The social psychology of booing Adam Goodes

The social psychology of booing Adam Goodes

8 years ago 2 0 6425

Instead of looking at behaviourism and its application in the workforce, this week I would like to focus on a broader social issue – the booing of Adam Goodes and its impacts.

[For international readers, Adam Goodes is an indigenous Australian who is a highly decorated player in the Australian Football League and has previously been named ‘Australian of the Year’]

Over the past month or so, Adam Goodes has been the subject to ever-increasing ‘booing’, each time he gets involved in the AFL match that his team, the Sydney Swans, are playing. My first real exposure to it came on Friday night, when Hawthorn were playing Sydney in a televised match and the response of the crowd whenever Adam Goodes was near the ball became louder and louder throughout the match.

Since then it has significantly escalated. It has been often discussed in the media, with all sorts of ‘commentators’ and ‘celebrities’ weighing in on either side of the debate, or with ‘reasons’ why people are booing him. Much of this has been unhelpful, and has only served to divide the community around the issue and inflame the situation. It has now become so bad that Adam Goodes has taken extended leave from the club and will not be playing football this weekend.

How did it get to this?

Social psychology and behaviourism can help explain what is going on, and what we can do about it.

The booing of Adam Goodes could have started for any number of reasons – we could only find these out by asking the people who booed him first. What happened after that is merely a representation of social psychology, which explains everything from the popularity of pogo sticks through to the formation of Mexican waves.

After the initial booing of Adam Goodes, consider the following:
• The people who were booing Adam Goodes were opposition fans. To boo an opposition player would, in some circles, be deemed ‘acceptable’ behaviour.
• Booing Adam Goodes makes the individuals stand out in their own peer group (opposition supporters) giving them social prestige. Their actions are a more ‘radical’ demonstration of how strongly they belong to the ‘in-group’ – and maximise the difference from the ‘out-group’, and thus confirm what wonderful opposition supporters they are.
• Others in the group see this behaviour, and associate it with the in-group. There is a strong conformist pressure to be seen as a ‘good’ member of the in-group, so if booing has become the behaviour which identifies a person as that, then others will join in because it is what they believe they have to do to fit in.

Not once has someone asked ‘Why are you booing him?’

Once it becomes known that one team boos Adam Goodes, other club supporter groups want to demonstrate that they are equally as passionate/fervent about their team (demonstrating their own in-group status) and want to boo louder than other club’s supporters.
And so, from a simple, extreme behaviour in a group (that wasn’t corrected), a virtual social movement has begun.

The problem with asking ‘Why’:

As people attempt to decode what is happening they ask exactly the WRONG question. WHY?

For most people, the decision to start to boo Mr. Goodes, or in fact their belief around booing him, is not a rational one. The subtle pressures of social psychology, belonging and behaviourism have drawn them along. Now we ask them to justify their behaviours. This relies on them thinking about the situation, and creating a plausible ‘story’ about their behaviour. And it is a ‘story’, because:
• The rationalisation is shaped by how the person wants to be seen
• It is shaped by what they know of the situation
• It is shaped by the groups that they want to be identified with
• It is shaped by what they believe will be socially acceptable

The reasons and justifications have varied from his stance on indigenous issues, the way he plays the game, through to his response to being called an ‘ape’ by a young opposition supporter.

Each of these is really meaningless, as most people did not start with the reason for booing then initiating the action. They either started booing due to social circumstances (or imagined themselves as capable of it) and only then made up a justification story to suit.

A different story:

What if, when the very first person booed, someone told them to shut up? That this was not acceptable behaviour?

The problem with these situations is that the first time an action happens, it may appear harmless. It is let go. Without being vigilant around behavioural standards, things are ‘let by’ which later compound into social problems.

People do not want to criticise the actions of one of their own in-group (in case they are ostracised themselves). There is also the issue of behaviour-in-context – the way that people act when they are in a group at the football may be radically different from how they behave at the office, or at home.

Unfortunately, it was not challenged or stopped, and became a ‘movement’ of its own.

Not once has anyone booing Adam Goodes had to face him directly. There is safety in distance, and being faceless in the crowd.

The impact:

Consider the other side of the coin – the impact that this has.

Imagine you had a child that went to school, and every time they attempted to study, they were verbally harangued by a big group of kids. Your child started by toughing it out, pushing on through, hoping it would stop, but it didn’t. It then spread so that it became ‘popular’ to abuse your child. In the end, they didn’t want to go to school.
• If this was your child, how would you respond?
• Would you be happy justifying the behaviour of the mob?
• Would you want it stopped?

The Adam Goodes scenario is exactly like this. Here is a bloke who is doing his job, who is being treated poorly every time he goes to do what he is supposed to. How should he be treated? It can be easily seen as a form of bullying.

The social question that has been asked is “Is this Racism”? Regardless of what commentators think, the person that needs to be asked this question is Adam Goodes. The next group of people who need to be asked are indigenous Australians.

Simply, it is discrimination if Mr Goodes feels that he has been singled out for whatever reason. It is enough that he has asked it to stop – that should be a good enough reason on its own for people to immediately stop booing. It is ‘racist’ if Mr Goodes feels that it is occurring because of his indigenous heritage. If he believes that this is what is motivating the actions, then it is racist.

Indigenous psychology suggests that the voice of the powerful dominates, and cannot adequately speak for minorities or the oppressed. For full disclosure, I am of Anglo-Saxon Australian heritage, and therefore cannot speak for the indigenous Australians to describe the impact of this event on them.

If they were to judge this as racist (that Mr Goodes’ race was a key feature in the discrimination), then it is not up to non-indigenous persons to authorise, condone or vilify this position. Yet this is happening in the media, on social media and in general conversation. Sensitivity to allow the indigenous voice to speak for itself (and for the powerful majority to hear it) is more important than having some ‘commentator’ define and justify the booing, and its impact.

From a different angle, what are we teaching by booing Adam Goodes? If you take a child to the football, or they watch a match on the TV, what are people learning from this, about our society and how they should behave? Perhaps we are teaching our children that:
• It is OK to boo (vilify) an indigenous Australian (they are not booing anyone else!)
• Bullying behaviour and acting as herd is exciting and powerful.
• If you want to belong, acting in ways that you wouldn’t act elsewhere is OK
• This is part of acceptable culture in Australia.

A bigger question might be asked about what are indigenous children learning as they watch these events on television? What message does it send about us as a society?

So, although we can explain the ‘development of ‘booing’ of Adam Goodes with social psychology and behaviourism, it now comes down to what we do about it.

Simply, if you have been booing, it is time to stop. Step up and set some standards in behaviour and hold yourself (and others) accountable for upholding them.


(Photo:  Peta Wilkinson)

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