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Dr Martijn van Zomeren: ‘Orange fever a social refuge in times of individualization’

29 June 2010

Your neighbour suddenly puts on a funny hat, the streets are covered in orange bunting and vuvuzela sellers can’t keep up with demand – now that the Dutch team has reached the final of the World Cup in South Africa, Orange fever will reach unprecedented heights. Although the national football fever sometimes verges on the absurd, the phenomenon actually has a positive effect on society, states social psychologist Martijn van Zomeren. ‘Orange fever contributes to a temporary form of social harmony. It’s a sort of refuge where people can hide in times when they feel very alone.’

‘Precisely in a society where individualization is playing an ever-increasing role, an event like this World Cup is an opportunity to experience a concrete feeling of nationalism with each other’, says Van Zomeren. ‘Orange fever results in people experiencing the matches together – in the pub, their sitting rooms or even outside on huge television screens. People really connect. This is not nationalism but community spirit. It’s all to do with rediscovering what we have in common. That’s naturally a very nice side-effect.’

Group identity

This kind of group identity becomes particularly important for people in situations where there is competition between groups, explains Van Zomeren. ‘As soon as group identity is activated, as during a World Cup, people start looking at the world through “we spectacles”. People minimize the differences within their own group and exaggerate the differences with the other group. That then also influences their behaviour. Everyone creeps even closer to the people they resemble, and suddenly there are a lot more of them because everyone belongs to the same group.’

In this way the contacts with the people around us are strengthened. Van Zomeren: ‘Just think of the neighbour you usually only say hello to. Now you’re suddenly asking whether he watched the match too. Who knows, it could be the starting signal for a street barbecue. The group cohesion is suddenly much greater.’

Social effects

Van Zomeren is convinced that Orange fever can have important effects at a social level. ‘It’s rather unique for so many people to have a very clear shared identity for a period of time. And wouldn’t it be great if we could visit each other for coffee more often on the basis of that like-mindedness? Or if we held out a helping hand more often to population groups who are having difficulty in society? Of course there is not a one-to-one relationship between football and social aspects, but Orange fever can certainly do no harm. It is a positive experience of our group identity that we appear to be missing in general in the Netherlands.’

Deliberate madness

Van Zomeren emphasizes that the Dutch are succumbing to Orange fever with pleasure. ‘We tend to look at this kind of mass behaviour and say “What do those people think they’re doing?” As if it’s a sort of mindless process that people get sucked into, virtually automatically and unconsciously. But that underestimates people. People are well able to think about things and often deliberately get swept up.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, states Van Zomeren. ‘As long as we all agree that it’s a bit strange but at the same time great fun and constructive, Orange fever can only be positive. It can play a significant role in strengthening group identity or in keeping society a bit more together. In this way football, one of the most important side issues in life, can contribute to what is really important in society.’

Curriculum Vitae

Martijn van Zomeren (Linschoten, 1979) is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. He gained his PhD in 2006 with a thesis on group identity and collective behaviour, particularly protest behaviour among students, and in 2009 was awarded a prestigious VENI grant by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Van Zomeren is a member of the department of Social Psychology of the University of Groningen. His fields of expertise are collective action, group identity, emotion and moral conviction.

Note for the press

Contact: Martijn van Zomeren

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.

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