What Does Deflategate Say About Patriots Fans?
Dartmouth profs unravel the psychology of conspiracy theories.
“In a lot of instances, where people’s loyalties are in play, the same set of facts can move them in opposite directions,” says government professor John Carey, who coauthored a study of the Deflategate scandal with fellow Dartmouth profs Brendan Nyhan and Benjamin Valentino.
The study, titled An Inflated View of the Facts? How Preferences and Predispositions Shape Conspiracy Beliefs about the Deflategate Scandal, found that football fans’ feelings about Brady fueled conspiracy beliefs that the Super Bowl champion was either the victim of, or benefited from, unseen forces.
The researchers theorized that people who are highly invested in a viewpoint, even when they are well informed about the details of a topic, are more likely to endorse unverified claims that support their point of view. The study identified three different conspiracy theories on Deflategate:
Conspiracy to Deflate: The central allegation in the controversy is the claim that Brady and his equipment managers conspired to remove air from the footballs the Patriots would use on offense against the Colts.
Conspiracy to Distract: Some supporters of Brady and the Patriots have alleged that NFL Commissioner Goodell’s punishment was motivated by the NFL’s desire to distract attention from other public relations problems such as domestic abuse by players and the evidence of the negative health effects of concussions.
Conspiracy to Absolve: This conspiracy theory emerged after the NFL’s punishment of Brady was initially overturned in court. Proponents of this theory allege that the ruling by US District judge Richard M. Berman was the result of Brady’s fame, wealth, and prestige rather than evidence. In other words if you get in trouble it’s good to be rich and handsome.
The study found that Patriots fans were much more likely to believe that Deflategate was cooked up by the NFL to distract from other problems, such as concerns over head injuries or domestic abuse by players. The more informed the Pats were about football and the details of the Deflategate the more likely they were to embrace this conspiracy theory.
In contrast, football fans who favored a team other than the Patriots were more likely to believe that Brady’s original suspension was overturned by a federal judge because of his fame and wealth rather than his guilt or innocence. As with Patriots fans, the more knowledgeable supporters of other NFL teams were more likely to subscribe to the conspiracy theory that supported their existing beliefs, the researchers found.
The bottom line?
“Finding common ground is harder than just getting people informed about the facts,” Carey says.