Thursday, February 10, 2011

Is the behavior of sports fans explainable?

 (Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the world champion Green Bay Packers.  Hang out with this guy to really enhance your status.)

I warned you in my first blog about 18 months ago that we would eventually get to some gritty topics about human behavior.  Up to now, we have been mostly just messing around with the humorous aspects of the human condition.  But I want to tackle some fascinating elements of our species (at least they are fascinating to me, and this is my blog, and you are not the boss of me).  And although I am not a professional card-carrying behavioral ecologist, or sociobiologist, or evolutionary psychologist, I have followed this literature for nearly 40 years.  It is about the most interesting non-fiction reading there is, in my opinion.

My closest colleague at Cornell, Paul Sherman, does carry a valid card of the type listed above, and I have been strongly influenced by his thinking.  He proved to me that asking questions about animal behavior (humans are animals) and then posing possible answers by thinking about how natural selection works can be productive and stimulating.  I think it is a fun type of thought experiment.

I have been in wonderment for decades about the motivation of those who so passionately root for and idolize their favorite football or baseball team.  I just don't get it.  Sure, I supported my teams in high school, and hoped they would win the regional or state tournaments.  I wanted the football team to win rather than lose when I attended Ohio State University.  But as those years passed, I found that I couldn't care less if any particular team won or lost and, in fact, I got to the point where I can't stand to watch any sports on tv.  So I am naturally curious about this conspicuous human behavior displayed by tens of millions of people worldwide, and which enables a relative handful of star athletes to become famous and fabulously wealthy.

In particular, it is curious how a person can become so emotionally vested in a team on which you have never been a player, or excited about the outcome of a team from a school you never attended, or remain overtly loyal to a team from a city in which you have never even lived.  To a behavioral ecologist, this is all extremely interesting.  (Realize that this little essay is not about the person who loves the game of baseball or football or basketball so much that they could watch any two teams play and love every minute of it, and not even care who wins.)

I don't have a lot of data on which to build a little theory about this fascinating behavior of humans, but there are some observations about which we can probably all agree.  Here they are:

1.  the majority of fans that follow most teams are men; most of the most passionate fans are men

2.  the most avid male fans are of prime reproductive age (15-50)

3.  the passion is so elevated that in many (or most ??) cases, fans of one team literally hate other teams and/or hate the fans of opposing teams, hurl incredibly insulting epithets at them, etc. (for spine-chilling evidence of this, check out the numerous Facebook fan pages of sports teams, but don't let your young children read them)

4.  in many (or most ???) cases, fans advertise their commitment to their favorite team by wearing jerseys, jackets, ball caps, or belt buckles, and put team bumper stickers on their car

This behavior is interesting, because we ecologists are always analyzing what organisms do in terms of cost-benefit analysis.  So in this case, how do fans benefit from supporting their favorite team?  They must get more than it costs them in terms of time and money, or it seems unlikely they would continue their support?  Aside from the fan who bets money on the outcome of a game, most fans stand to receive no immediate material benefit from their team doing well.  So where is the reward?

Now, most of you are not students of natural selection, I assume.  So, you are probably saying that people follow their teams because "it feels good", "it is enjoyable", or "I feel a sense of pride when my team does well". But the behaviorist wants to know why it feels good.  If it is enjoyable, then it almost certainly serves some other purpose biologically.  Why do we like sugar?  Because it is sweet.  But biologists then ask why does it taste sweet?  The biological answer is that it tastes good to us (and probably to most mammals) so that we will seek it out and ingest certain foods that contribute to our nutritional well-being and, thus, our survival.  The same kind of answer follows the question about why sex feels good.  If sex were painful, humans would have intercourse less often and, presumably, have fewer children on average compared to a group of humans where the act was pleasurable.  I am simply asking the same question about why so many humans follow their favorite sports teams so passionately.

At this point, I need to introduce the concept of "status", which has a special meaning in biology.  There are many factors that can contribute to an elevated status in humans: wealth, notoriety, physical beauty, intellectual acumen, physical prowess.  Status is important, especially for males, because females are attracted to men with high status.  High status males have more mates during their life, copulate more, and leave more children (or at least they did before the era of easy access to contraceptives in developed societies), which is the all-important currency that drives evolution.  Thousands of scientific studies show this relationship for non-human animals.  The data for humans are more difficult to obtain, but if you search Google for scientific studies by P.W. Turke and L.L. Betzig 1985 (Those who can do: Wealth, status, and reproductive success on Ifaluk), E.A. Smith 2004 (Why do good hunters have higher reproductive success?), or R.L. Hopcroft 2006 (Sex, status and reproductive success in contemporary United States), you will find convincing evidence that status matters a great deal to humans.  But you already know that status is important to humans, and that we try to raise ours all the time.  This is true of humans in every culture and society everywhere in the world.  And if I asked you why we seek status, you would probably say something like "because it feels good".

There is little doubt that professional athletes have high status.  The Super Bowl that I watched Sunday exhibited some of the elements that contribute to the status of the participants, aside from the obvious financial payoff.  The President of the United States watched the game at home, and a former President was in attendance at the game along with numerous high-status movie stars.  Then, there is the presence of the U.S. military, which I have never understood.  Regardless of how that association ever got started, the military pageantry just before the game, the singing of the National Anthem, the military fly-over, and the segues to our soldiers in Iraq who watched the game lend credence to this football game as an important event in America.  That is, the Super Bowl is a really big deal, watched by more than 100 million viewers.  As Michael Douglas stated in that somewhat emotional segment before the kickoff, "This is so much bigger than just a football game."  If you think that the "head man" or chief of a Paleolithic village of a couple hundred people had high status among his villagers, then the status of the quarterback of the winning Super Bowl team must be off the charts.

