribe or group. Group dynamics often inspire a level of loyalty that becomes detrimental and deteriorates objectivity and sound reasoning. We must work to use our best judgment and choose objectivity when faced with conflicting ideals. Unfortunately, these defense mechanisms are necessary as the world is full of harsh realities. Our planet is diverse, and we must communicate with individuals we do not know; We must often choose between competing instincts, between positive emotions of compassion or empathy and negative feelings of mistrust or expectation of deceit. It is easy to be critical of that which we do not understand and of whom we do not trust; and on the same token, it is easy to be less critical of individuals with whom we share beliefs. As suggested by E.O. Wilson, thus is human nature—divided. (Mirer, et al., 2018; Sasaki & Uchida, 2013; Stroud, 2010).


Clark, C. J., Liu, B. S., Winegard, B. M., & Ditto, P. H. (2019). Tribalism Is Human Nature. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(6), 587–592.

Kalat, J. W. (2019). Biological psychology. Cengage.

Marieb, E. N., & Hoehn, K. (2019). Human anatomy & physiology. Pearson.

Mirer, M., Duncan, M. A., & Wagner, M. W. (2018). Taking it from the team: Assessments of bias and credibility in team-operated sports media. Newspaper Research Journal, 39(4), 481–495.

Nowak, M. A., Tarnita, C. E., & Wilson, E. O. (2010). The evolution of eusociality. Nature, 466(7310), 1057–1062.

 Sasaki, T., & Uchida, S. (2013). The evolution of cooperation by social exclusion. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 280(1752), 20122498.

Southby, K. (2013). Social inclusion through football fandom: opportunities for learning-disabled people. Sport in Society, 16(10), 1386–1403.

 Theodorakis, N. D., Wann, D. L., Nassis, P., & Luellen, T. B. (2012). The relationship between sport team identification and the need to belong. International Journal of Sport Management and Marketing, 12(1/2), 25.

Wann, D. L., Waddill, P. J., Brasher, M., & Ladd, S. (2015). Examining Sport Team Identification, Social Connections, and Social Well-being among High School Students. Journal of Amateur Sport.

 Wann, D. L., Waddill, P. J., Polk, J., & Weaver, S. (2011). The team identification–social psychological health model: Sport fans gaining connections to others via sport team identification. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 15(1), 75–89.

 Wilson, D. S., & Wilson, E. O. (2007). Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82(4), 327–348.

Stroud, N. J. (2010). Polarization and Partisan Selective Exposure. Journal of Communication, 60(3), 556–576.

 YouTube. (2015). E. O. Wilson: Of Ants and Men. YouTube.


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