A Kick in the Neuros

What’s so great about football? Well, the commentators for a start. Usually they’re entertainingly trite but so far Robbie Savage appears even to have lost the ability to speak: at one point he shrieked about a “tying flackle” which, for Radio 5 live listeners, suddenly turned the Wales match into Game of Thrones. There’s also a frisson of excitement every time one of the old school “could-say-something-career-ending-at-any-moment” commentators is handed the microphone. Or worse, a more extended pitch-side interview. Glen Hoddle’s bound to say something like that soon. He’s already been mentioning miracles in his match commentaries which, for Glen, is dangerous ground.

IT Crowd football

Yesterday, England drew 1-1 with Russia. England were good, but unlucky; at times they were even quite entertaining. That’s a change from business as usual when England are either bad and unlucky or just bad. So, unexpectedly, England could for once seduce Europe with the quality of their football. Unexpected, although Roy Hodgson (Mike Baldwin) may yet confirm our suspicions that he’s a master of winning hearts but losing the game (as Ken Barlow – aka Jurgen Löw – can attest).

Very sadly, seduction is much more difficult when the people you brought with you are busy beating up anyone else who happens to be at a party. The violence in Marseille is reminiscent of the dark days of previous England Euro involvement. One wonders why on earth so many of our European neighbours want us not to Brexit! Of course, many of the other nationalities involved in the violence don’t look like a very nice bunch. Lokomotiv Moscow t-shirt anyone? But there are still too many England thugs with the default look of a forensically aware Mitchell brother, who drink way too much, and hang around the wrong places. For many social psychologists this violence is the consequence of enduring national stereotypes and prejudice compounded by alcohol and growing fascist elements in many European countries. Social psychologists’ work on crowd behaviour did much to mitigate these sort of scenes in the 1990s and 2000s. Sad, then, that this excellent example of impactful research appears to have been largely forgotten. Bring it back.

Mirror Violence

In a little over a week it will be that time in a tournament where I declare my allegiance to the German national team – listen, my father is German, so it’s not just a flag of convenience and it means there’s always a realistic prospect of winning. With that in mind I also ought to turn to some psychology (and neuroscience), because if England go to penalties, especially against the Germans, journos will dust off their contacts book and find some psychologist or other to trot out old national stereotypes about clinical Germans and plucky England players choking. Can we please be clear? These are stereotypes.

First, facts: England have a 17% success rate in penalty shootouts in major tournaments, compared with Germany’s 71%. Now there’s no denying it’s a numerical difference but would it satisfy the denizens of the “open science” community that this is statistically reliable and reproducible? Probably not. That’s football for you. Still, there’s always numbers. The Economist has predicted that there is only a 10% chance that England will win in France 2016! We’d possibly get slightly better odds with Oobi-Ooobi the psychic Koala.

Now previously, my neuroscientist friends have berated me for what they think are my unreconstructed views on the discipline. I want to put the record straight here. I have nothing against neuroscientists! Some of my best friends are neuroscientists and still more have dabbled with this dark art. In fact, given what’s at stake in the Euros, I am prepared to countenance some sort of fMRI study into what’s going through the minds of England and Germany players when they take a penalty. I can almost hear ESRC salivating at the prospect of funding that. I predict there will be absolutely no difference between players in a scanner. But get them out on a pitch, in a semi-final, in front of 80,000 fans and millions of TV viewers, with the hopes and expectations of a nation on their shoulders and I suspect that might be a different story.


England vs Germany and penalties: Andreas Möller and Gareth Southgate’s “sad face”

Neuroscience is an important and essential part of the landscape in research these days. What I have a problem with is the proliferation of unwarranted inferences in all of science and a generation of researchers who think that different brain blobs belie innate, necessary or inevitable differences between people (of difference races, genders or nationalities). And I also have a profound problem with the divisive rhetoric, from both sides, that often casts social scientists against “proper” scientists. That rhetoric pervades British psychology and is institutionalised in funding decisions and particularly in the REF. I’ll be writing more on all of that soon…

…but for now, my view is that England’s failure from the penalty spot is, in extremis, an example of what social psychologists have called social facilitation or audience effects. If you could scan the England and the Germany players right then and there, as they kick the ball in a semi-final shoot out, I think you might see a difference in their brains. That’s the effect of social context and social psychologists study that. And short of brain surgery neuroscience can inform but isn’t going to directly solve that behavioural and social issue. If psychology has any chance of ending England’s 50 years of hurt it requires social psychologists, sports scientists and neuroscientists working together. And, heaven forbid, also with footballers. Perhaps that’s going a bit too far. Something that, at least on previous form, England won’t be doing this summer!

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