Can sports rivalries bring us closer together?
Issue 50: On the Battle of Alberta; what economics can gain from understand identity; how identity fosters belonging in organizations.
Jay was eight years old when he learned about the nature of social identity.
On the school intercom one morning in late April 1986, his teachers announced that every student in his elementary school should come to school wearing either blue and white to represent the Edmonton Oilers or red and yellow to represent the Calgary Flames. It was the eve of Game 7 in the “Battle of Alberta”—a match that would determine the fate of two of the fiercest rivals in professional hockey.
It’s hard to put the Battle of Alberta into proper context, but these two teams were the dominant face of hockey for an entire decade. The Oilers and Flames made it to the finals for 8 straight years—winning six Stanley Cups. The Oilers of this period was widely considered to be among the best teams in history. And both teams were loaded with future Hall of Fame players, led by the greatest of them all, Wayne Gretzky.
Separated by a mere 186 miles, their rivalry in that period was bitter and often violent on the ice. It divided Albertans the same way that the Yankees and Red Sox divide baseball fans or Michigan and Ohio State stoke animosity between followers of college football.
Jay’s elementary school in Red Deer sat smack in the middle of the battle—exactly half way between Edmonton and Calgary. On the eve of the big game, the school playground was transformed. Most of the kids arrived wearing clothing that revealed their allegiances. New friendships formed as kids took sides and forged connections. Some kids ran their mouths, but on the whole it remained peaceful.
Later than evening, Edmonton Oiler’s Steve Smith broke thousands of hearts in an unfathomable turn of events when he scored on his own net (watch the 17:40 mark of this video). It ended the Oiler’s streak of championships and paved the way for the Flames to head to the NHL Finals.
(Photo courtesy of Brenda Van Bavel, 1986)
The ease in the way a school full of kids adopted symbols of identity and reshuffled their ordinary affiliations is a memory that remained burned in Jay’s mind when he started graduate school nearly two decades later. We wrote about this basic idea—the extraordinary power of simple identities to divide some and bring others together—in the first chapter of our book when we described the Town of Bent Necks and the minimal group paradigm. But we also applied it in our own research.
In a series of studies we conducted with our advisor, Wil Cunningham, we brought people into the lab and assigned them to one of two arbitrary groups. Instead of the Flames and Oilers, it was the Leopards and Tigers (or, in other studies, a Red team and Blue team). In virtually every study we ran, this simple act of creating a new identity had a profound impact on the brains and behavior of group members.
Just like the kids at West Park Elementary School in Red Deer, Alberta, our adult participants expressed a sudden and marked preference for any member of their own team. More impressively, these shifts in identity led people to evaluate all members of their teams more positively. When the teams included members of different racial groups, these new identities helped to bridge previous racial divides, leading our White participants to feel more positively about both Black and White members of their teams. They also paid more attention to people on their team—overriding a tendency to pay more attention to individuals of their own race.
Of course, these were laboratory studies. But the power of shared identities—and sports—also appears to have surprising power in the real world.
In 2014, ISIS, a jihadist group that follows a fundamentalist variant of Sunni Islam, committed genocide against religious minorities in northern Iraq on an unprecedented scale. In the wake of this tragedy, Salma Mousa, then a PhD student at Stanford University (now a professor at Yale), found that shared identities built around sports could begin to rebuild social connection and respect in this region. Despite the vast differences between these religious groups, she leveraged their shared passion for soccer.
Team sports, like hockey or soccer, provide many of the key ingredients for effective identity building: cooperation, a common goal, and roughly equal power among members.
Mousa recruited fifty-one amateur Christian teams and invited them to join a league in Ankawa and Qaraqosh. She had each team agree to add three new players to its squad. Half the teams received additional Christian players and the other half received Muslim players.
The results were both striking and consistent with what we found in our own laboratory research in North America. At the end of the season, Christian players on mixed-religion teams were more willing to train with Muslims in the future, vote for a Muslim to win a sportsmanship prize, and sign up for a mixed-religion team the next season. By sharing a group identity and working together, they were able to bridge what had seemed like an impossible divide.
Team success amplified these effects. Successful teams forged an especially strong sense of shared identity, and connections between teammates reducing patterns of discrimination for many months. It provided the first steps toward rebuilding a sense of community.
Groups often get a bad rap. But they also create opportunities for connection with people who might otherwise be at odds. It is this intersection of identities that helps us find a sense of commonality that we might otherwise miss. In a society where people are increasingly sorting into like-minded communities and relying on false stereotypes and misperceptions of other groups, it is worth remembering that sports offers a small amount of hope for humanizing others.
Another lesson from sports is that it’s easy to adopt another identity. Simply switching jerseys can provide an opportunity to be reborn into a new community. Indeed, Jay’s mom sent him pictures showing how his own identity shifted from a Flames fan to an Oilers fanatic after he moved north from Red Deer following the 1986 playoffs. By 1988 he was a full blown fan of the Oilers—an identity that he never plans to relinquish.
(Photo courtesy of Brenda Van Bavel, 1988)
News and Updates
What can economists learn from The Power of Us? This paper summarizes key studies and main ideas from our book from the perspective of a behavioral economist. The key lessons include (1) the flexibility of identity, (2) how identities shape moral circles, and (3) why institutions can foster trust across identity divides.
Our book was featured on the Leadership Arts Review podcast! Listen to the podcast episode here, where the hosts discuss creating a sense of belonging in organizations, and applying the power of identity in leadership.
Lehigh’s College of Arts and Sciences magazine features the Power of Us!
Jay was interviewed for Wealthsimple magazine, where was asked a bunch of questions about cult psychology, sensationalist beliefs, and how social media alters group identities.