World Cup: Why Do Adults Bite?

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While World Cup fans are abuzz with Uruguay forward Luis Suarez’s apparent bite of an Italian defender, experts explain the psychology behind adult biting is linked to impulsive behavior.

First of all, biting isn’t exclusive to Suarez, or to soccer: Remember Mike Tyson? Rugby also has a fair share of bites. Still, it’s a rare act for adults. Most people learn not to bite during breastfeeding in infancy, David Wilson, a criminologist at Birmingham City University, told the BBC after Suarez bit someone else last year.

“While common in early childhood, biting in adults is rare,” Eva Kimonis, senior lecturer at the School of Psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia told Reuters. “It may be one manifestation of a broader, long-term pattern of misbehavior that involves other forms of aggression — hitting, bullying, shouting, physical fighting — and is common to people with particularly hot tempers and impulsiveness.”

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In many sports, stressful situations often arise that could be challenging for such adults.

“Certainly this is some kind of impulse-control issue,” Adam Naylor, a sports psychology professor at Boston University, told New York Magazine. “Ironically, the more we try to control our impulses under stress, the tougher it gets. So my initial thought is something this odd actually could be a result of his increased efforts at emotional control. It’s easier to remember that something like punching is unacceptable, but without another well-developed way to manage stress, some sort of odd emotional release is going to occur.”

Biting is also seen more frequently in extremely violent or sexual crimes.

“You have to get very close to your victim to bite them and if you get very close they might harm you — so you might (prefer to) throw a punch,” Wilson said. “(Biting) is quite a niche thing.”

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So could Suarez stop? That depends, experts said.

“If there is an acceptance that this is a problem, then individual work on identifying and modifying his stress signature would be helpful,” clinical psychologist Dr. Corinne Reid from the School of Psychology and Exercise Science at Murdoch University in Western Australia, told Reuters.

“It would be important to check whether he thinks his behavior is justified or acceptable. If he does, and if this view is endorsed, actively or passively, by his teammates or coaches then change is unlikely.”

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Naylor agreed.

“I always believe there is something that can be done to develop positive emotional responses to challenge — if the athlete is genuinely interested in changing,” he said.

Photo: Uruguay forward Luis Suarez after allegedly biting an Italian defender during their World Cup match on Tuesday. Credit: Corbis