Can moral support drive us to perform at our best? Using a unique case in football, Professor Fabrizio Colella’s research shows how moral support from fans can profoundly affect footballers’ performance.
Moral support is a crucial aspect of our daily interactions, but there is little scientific evidence of its impact on behaviour and productivity. Measuring its effects is challenging since isolating its influence from other factors is difficult. Those who perform better in school, work, or sports are more likely to receive praise and encouragement than those who perform less well. Additionally, moral support may be accompanied by other forms of help, such as a teacher suggesting a solution to a problem, along with encouragement.
Fabrizio Colella, professor at IdEP, USI Institute of Economics, addressed this issue together with Patricio Dalton (Tilburg University) and Giovanni Giusti (TecnoCampus Mataró, Barcelona), in a new and innovative research paper published in the journal Management Science (doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2021.02906). The researchers managed to quantify the impact of moral support by analysing a natural experiment. Following a tragic incident involving the death of a football fan in the summer of 2013, the Argentine government banned fans of visiting teams from attending matches. This change in legislation allowed researchers to examine the impact of moral support on the performance of football players.
After analysing data from 1320 matches played both before and after the ban, the researcher showed that the probability of losing a match for the visiting team increased by 20% and the chance of conceding a goal increased by 1.3 times in the absence of fans at the stadium. This difference was not due to any different attitude of the referees, nor was it due to any differences in the strategies of the coaches or sports directors.
It is interesting to note that small teams are more affected by the absence of moral support. In contrast, larger teams experience a decline in performance only when competing against equally strong opponents. This supports the notion that moral support can help offset the lack of economic resources to some extent.
The study revealed the importance of moral support in competitive environments that offer high monetary benefits. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that moral support may have an even greater impact in low-stakes settings where it is expected to substitute monetary compensation. The authors suggest that this aspect should be explored further in future research.