Increased aggression during human group contests when competitive ability is more similar

by on August 17, 2012 at 7:37 am in Political Science, Science, Sports | Permalink

From Stulp G, Kordsmeyer T, Buunk AP, Verhulst S.:

Theoretical analyses and empirical studies have revealed that conflict escalation is more likely when individuals are more similar in resource-holding potential (RHP). Conflicts can also occur between groups, but it is unknown whether conflicts also escalate more when groups are more similar in RHP. We tested this hypothesis in humans, using data from two professional sports competitions: football (the Bundesliga, the German first division of football) and basketball (the NBA, the North American National Basketball Association). We defined RHP based on the league ranks of the teams involved in the competition (i.e. their competitive ability) and measured conflict escalation by the number of fouls committed. We found that in both sports the number of fouls committed increased when the difference in RHP was smaller. Thus, we provide what is to our best knowledge the first evidence that, as in conflicts between individuals, conflicts escalate more when groups are more similar in RHP.

The paper is here, hat tip goes to Neuroskeptic.  One hypothesis is behavioral.  The other hypothesis is more directly microeconomic.  Perhaps fouling has positive expected returns within the context of the game, but costs a player long-term reputation, risks long-term retaliation, and so on, and thus the aggression is deployed more in the really important situations.

1 Curt F. August 17, 2012 at 7:44 am

Thus, we provide what is to our best knowledge the first evidence that, as in conflicts between individuals, conflicts escalate more when groups are more similar in RHP.

Sentences like that one really bother me. Is their study really the “first evidence”, period? Or just the first retrospective, well-controlled statistical analysis? Or maybe just the first retrospective, well-controlled statistical analysis in a journal that members of their clique are likely to read? I would count the fact that individuals similar in resource-holding potential are more likely to escalate agression as evidence that groups are likely to do the same.

2 Yog Sottoth August 17, 2012 at 8:12 am

Several years ago Tyler recommended a book on the sociology of violence. It looked interesting and I never got around to reading it. Does anyone remember the title/author?

3 GiT August 17, 2012 at 8:30 am
4 Yog Sottoth August 17, 2012 at 10:31 am

Many thanks

5 TGGP August 18, 2012 at 4:41 pm

It was very good. I excerpted some here.

6 Ryan Miller August 17, 2012 at 8:23 am

I suppose I should read the paper, but do they control for close games? Because it seems like the obvious micro-story, at least in basketball, is that fouling has high expected return for the down team at the end of a close game, where many fouls can occur in close succession. And naturally, closely matched teams would be much more likely to have close games….

The soccer story sounds like better evidence, since scoring seems to occur at more random points within the game and most games are close score-wise.

7 KLO August 17, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Applying this to soccer has complicating factors, too. When two teams are evenly matched, possession between them will also be evenly matched and the run of play will be more wide open, leading to more fouls. When one team is significantly better than the other, however, much of the play is confined to inferior team’s half. The inferior team often takes a highly defensive posture and tries very hard to use superior numbers and defensive positioning to prevent the other team from scoring rather than using fouls, which: (a) give the superior team a very good chance to score on a free kick or penalty kick; and (b) increases the odds of your team losing a player due to a red card, thereby increasing your opponents odds of winning rather dramatically.

8 ricardo August 17, 2012 at 8:36 am

There are alternative hypotheses, at least in soccer. E.g.: you would like to foul Neymar but that would mean catching him first, whereas the mid-table forward is an easy target. Or: fouling Rooney on the edge of the box is potentially costly (he’ll put the free kick in the top corner), whereas fouling Peter Crouch is not so costly (nobody on his team can take free kicks like Rooney). Or: you know that the referee is going to interpret fouls on Messi as deliberate attempts to stifle his genius (and will hand out yellow cards accordingly), so you don’t do it; you and the ref both know that de Jong is no genius, so fouls on him are less likely to be treated as cynical. Or: mid-table teams are more likely to play physically intimidating, less skilful games (it’s an inexpensive way to stay in the top division) and the key is the _interaction_ between two such teams (lots of fouls).

I also wonder if this holds true across time periods. Back in his days with Napoli and Argentina, entire opposing teams would try to kick Maradona (when they could catch him – see the Neymar point). Now such players are afforded protection by the referee (see the Messi point).

I don’t know anything about basketball.

9 Ray Lopez August 17, 2012 at 12:48 pm

“Messi as deliberate attempts to stifle his genius” – this is simply treating a star to a different standard than ordinary players–happens in pro basketball. Reason: fans come to see stars. And by doing so, the referee guarantees the star remains a star long after his skills erode, so it’s a perpetual circle for a while.

10 Ted Craig August 17, 2012 at 8:40 am

It’s not just fouling in the NBA. Here’s some really good perspective from an unexpected source:

11 Ted Craig August 17, 2012 at 8:41 am

You have to listen to the audio.

12 dearieme August 17, 2012 at 8:48 am

Christ, have these buggers never spoken to people who play team games? “first evidence” indeed – what bollocks!

Just another attribution of originality to economists who’re repeating what’s a commonplace observation amongst humans.

13 Andrew' August 17, 2012 at 9:12 am

Competition is tight when games are close? I’m sure I’m missing something, but a wise man once said “that’s why you play the game!”

14 John August 17, 2012 at 8:49 am

I am not very convinced by this. You have to believe that drawing a foul is a proxy for “aggression,” which seems ridiculous since fouls are drawn purposely and strategically (at least in basketball).

15 David Tufte August 17, 2012 at 9:41 am

Fouling is an option, to which real options theory can be applied.

In financial markets, the value of the option itself is highest when the current price is near the strike price. It is lowest in the polar cases where the actual price exceeds the strike price by a lot (so that there is little doubt how much value will be created by exercising the option) and where the actual price is far less than the strike price (so the option is unlikely to ever be exercisable).

In an RHP conflict. fouling would have little value if you were certain to win (or certain to lose) anyway. The most likely time to see fouling would then be when the RHP is close and a foul might make a big difference.

16 Miley Cyrax August 17, 2012 at 8:10 pm

Awesome connection. +1

17 Doc Merlin August 20, 2012 at 9:16 am


18 Gene Callahan August 17, 2012 at 11:12 am

And most NBA fouling, except at the end of the game, is not deliberate. My analysis of this study is here.

19 hopaulius August 17, 2012 at 4:23 pm

I doubt that the behavior of athletes in professional sports leagues corresponds accurately to the human race in general. Teams in professional leagues are by design much more evenly matched than any number of potentially competing groups of humans. When burglars broke into my shop, it wasn’t because they had an identical resource-holding potential to mine.

20 Steve Sailer August 17, 2012 at 6:55 pm

A Swedish reader pointed out to me that Sweden and Finland try harder these days to edge each other out in their annual Sweden v. Finland track meet than they try in Olympics, where they are mostly overmatched:

21 BC August 17, 2012 at 8:36 pm

I’m wondering what the NBA analysis would look like if it considered only technical fouls.

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