The Social Psychology of Sportsball

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Social psychology is a weird and confusing bird. Humans, as you might imagine, are complicated.  And so it goes that the most interesting research results usually have caveats in caveats, beginning with “well, we did this once in a lab with college sophomores” and ending with “….and it may or may not replicate”.*

Which is why the research on black jerseys and sports is so very fascinating. We’ve studied it from a few angles. We’ve looked at it in real life. It’s replicated, to an extent.

When teams wore black jerseys, they played more aggressively, getting more penalties. Okay, cool, maybe that’s a thing, you say, all skeptical-faced. But what if it’s just coincidence? Or what if there’s some mitigating factor?

Well, researchers looked at sixteen seasons of data from the National Hockey League (NHL) and National Football League (NFL). In both cases, teams have two uniforms: one with primarily white, and trim in the team color, the second in the team color with white trim.  In each case, the teams with black as the main color in their colored jerseys received more penalties when dressed in black.

Okay, but what if it’s just where the black jersey’s are worn? After all, NFL players traditionally wear their black jerseys at home games and the predominantly-white ones for away games. (The reverse is true for the NHL) What if it’s just a matter of the team playing more aggressively when home (in the NFL) or away (in the NHL)?

Well, that was examined, too! During the sixteen year sample, several teams switched uniform colors from non-black to black. In each case, there was an immediate uptick in penalties. This was even seen in one case where the switch happened mid-season–meaning that management and players hadn’t changed. When teams exchanged their black uniforms for different colors, there was an immediate decrease in penalties. This finding has also been replicated in other studies, where teams are randomly assigned a uniform color, then swap uniforms.

Common objection: Black jerseys are easier to spot–so referees are more likely to call penalties. 

Status: seems to be false. Even when players wore other dark colors, black uniforms had significantly more penalties.
Caveat: Jerseys that were perceived to be black, notably the Chicago Bears’, appeared to have the same status as black jerseys. So, dark jerseys don’t behave like black ones…unless they’re dark enough to appear black. That’s a bit of a fuzzy boundary.

Potential mechanism driving the black jersey effect: Black is seen as a symbol of malevolence and aggression.

Status: Somewhat supported, less replicated than the black jersey effect. The researchers who did the original research with the NHL and NFL also got naive participants (those who didn’t have any sports experience or recognition) to rate the ‘malevolence’ of players pictured in black and non-black uniforms. They consistently rated those in black uniforms higher.
Caveat: Small sample size, undergraduates, and heavily skewed towards women participants.

Further reading at NPR and PubMed.

*This is an unqualified dig; I actually adore social psychology. It’s messy and frustrating and often conflicts and makes sweeping claims, but it studies some of the most interesting subjects on the planet: us.