Life & Culture

Steve Reicher's psychology of a sports shirt

In his latest Jewniversity column on leading Jewish academics, David Edmonds explores the work of psychologist Steve Reicher


The two of us, both sports fans, are having a chat about football. We say our goodbyes, and you wander off down the street. Suddenly, you see a young man in distress on the pavement opposite. He’s crying out. He’s wearing a football shirt, and there’s blood oozing down it.

Do you stop to help?

You’d like to think you would, of course. In fact your response may depend on what sort of shirt the man is wearing and what exactly the two of us had been talking about.

If, for example, you supported Spurs and we’d been discussing the exquisite talent of striker Harry Kane, then you’d be more likely to help the distraught bystander if he were in Tottenham rather than in Everton kit. On the other hand, had we been yakking away about some aspect of football in general — say, the excessive wages of players — it would make no difference what football shirt he had on. You would be just as likely to help any football fan of whatever stripe. But so long as he had on a football shirt of some kind, you would still be more likely to help him than a person dressed in just a plain, non-football specific shirt.

These are some of the research findings of Steve Reicher, from the University of St. Andrews. Professor Reicher is interested in our social identity: what groups we identify with, and how this affects our behavior. Identity, it turns out, is extremely malleable. I, for example, am a cyclist – but consider this fact rather marginal to my identity. But when a cab cuts up another cyclist ahead of me, I instantly feel a sympathetic bond with my fellow two-wheeler, and when we stop at the next traffic light, we might share a cyclist moment — perhaps we’ll both moan about the routine arrogance and discourtesy of taxi-drivers. For a short while, at least, we’ll have a cyclist identity and we’ll both feel part of the cyclist group.

What we regard as our in-group and out-group can also mutate rapidly. When Tottenham play Arsenal, there is a powerful sense of belonging within each set of fans, an intense feeling of tribal identity. But now imagine an Arsenal player collapses in what looks like a life-threatening injury — the in-group/out-group hostilities (for most fans) will instantly evaporate. Now Tottenham and Arsenal fans alike are just football fans, united in shared concern for an athlete.

As part of his investigations into identity, Reicher has investigated crowds. The traditional view of crowds — stemming from the late 19th century and rooted in fears about urbanisation — is that they’re dangerous. We are said to become irrational in crowds, to become more animal than human, to somehow ‘lose ourselves’. Goebbels believed that this was how crowds operated. The Nuremberg rallies were a product of this very mind-set.

Reicher’s research suggests that this picture is inaccurate. Sure we can often have a strong identity with a crowd and can behave differently inside it. But it’s wrong to characterise crowds as inherently irrational or as inherently evil. Indeed, crowds are often the propellers of progressive change: the US Civil Rights movement was built on the power of the crowd.

Much of the most important research on “identity”, on “in-groups” and “out-groups”, has been conducted by Jewish psychologists, operating in the shadow of the Holocaust and preoccupied by the human potential for barbarity. Reicher fits the pattern. The son of a German-born mother and a Polish-born father, he was raised in a small Devon town, the only foreigners, let alone the only Jews, in their ‘hood. He told me that the absence of other family was partly why, growing up, the Holocaust became central to his sense of self.

As a young man, his original plan was that he become a doctor. On one unforgettable day he revealed to his mother that he was switching his university studies from medicine to psychology. They were on a bus, and she openly wept. It was thoughtless of him to ruin both his life and hers, she said.

Reicher went on to become one of the world’s leading authorities on crowd psychology and social identity. On balance, his achievements have probably been worth depriving a Jewish mother of her human right to boast about her son-the-doctor.

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