We We We All The Way Home

Yesterday, I mentioned in passing how I enjoy baseball on two levels: one level in rooting for my team, and another in the aesthetic quality of the game. The day before, I defended the idea of cross-pollinating new scientific ideas with older fields of human endeavor, to see what comes out of the mix. So today, let’s make a new hybrid.

How can we explain the psychological attraction in rooting for a team? Why, when we’re watching two teams that we have no previous attachment to, do we often find ourselves rooting for one team or another anyway? And how is this different or separate from the aesthetic joy of watching a game?

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As I write this, I am watching Ian Kinsler bat against my favorite baseball team, the Oakland A’s. On the rooting level, I want him to fail and flail badly. But on an aesthetic level, I admire Kinsler. His at-bats, the way he takes bad pitches and fouls off good pitches until he can get a good pitch to hit, are probably the most consistently good at-bats I’ve seen from any player since Rickey Henderson. If our enjoyment of sports were only about rooting interest, I should be incapable of appreciating Kinsler at all. If our enjoyment of sports were only aesthetic, I wouldn’t have a reason to want to see him fail.

Can baseball fandom be fully expressed in a mere two-dimensional chart, with rooting on the x-axis, and aesthetics on the y-axis? No, of course not. For instance, suppose the A’s pitcher were Bartolo Colon. Colon was suspended in August for performance enhancing drugs, but let’s say he’s served his suspension and now he’s pitching. Do I still root for him to succeed? Yes, he’s on my favorite team. But now there’s a moral dimension on the z-axis added to the mix, too. We can go on. Fandom is complex.

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But still, we want to talk about it, so we need to model it. Do we need modern science to do so? Not really. For example, Aristotle, addressed such issues over two millenia ago. Here’s a paragraph on Aristotle’s aesthetics, from a 1902 version of Encyclopedia Britannica:

Elsewhere he (Aristotle) distinctly teaches that the Good and the Beautiful are different (heteron), although the Good, under certain conditions, can be called beautiful. He thus looked on the two spheres as co-ordinate species, having a certain area in common. It should be noticed that the habit of the Greek mind, in estimating the value of moral nobleness and elevation of character by their power of gratifying and impressing a spectator, gave rise to a certain ambiguity in the meaning of to kalon, which accounts for the prominence the Greek thinkers gave to the connection between the Beautiful and the Good or morally Worthy.

Not sure if Aristotle meant Good and Morally Worthy were separate things or the same, but I’ll assume they’re separate. So applying Aristotle to my example above, the A’s are Good, Ian Kinsler is Beautiful, but Bartolo Colon is Morally Unworthy.

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Aristotle’s three dimensions are a kind of model of this aspect of human nature. And since this model is still being discussed 2,000 years later, we can certainly say that this model has a certain level of usefulness. But does this model accurately map to the actual structure and organization of the human brain? Can we explain this structure in terms of evolution, that there were some sort of selective pressures which led to this behavior?

Aesthetics and morality are huge subjects, so I’ll pass on those in this blog entry, and just focus on the rooting aspect.

Group behavior has always been a bit of a tricky subject for evolutionist to explain. It’s easy to explain selfish individual behavior: it’s behavior that’s directed towards passing your genes on to the next generation over the genes of your rivals. The prevailing explanation for most of the last 40 years or so has been kin selection: unselfish behavior towards your kin helps pass more of your genes along to the next generation. Any sort of unselfish behavior toward people who are not your kin is just sort of a side effect of unselfish behavior towards your kin.

But that’s an unsatisfying explanation, particularly if you apply it to team sports. Why do I go to the Coliseum, dress up in green and gold with thousands of other A’s fans, 99.999% of who are not my kin, and cheer the team together with them? It’s really hard to make a convincing argument that I’m doing it to pass my genes on.

The alternative explanation is group selection. Group selection is a theory that fell out of favor in the 1960s, but in recent years has been making a comeback. In his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson argues strongly in favor of group selection as an explanation for human social behavior.

Under group selection theory, human evolution happens in two dimensions. There’s a selfish dimension that pushes individuals to promote their genes over others within their group. But there’s also a dimension that pushes us to behave in ways to promote the genes of the group over the genes of rival groups. In times of war or drought or famine, those groups who behave in ways that encourage cooperation instead of selfishness survive to pass their genes on more than the groups whose individuals behave more selfishly.

Under group selection theory, the behavior we see in team sports makes much more sense. We naturally form emotional attachments to our groups, because we were evolved to do just that. As E.O. Wilson points out, every single animal that exhibits social behavior (including the one Wilson is expert in, ants) evolved its social behavior to protect and defend a nest. So we root, root, root for the home team, and find it extremely irritating when invading Yankee fans come into our home nest and chant for their team, instead. The joy we feel when our group wins, the pain we feel when our group loses — those are emotions that evolved in our brains to promote the genetic survival of our groups.

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Note I said “our groups.” Jason Wojciechowski has an article today (Baseball Prospectus, $ required) on the use of the word ‘we’ in reference to team sports. Is it appropriate for fans to use the word “we”, or should that be limited only to the players on the team? Jason tries to define that line somewhere in along the lower level employees of the team. I don’t think that works (which Jason ultimately acknowledges).

Former Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein used to rail against fans using ‘we’ on Twitter all the time. At one point (which I can’t find now — Twitter search sucks) — he argued that you don’t say ‘we’ to refer to your favorite band, so why should you do so for your favorite team?

I strongly disagree with Kevin here. A band is different from a team. You like the band primarily because of the aesthetic experience it provides you. But as we’ve seen here, the aesthetic experience is only a small part of the experience of watching baseball. Sports are the most popular activity on earth right now not because they provides an aesthetic experience alone — but because they have gone beyond that and tapped into the a primal root of human evolution: the network of emotions that group selection has hardwired into us.

The reason professional sports is a profession at all is because it creates the feeling of ‘we’. That feeling is the main point of team sports. We-ness is the product.

To have a business that sells a product, we, and then to deny those customers the use of the very word that best describes the product–that’s madness.

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