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.

1 comment:

  1. There is a wonderful book called "Micro Motives and Macro Behavior" that describes how group actions can be misinterpreted. For example, the segregation of communities might be taken as evidence of racism, when in fact, it may only show a desire to relate somehow to a group. (The book suggests you find a partner and perform an experiment with a checker board. You take turns putting down your own color of checker pieces and the only rule is you want to have at least one of your own color next to any piece that you put down. The checker board invariably becomes segregated). It has often occurred to me since reading the book, that one of the great problems we have as a people is that we over-emphasize our differences, rather than seek in each other our commonalities.