Case Study: Deflategate and the Psychology of Ingroup Bias

Case Study-If you follow sports at all, and perhaps even if you don’t, you’ve seen the news about “Deflategate.” The New England Patriots, my hometown NFL team, stand accused of deliberately under-inflating footballs for the AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts in 2015. Earlier this week, following the publication of an investigative report, the NFL handed down a punishment of a four game suspension for quarterback Tom Brady, and a $1 million fine and loss of future draft picks for the Patriots franchise.

The reactions to the controversy and subsequent punishment provide a great example of the psychological principle of ingroup bias, which is one of the first topics social psychology students explore. This concept is relatively simple: We are predisposed to think favorably about the groups we belong to, and our fellow group members, and less likely to think charitably about members of groups we don’t belong to. From an evolutionary perspective, this type of bias could help protect the group against external threats while increasing internal cohesion. Right now, the ingroup favoritism effect is playing out in responses to the NFL’s decision to levy fines and suspensions against the Patriots.

Here are some examples of the contrast between the generally supportive and favorable Boston/New England reactions, and reactions from people elsewhere:

Local Boston headlines

Headlines from other metros

Posted by New Englanders:



Posted by a non-New Englander:

5-12-2015 2-04-05 PM

The difference is clear.

Although this is just a sampling of the many articles and responses online right now, and although there is some support outside of New England and some criticism within, the overall tenor of the media differs quite a bit between ingroup and outgroup. We support our ingroup members more and condemn the outgroup more than we might otherwise.

Truth usually lies in between.

With many inter-group conflicts, the “truth” (to the extent that a truth exists) is somewhere in the middle. Between the fact that I’m a Bostonian and what I’ve just said about ingroup biases, you can probably guess that my assessment of “truth” lands more pro-Patriots than that of my relatives in Indiana.

Knowing what I know about psychology, I have to acknowledge that I would be unhappy if an opposing team were accused of what the Patriots allegedly did. In my opinion, however, the punishment does not seem to fit the crime here, particularly in comparison with other disciplinary issues in the NFL.

I’m curious to know what you think about Deflategate, and whether you think your stance is influenced by being part of the ingroup or outgroup. Would you have a different opinion about the issue if you were someone else?