Watching post-lockdown football matches without crowd noise can be a surreal experience. That’s partly down to the sheer novelty of the situation: we rarely see football played in empty stadiums. Take away the cheers, chants, boos and heckles, and it’s as if a key part of the emotional experience is missing, like biting into a crisp and getting no crunch.
It also takes away the communal aspect of watching the game. Without that soundtrack of impassioned fans, watching it at home can feel more solitary.
Thinking about it from a psychological perspective, a key part of our conscious experience is based on the way our brains are constantly anticipating what sensations are likely to come next and when. A goal without a celebratory roar is not what the brain expects, so it disconcerts us.
An artificial crowd noise track that’s out of sync with the action on the pitch (as has been reported by some fans) is potentially even worse: it creates a jarring mismatch between what we expect and what we actually see and hear.
For players, an empty stadium brings its own challenges. The supportive noise of a loyal crowd is a key component of the well-established home advantage. Early results after lockdown in both the Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga suggested that home advantage was weaker than pre-lockdown. With no crowd to entertain (and less crowd encouragement for the players to feed off) we might also expect players to perform with more caution and less flair, leading to cagier matches.
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.