Chewing it over: Luis Suárez and the psychology of biting

Last week I was one of the millions of football fans that watched the Uruguayan footballer Luis Suárez sink his teeth into the shoulder of Giorgio Chiellini during the Uruguay versus Italy World Cup match. Straight after the match I jokingly tweeted a link to one of my previous blogs on the psychology of sexual biting (known as odaxelagnia). My tweet simply said “Maybe Luis Suárez has an undiagnosed odaxelagnia disorder” followed by a link to my article. The next day, I got a call from a journalist from Daily Telegraph newspaper (Harry Wallop) who was writing an article on why we find the act of biting so shocking.

I’m admittedly no expert on biting but I spent 15 minutes talking to the Telegraph about some of the possible psychological reasons and explanations for human biting in adults. The journalist specifically wanted to know why the act of biting was so shocking. Very little of what I said made it into the published Telegraph article. In fact, the only quotes attributed to me were embedded within a section involving Freudian explanations for biting:

“Suárez may not be found to have committed an offence. But it is clear that an adult biting another in public is much more disturbing than throwing a punch, even if both might be criminal assault. Dr Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, says: ‘How many times in football have we seen fisticuffs, elbowing, even headbutting? All these things are awful, but they have become almost part and parcel of the game. But biting is so rare, that is one of the reasons why it is so shocking’. Also, psychologists explain, biting shocks us because it involves using an intimate and soft body part that one normally associates with pleasure. And here we touch on a basic tenet of Freudianism. According to the founding father of psychoanalysis, all sexual pleasure and anxieties are rooted in different periods of childhood, the first of which is the oral stage, when babies explore the world through their mouths. Toddlers often then go on to bite to attract attention and will continue doing so until a parent teaches them otherwise. Behaviour learnt in the oral stage of development is the explanation, Freudians believe, for everything from a predilection for chewing pencils all the way to full-blown vampirism. It is no coincidence that Freud wrote his seminal work on psychosexual theories within a decade of the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The vampire, spreading fear in a sexually repressed society, is a powerful metaphor”.

Anyone that knows me knows that I am no fan of Freudian theory. I find him interesting to read but many of his theories can’t be falsified using the scientific method. If his theories can’t be empirically tested then I have little time to take his theories seriously. (For instance, in my main field of gambling addiction, Signund Freud speculated that gambling was unconscious substitute for masturbation and an act of psychic masochism). However, I do believe that many people have unconscious thoughts and desires and that sometimes people simply do not know why they did what they did. Maybe Suárez’ most recent biting incident was no different. Maybe there was no premeditation and that his bite into Chiellini’s shoulder was simply instinctive. Maybe it was a classically conditioned response going back to his childhood.

One of the most surprising aspects in the aftermath of the whole incident is how Suárez’ teammates, his manager, and even the Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, defended his actions. If an England player had done the same thing, I can’t imagine David Cameron welcoming him back to the country. My partner (who is also a psychologist) and I were talking with our children about Suárez’ actions after the game as they both kept asking about why Suárez would bite someone during a game. We speculated that because Suárez has been great footballer all his life, biting incidents that occurred during his childhood may not have been treated and acted upon in the same way in someone not quite so talented. In short, maybe his biting behaviour was tolerated rather than being punished because he was always told what a gifted individual he was.

While being interviewed by the Telegraph, I also speculated that Suárez’ biting may have been some kind of a stress-based reaction. At the time of the bite in the match, Uruguay were heading out of the tournament (as Italy only needed a draw to progress and the score was 0-0). Maybe Suárez’ felt Uruguay were being pushed into a psychological corner by Italy and the biting was symptomatic of feeling under stress. Although rare, Suárez is not the first sportsman to bite an opponent. Many people will recall Mike Tyson biting a piece out of Evander Holyfield’s ear. Less high profile cases include the rugby union players Johan Le Roux (of South Africa) and Dylan Hartley (England). These other cases somehow seem less shocking than that of Suárez. In the Telegraph article, other psychologists were interviewed. Professor David Wilson (Birmingham City University) was quoted as saying:

“To bite someone, you have to get very close, you have to put your head – the place you want to protect the most in a conflict – right up against them…Think about what this does. It literally marks your partner as belonging to you. In evolutionary terms, there are many animals who bite their mates as a way of controlling them before engaging with them sexually. Try as we might, it is hard to escape the sexual nature of biting. It is sometimes even used as a method of attack during sexual crimes…It is nearly always a form of sadism. Often I’d be looking at children who had been bitten by a paedophile or women who had been bitten on their sexual organs. I really don’t want to over-egg it, but Suárez has a mild psychological issue”.

Dr. Saima Latif wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph and asserted that Suárez needs psychological help (i.e., anger management therapy). He (like I) speculated as to why Suárez had bitten Giorgio Chiellini although Latif’s angle was more Freudian and psychodynamic. He wrote:

“Biting is an act borne of frustration, stress and loss of control. Luis Suárez is likely to have felt humiliated and put down in some way that he wanted to get one over on his opponent…Research shows that the most violent period of our lives is when we are between three and four years old. That is the most aggressive stage of development, because if we don’t get what we want, we fight and lash out. It’s also the stage when the Id takes over; a basic instinct when we can’t control our temperament. It’s a possibility that Suárez thought his provocation would lead to his opponent retaliating and then being sent off. However, given that he may also be sent off for biting, this reasoning is slightly more remote.Perhaps his biting started in childhood and was triggered by something, perhaps he was bitten in turn. To get to the root of the problem and address it effectively he does require psychological therapy which looks at the more deep-seated issues that might be of concern”.

Watching Suárez being interviewed after the game, I’m still amazed how trivial he thought the incident to be (“these things happen in football”). He believed he had done nothing wrong and like a child that has been caught doing something wrong he tried to deflect the blame elsewhere. As Dr. Latif noted:

“Most children, when they are confronted with something they have done, will immediately take recourse in lying. The fact that this is a repeated action shows that it is habitual, rather than pathological. It is his particular technique, which makes you wonder how many time’s he’s done it off the pitch”.

Maybe we’ll never know why biting an opponent is part of Suárez’ non-footballing behavioural repertoire on the field. However, that doesn’t mean we should stop hypothesizing about what caused the behaviour in the first place.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Latif, S. (2014). Luis Suarez needs therapy to overcome urge to bite. Daily Telegraph, June 25.

Wallop, H. (2014). Luis Suárez and the Bite. Daily Telegraph, June 26. Located at:

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on July 1, 2014, in Case Studies, Fame, Gambling, Games, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Popular Culture, Psychology, Work and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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