Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Irrational Emotion

So, football season has been going for a couple weeks now, and as my wife can attest to, I think I've been a little too preoccupied over the weekends. I've been a little puzzled myself as to why.

Football never struck me as all that great a sport. I always thought there were too many players, too many positions, and definitely too many rules. I never liked how one player, the quarterback, can account for seemingly half of a team's success (and take all the credit). I especially despised those stupid touchdown celebrations. In baseball, acting like that after a hitting a home run would probably result in getting beamed in the hip by a fastball in your next at-bat.

But then I went to college and found out a fact that I hadn't even considered before- I suddenly had a team to root for. I followed my team's highs and lows (in that order) year after year until my head was about to explode.

Now I'm a little better versed in football terminology and have developed an appreciation for the game. After doing a quick search on wikipedia, I can tell you a little about the different positions. I can tell you the difference between the 4-3 and 3-4. I also notice a few basic things when I watch- like how bad things happen when you don't get to the quarterback and why good time management is so important.

That being said, I'm still a bit confused over a few things: What's the difference between a running back and a tail back? How do you tell a chop block from a crackback? Why are wide receivers the only ones with the attitude problems?

And I still get confused by lines like "great lead-blocking in the backfield." I also get fooled by play-action way too often. It's a good thing I'm not a linebacker because I have a habit of losing sight of the football.

And now, after a particularly gruesome loss by my once-promising team (for about the fifth year in a row), I'm pondering why I've once again decided to devote so much energy to this futile endeavor.

To answer that question, I'll refer to an experiment I recently learned about from the field of group psychology. In this experiment, participants were paired up and played several sequences of the prisoner's dilemma game through a computer interface (so they couldn't see each other). (If you're not familiar with the prisoner's dilemma, it is enough to know that each person is given the option of either cooperating or backstabbing the other participant).

What made this experiment interesting was that the participants were told one bit of information about their partners prior to playing. This bit of information could be one of several things, including race, gender, taste in music, favorite ice cream flavor, or just about anything else.

The experimenters found that people were much more likely to cooperate with their partners when the bit of information they were told showed similarities with themselves. In other words, they treated people better when they were of the same race, gender, or even liked the same ice cream.

Even more astonishing was the result of the next experiment. In this next experiment, participants played the prisoner's dilemma game once again, but this time, they were placed in random groups. The participants never met each other face-to-face, were aware that the groups were selected randomly, and never learned any information about their partners apart from which group they belonged to.

Despite the fact that these groups were formed randomly, the participants showed the same favoritism for those in the same group that they showed for those with the same race in the first experiment. In many cases they weren't even aware that they showed this favoritism.

What do we learn from this experiment? I think it has powerful implications concerning the nature of human existence. We underestimate the importance of our group memberships in our everyday lives. This experiment shows that we cannot help but identify ourselves as members of certain groups, regardless of whether or not the organization of those groups shows any sense of logic or reason. It is an interesting (and somewhat frightening) prospect.

So in the context of this experiment, I suppose it becomes perfectly natural to root for a team that represents your school or the area where you grew up. If you really think about it, those players really have very little in common with us fans (I've never seen a burly offensive lineman squeeze into a chair at one of my physics lectures), but I suppose I'm just looking for a reason to root for someone. Any reason will do.

That seems fine to me.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


The following will all happen within my lifetime:
  • The word "whom" will cease to exist, as will the spelling of the word "through" (to be replaced by "thru").
  • The words "they", "them" and "their" will officially be recognized as gender-neutral singular third-person pronouns (ridding us of awkward phrases like "he or she" and "his or her").
  • Theoretical Physicists will finally discover the ultimate theory of everything. Knowing their work to be over, they will attempt to save their jobs by withholding the final draft and publishing false theories in order to fool governments into rewarding more grant money.
  • A monkey sitting at a typewriter will write a bestseller.
  • Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh will both be admitted into mental institutions after being diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder characterized by an inability to discern one's mouth from one's rectum.
  • After a series of major advances in robotics, robots will take over the work of many occupations, including assembly line work, patient care and retail. Unemployment will skyrocket.
  • After a series of major advances in artificial intelligence, robots will gain the ability to design and build other robots. Unemployment will plummet as leagues of unemployed are drafted into the military to battle the robot armies. Will Smith, Christian Bale, and Keanu Reeves will each heroically attempt to save the human race from the brutal robot overlords. They will all fail.
We'll have to see how things work out. Sadly, I won't be recognized as the next Nostradamus until the aliens visit and find this post after the robots have used up all our resources and left the Earth a hollowed shell of a former life-giving planet. You'll just have to trust that what I've said is true.

Also, I've mentioned Glenn Beck in each of the last two posts (twice in this one if you include the monkey bit). I promise to try not to in the next post.