Football and the Psychology of Reward
Football's worldwide popularity is down to its addictive nature, says Phill Chadwick.
What with all the recent World Cup euphoria and disappointment, AFL and NRL media personalities bleating on
and on about how football will never take first place above their codes, and a whole lot of passion spent over
the game, I have been thinking about the characteristics of the game of football and what makes it so popular
Some may say that it is simply cultural. If you grow up with football as the major sport, then an
understanding and appreciation of it must inevitably seep into your bones. That may be part of it. Familiarity
does seem to play a part.
Others may say that it is a relic of old imperialism, the sport imported into the colonies by the old
European imperialists, Britain, France, Germany and Spain. An historical accident. May be that explains some
But my feeling is that it goes deeper than all of that. I have heard some AFL pundits imply that if only
their code were presented to the world wide masses, its obvious superiority as a sport would lead to its
natural displacement of "Soccer". Now that is wishful thinking of the highest order.
The past failure of football to dominate Australia's sporting landscape is, I think, more due to former
slightly xenophobic and insular attitudes of Australians, and the poor administration of the game, than to any
inferiority of the sport itself.
There was also a sporting equivalent of the old "cultural cringe". Playing a game that no-one else is
interested in is an easy way of being the best in the world.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that, for the vast majority of the world's people, football is the dominant
sporting obsession. So what is it about football that generates such passionate devotion in such a wide
variety of people of all cultures, ethnicities, languages and religions?
There must be some aspect of human psychology that is accessed by football, above other sports, triggering
almost addictive behaviours.
And there is the clue. Addiction, at least in a psychological sense, is the result of triggering of the
reward/pleasure centres of our brains, with the behaviour positively reinforced, so that anticipation of
reward is associated with the activity.
B.F.Skinner, a behavioural psychologist working in the USA carried out some very interesting experiments on
a variety of laboratory animals.
In short, he investigated what he called Operant Conditioning. That is, how best to condition animals to
carry out tasks you want them to do. To do this, a reward is offered to reinforce the correct behaviour. In
the case of rats or birds, a food reward reinforces the desired behaviour.
These animals very quickly learn to carry out the behaviour and earn their reward.
What is interesting is that Skinner found that the best way to get them to learn and for that learned
behaviour to be retained, is to randomise the reward. You don't give them the same amount of reward every
time, and you give the reward at random intervals.
So, to get animals to do what you want, give them rewards for the behaviour at random intervals and of
Sound familiar? The popularity of gambling is the result of this trait in humans. Poker machines in
particular are so seductive because they are consciously designed to exploit this principle of random positive
reinforcement. And that is why addiction to the "Pokies" is so widespread and persistent.
Is it too much of a stretch to say that football, with its low scoring, and very uncertain results, also
taps into this deep human psychological trait?
Sure, all sports do this to some extent. The mere fact that the outcome is never guaranteed in any sporting
contest, explains their attraction to fans. If the result was entirely predictable, there would be no point in
But of the major football codes, Association Football has the benefit of a much more random distribution of
match results, and hence a much deeper tap into the fan's behaviour/reward response. In AFL, NRL, Rugby Union
and, for that matter, American Football and Gaelic Football, scoring is more frequent, and match results are,
on balance, more likely in favour of the "better" team.
Football, often decided by one goal, one good or poor decision, one piece of brilliance or one mistake,
offers a much more random sequence of rewards to the spectator. And this random sequencing of reward, both
during the match and in the match results, seems to me to mimic a poker machine's appeal.
Over the course of a whole season, these random fluctuations tend to be evened out, with the best team
usually finishing at the top of the ladder, so competitions are not just lotteries. It in the outcome of
individual matches that the uncertainty most strongly shows.
Interestingly, knock out cup matches and finals competitions don't have the benefit of this levelling and
often result in upsets.
At the level of the individual match, the characteristics of football mean that the behaviour (watching
your team play) is rewarded (your team wins) somewhat randomly. The result is that the behaviour is positively
reinforced very strongly. And once learned in this way, as Skinner found, it is retained for long periods of
In football terms, this explains why even seemingly hapless teams still have loyal supporters. They are
addicted, and are forever hopeful of a repeat of the one time, long ago when they beat the top team. It only
takes minor success, rarely repeated to maintain their obsession.
Unfortunately, for we poor lab rats, long ago conditioned to turn up at the turnstiles, the conditioning is
already so deep that it can never be erased.
We are the ones so eager for our rewards that we have already paid up for our memberships and season
tickets and can't wait to buy our new scarf, hat or jersey.
And when your partner asks why you would want to go out on a cold, wet afternoon to watch your team,
languishing at the bottom of the table, play against the best team in the land, just shake your head and
sadly mutter "It's just my Operant Conditioning, Dear, nothing I can do about it."
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