Deflategate Study: Fans Use Facts to Support Their Team

Dartmouth researchers find that people filter information to prop up existing beliefs.

According to a new Dartmouth study, football fans’ feelings about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady strongly influenced their perceptions of the facts in the “Deflategate” scandal and fueled conspiracy beliefs that the Super Bowl champion was either the victim of, or benefited from, unseen forces.

“There’s an old saying in politics, ‘You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.’ But 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 the study with government professor Brendan Nyhan and associate professor of government Benjamin Valentino of Dartmouth, as well as Mignan Liu, a survey scientist at SurveyMonkey.

The study, published in the July-September issue of the journal Research and Politics, focused on opinions about allegations by National Football League management that Brady conspired to gain undue advantage by underinflating game balls before the 2015 AFC Championship against the Indianapolis Colts.  

Brady ultimately served a four-game suspension after numerous appeals to arbitration and in federal court. The researchers used the controversy to examine the theory that people who are highly invested in a viewpoint, even when they are well informed about the details of a topic, are often more likely to endorse unverified claims that support their point of view.

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 subjects were about football and the details of the Deflategate incident, 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 was the case with Patriots fans, more knowledgeable supporters of other NFL teams were more likely to subscribe to the conspiracy theory that supported their existing beliefs, the researchers found.

“Finding common ground is harder than just getting people informed about the facts,” Carey says.