What then about the fans?  I have long thought that the idolization of celebrities that is so common among humans is a status-enhancing behavior.  Or, at least it is a behavior that is a vestige of an age-old desire to be close to the source of power, wisdom, or wealth.  Perquisites that enhanced survival and/or reproductive success must have flowed to those who were confidants of the clan or tribe's chief throughout most of human history.  Today, if I were a close friend of Warren Buffett or Bill Gates or the Queen of England, I would likely obtain some tangible benefits.

And so we are strongly attracted to famous, wealthy, and powerful people, even if it is from afar.  We celebrate them, idolize them, dream about being with them or at least seen with them-------of somehow having our lives and our fortunes touched by theirs.  To help prove this point, imagine that you flew from New York to LA, and you happened to sit next to Angelina Jolie on the plane.  I will bet you my next three Social Security checks that the first words out of your mouth when you joined your spouse or friend at the terminal would be: "Guess who I sat next to on the plane?"  It would probably be the most significant event that happens to you all month, and you would talk about it with whomever would listen.  Importantly, your status would be enhanced, at least for a little while, because of this experience you had with the famous celebrity.

We may not be conscious of the possible enhancements to our well-being if we were to be befriended by one of these high-profile people, but that lack of awareness does not lessen the potential benefits of such an association.  Anyone with higher status than ours is a person with whom it is worth fraternizing, so in a global world the number of such people is extremely high.

It should be obvious by now that my hypothesis is that our tendency to follow a sports team, and to advertise that fact to others, is just another example of attempting to enhance one's social status.  It is a cheap and easy tactic to use; being a sports fan is the poor man's approach to bettering your position.  But there are certainly other explanations for this behavior.  For example, maybe people (essentially men) become a visible fan of a team because nearly everyone else in their social group or community is already a fan.  By NOT being on board, you could be viewed as a weirdo and, of course, your status would suffer accordingly.  But that is essentially the same idea; namely, maybe your status will not soar because you became a fan, but it might decline if you do not.

I have not discussed how we might test this idea or other predictions we could make based on it, but this blog is already too long.  Another time. I could be dead wrong about all of this, and I strongly invite your alternative explanations.  However, as I have long believed, the wrong hypothesis is better than no hypothesis at all.


  1. Well when you put it that way, I feel cheap being a fan now.....almost like a sell out or unoriginal! But I tend to agree with this hypothesis. But how do you explain the quiet fans? The ones that watch there team in silence. I guess they would be the rare or few.

  2. Interesting. I buy it. But, 1) How do we account for people that are fans of consistently unsuccessful teams? I mean teams that are laughably bad. Does that attached stigma set the fan apart regardless of bearing less fruit? 2) How do we account for a fan moving to a rival town and not changing his colors?

  3. Ryan: we come in all colors. There are people like me who are not a fan of any team at all. We don't all try to raise our status in the same way. I try to raise my status (just one of the ways) by writing about sports fans, rather than being one.

  4. Robert: realize that we have to talk about the "average" tendency. There must be all sorts of exceptions out there. One prediction we could make, if this hypothesis is correct, is that people who move to a new town will switch allegiance to their new home town team IF that team is better than the team from their old town. If the new team is worse than their old team, they might be less likely to switch, although local social pressure would have an influence as well.

  5. Tom,
    you might want to look into what philosophers have to say on this topic . . . David Buller's Adapting Minds is decent, Robert C. Richardson's Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology is also very good. Pretty much a conceptual minefield all the way around. But a fun post to read!

  6. Jim: as usual, your comments here are insightful. I can not imagine what philosophers have to say about the application of natural selection theory to understanding animal behavior. I am guessing that it is a nature vs. nurture argument. One of the books you recommended, "Adapting Minds", sounds like it might be a rebuttal to one of the evolutionary psychology classics titled "The Adapted Mind".

    P.S. How did you get words italicized in your comment? I see no way to do that.

  7. Tom, re the italics, just some simple html code (angle brackets i). Check out the italics section at Basic HTML commands.

  8. OK. Thanks Jim. I tried html, but I must have gotten it wrong.

  9. Hi Tom,
    Found your blog through a friend and being a teacher with nothing better to do (we are all overpaid and underworked as you know)I figured I would see why you figured I liked to follow my two favorite sports teams the Mets and Jets. I have been an avid fan of those teams for 40 years now. I do not enjoy watching football or baseball unless they are playing. As you can see, I am not a "front runner" type of fan as both teams have amassed a total of 1 championship over those 40 years. I do not own any "advertising" gimmicks such as clothing or bumper stickers. Never have. I was not an athlete that played either sport in school. My wife has learned to humor my interest in both teams over the years. We can have an actual good time watching a Met game. (oh-we canceled our cable and currently do not have TV) Because the games are "blacked out" on we now occasionally watch what my wife calls "the little computer men" run around the bases on the gameday website run by mlb. Do you figure she was attracted to me as a potential provider and protector because of my ability to stick in there with two miserably unsuccessful franchises? When hard times inevitably hit us financially or personally, obviously I am the guy to be with right?
    Cant figure out the comment as box below but entered anonymous. Tough to figure out teachers that can't figure.

    Roy from Endwell NY

  10. Roy, I guess I would fall back on a similar response I made to another comment above. Not everyone who is attracted to watching sports will enjoy the possible benefits of enhanced status. If so, you would do better, according to my hypothesis, my following the Green Bay Packers, wearing their gear, and talking about them over the coffee pot at work. Maybe it is like the person who gives a huge charitable donation to a good cause, but remains anonymous. They receive no enhanced status from this action unless people know who they are. But I am betting that truly anonymous gifts of this sort are rare.

    On the other hand, it sounds like you are a loyal person. You follow teams that don't do well, but you remain with them. That should be an extremely valuable trait in a mate, and maybe your wife sees that.