Why sportspersons from minority communities receive disproportionate blame in defeats?

Theories of social psychology tell us that in groups – such as sport teams – members of minority communities assume salience by virtue of their looks, language, or identifiers in their names. In cases of defeat they are prone to be saddled with burden of blame because their salience makes them seem more causal, more responsible.

Atikh Rashid

Following India’s defeat to Pakistan in the Super 4 match of Asia Cup on Saturday, Indian pacer Arshdeep Singh became the target of social media trolling for dropping a seemingly easy catch of Asif Ali at short third man in the 18th over. Trolls attacked the 23-year-old bowler with political slurs and insinuated that he dropped the catch deliberately, out of his disloyalty to the Indian nation.

Last October, in another high stake India-Pakistan match in T20 international World Cup, Mohammad Shami’s poor bowling performance led to social media trolls questioning his loyalty to the country. For an expensive over in the last lap that hastened Indian teams debacle, Shami’s identity as an Indian was questioned and slurs linking his religion with the rival team were liberally used.

We are living in times of free floating social media hatred that attaches to individuals at the slightest provocations.  Targeted trolling is may also not be spontaneous and could often be part of ‘social media cold wars’ among competing political groups. Still, they do cause hurt to the individual or group at the receiving end.

Any reasonable cricket fan will tell you that it’s excessive and irrational to blame a single act by one player for a team’s defeat and then use that to put his ability and attitude in the dock. But a human mind doesn’t use reason all the time. Many a times, instincts kick in which cloud the appeals to reason.

Mohammad Shami’s poor bowling performance in high stake India-Pakistan match in T20 international World Cup led to social media trolls questioning his loyalty to the country.

Human mind, psychologists tell us, wants to attribute significant incidents – victories, defeats, and such – to causes. The mind starts making inferences about the causes and stops the search when a sufficient cause is found. ‘The Attribution Theory’ is one of the best known theories in social psychology that deals with how people interpret behavior and attribute causations for their own or other people’s behavior. It was first proposed by Fritz Heider in 1958 in his book ‘The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations.

The mind makes a ‘dispositional attribution’ when it explains a person’s action by pointing to something about the person. On the other hand, it makes a ‘situational attribution’ when the behavior or action is said to have been influenced by external factors or by the situation. Observers often tend to make what psychologists call ‘The Fundamental Attribution Error’ in which they overestimate the dispositional influences (‘the catch was dropped because the player is bad at the game, or he is disloyal to the team’) and underestimating the situational influences (the ball slipped off because of the dew, the light glare, or pressure of the game).

While observers are prone to making dispositional attribution, the individual involved in the in the action with negative result often makes situational attribution – blaming factors external to him or her.

The salience of the minority members

The human mind makes sense of the world with the aid of categories. In social life, the social categories help the mind make easy and fast judgements. By definition, minority groups are ‘uncommon’ and the human cognitive system is tuned to spotting their presence.

Individuals from minority groups are salient in perception, memory, and visual awareness, hence performance of players like Arshdeep Singh or Mohammad Shami comes under greater scrutiny, especially during high stake games.

Increasing social discord and thickening of community lines – something that India has been seeing a lot lately – makes people more aware and observant about the behavior of people perceived as others.

Research by Taylor and Fiske (1978) shows that women are seen as more causal when they is only one woman in the group.

Research done by Shelly Taylor and Susan Fiske shows that in a group setting a member of a minority community is seen as more influential and causal when there’s only one minority member in the group, thus making the presence salient. When there is only one woman in a group, she is seen as disproportionately responsible for the group decisions. This impression declines as more women are added to the group.

In their 1978 study ‘Salience, Attention, and Attribution: The Top of the Head Phenomenon’, Taylor and Fiske discuss the ‘Salience Hypothesis’ which states that the more salient an actor seems, the more an observer will ascribe a causality to him or her while making a snap judgment.

When things turn out well (a match is won, an enemy is crushed) the effects of salience turn out to be good. In times of adversity (a team is defeated by an arch rival, a pandemic threatens the wellbeing of the world and shuts economic activity), then people who are salient because they look different or sound different  are at the risk of becoming scapegoated, being blamed as their salience makes them seem more responsible. 

Further Readings:

1)      Salience, Attention, and Attribution: Top of the Head Phenomena (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S006526010860009X)

2)      Minority salience and the overestimation of individuals from minority groups in perception and memory (https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2116884119#:~:text=In%20many%20contexts%2C%20minorities%20tend,creating%20an%20illusion%20of%20diversity)

3)      The process of causal attribution (https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1973-24800-001)

4)      Salience https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/psychology/salience

5)      Attribution Theories (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=3Or-jq3G1g8