This post was first published in March of 2007.
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Watching this year’s tournament, it is difficult not to notice the profoundly passionate (mad?) fan base enjoyed by so many teams. We’re not just talking about the “Go! Go! Rah! Rah! Siss Boom Bah!” of conventional cheering sections. We’re talking about camping overnight (sometimes over two nights) on cold, wet sidewalks to queue up for pricey game tickets. We’re talking about full-on body painting — face, hair, the works — to exhibit team spirit. And, in some cases, we’re talking about taunts and jeers directed at the opposing team and their equally, um, “enthusiastic” supporters. Those familiar with the “Duke Sucks” refrain know what we are talking about. Of course, this is nothing new. And, for the fans of some teams, the devotion lasts all season.
Among “true fans” there seems to be a race to excess, as the images above of Duke, George Mason and Georgia fans indicate. These fans care. A lot. True, all those teams have been eliminated in this year’s tournament, including the Blue Devils who were knocked out in the first round. Regardless, no one can say that these fans didn’t do their part to will their teams to victory — blind faith, unlimited allegiance, and some fluorescent body paint, such is the stuff of deep fandom.
Few things feed the fires of madness quite like success. Otherwise ordinary (intoxicated) college students turn into “mobs” following an important team victory. To the left we see a photo of Maryland fans rioting after their team . . . won the NCAA title. “Yay us! I know, let’s burn some furniture to celebrate.”
So what is going on? How can teams do this to us? Why would John Q. Freshman and Jane Q. Sophomore go to such extremes, spending so much time, energy, money, even dignity, to root for their school? After-all, most college fans could as easily have gone to another college, even a rival college; and the students at Them University are often indistinguishable from those at Us University, except for their college affiliation and bumper stickers.
Still, to most of us, bumper-sticker distinctions are enough to justify our love for our team and our loathing for theirs. After all, Us U. accepted us, while Them U. accepted them. “It’s Us against Them! Let’s torch the sofa!”
There are many partial explanations for this strange behavior — which is rendered particularly puzzling in light of our more general self-conceptions as individuals living in an individualistic culture. Of course, we are not just individuals doing things our own way according to our own moral compass and preferences. Our own identities are largely wrapped in group associations that are no less random than, among countless other variables, where we are born or the the acceptance and rejection letters of college admissions committees. And once we have identified in-groups and out-groups, our attributions and understanding of the world is interpreted through those distorting lenses. Thus, as Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske has written with Shelley Taylor, the categories carry their own weight: “Simply categorizing people into groups minimizes within-group variability and maximizes between-group differences”:
Categorization’s effect of reducing perceived variability is even stronger when people are considering groups to which they do not belong. A group of outsiders (an outgroup) appears less variable than one’s own group (ingroup) . . . . Minimizing the variability of members within an outgroup means that they are not being recognized as distinct individuals as much as they would be if they were perceived as ingroup members.
Social psychologists have also discovered that these groups give rise to various motivated attributions of causation, responsibility, and blame — including the “ultimate attribution error”: In-group members tend to make internal (dispositional) attributions to positive in-group behavior and negative out-group behavior, as well as external (situational) attributions to negative in-group behavior and positive out-group behavior.
It may be tempting to conclude that such tendencies of individuals to coalesce into a highly regulated and constraining collective unit is limited to just drunken, hormonally hyper, college students. No doubt, that helps. But the madness of March runs much deeper than that. Need we say more than Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees? In case you answered “yes,” consider the following two quotations from two baseball fans, who, we suspect, have much in common. First, the Yankees fan:
Down at St. Marks Ale House in the East Village, a 25-year old fan said: “The worst would be losing to Boston fans because they’re such ignorant, bitter people. They’re so used to losing, all they have is hate. There’s no humility. That’s what we want to see. We want to see humility.”
Ok, now the Red Sox fan:
“We don’t hate the Yankees because they suck at baseball, I think it’s obvious they don’t, we hate them because they are all stuck up jerks who are all over-paid just because all their fans are bad losers and they need to pay guys millions of dollars so they can win. Besides that, they are all drunken freaks on crack (well, a lot of them are).”
(As objective scholars, we think it important that we remain neutral by simply pointing out the obvious: the second quotation is credible while the first one is clearly the drunken rantings of Yankee crackpot.)
Speaking of drinking, although alcohol might exacerbate the team-oriented behaviors and prejudices, it occurs among the sober as well. Indeed, one of social psychology’s best-known, classic experiments involved this phenomenon among kids at camp. Eliot Smith and Diane Mackie, two experts on group behavior, summarize the experiment in their Social Psychology Text as follows:
On June 19 1954, two groups of 11-year-old boys tumbled out of buses to start summer camp in the Sans Bois mountains near Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Robbers Cave State Park, name for the hideout of he notorious outlaw Jesse James, offered a 200-acre site with fishing, swimming, canoeing, hiking, and the usual camp games and sports. The new arrivals were ordinary White, middle-class boys with no record of school, psychological, or behavioral problems. They had nothing on their minds except high hopes for a fun-filled 3-week vacation.
The camp was more than it seemed, however. Unknown to the boys, their parents had agreed to let them participate in a field study of intergroup conflict set up by Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues — a study that came to be known as the Robbers Cave experiment . . . . The boys did not know that the camp counselors and directors were social psychologists and research assistants. Nor, at first, did members of each group know that another group was sharing the campsite.
During the first week, as they took part in separate activities designed to promote group cohesion, each group developed norms and leaders. They gave themselves names, the Eagles and the Rattlers, and each group designed a flag. Toward the end of the week, the groups discovered each other. Seeing “those guys” using “our ball field” and “our hiking trails” sparked demands for a competition. The staff was only too pleased to arrange a 4-day tournament including baseball, tug-of-war, a treasure hunt, and other events. The experiments even promised the winners a fancy trophy, shiny badges, and four-bladed pocketknives. Both groups practiced hard, cheered their teammates, and roundly booed and insulted the competition. Hostilities escalated as the tournament progressed, culminating in a flag-burning when the Eagles lost the tug-of-war.
The Eagles ultimately won the tournament, collecting the trophy and the coveted pocketknives. But while they were taking a celebratory swim, the Rattlers raided their cabins and stole the prizes. The rivalry had turned into full-blown war, and the staff was kept buys silencing the name calling, breaking up fist fights, and cleaning up after cabin raids and food fights. The experiment had transformed 22 perfectly normal boys into to gangs of brawling troublemakers, full of hostility and intent on exacting revenge for every real or imagined slight.
In short, the subjects in the Robber’s Cave experiment behaved very much like the subjects in the natural experiments in, among other places, college athletics. Randomly assigned and “normal” people can, with only the tiniest situational manipulations, readily form strong in-group alliances and robust out-group aversions.
One might be tempted to conclude that extreme “groupism” or “teamism” is limited to the irrelevant — that fans allow themselves to get swept up in, say, the NCAA tournament or the Eagles and Rattlers engaged in food fights and cabin raids solely because it’s fun, and there’s no real harm in it.
According to that account, people care so much about their teams in part because, in the grand scheme, their team’s performance matters so little. With the premise, we wholeheartedly agree: It is hard to know why it matters who makes it to the Final Four. We say that, though, not as big-dance killjoys, but as hard-core fans who actually care a great deal — though for reasons that are beyond the grasp of our conscious minds. And so it is that we have serious doubts that about the argument that our concern with sports is simply all in fun. We think it more likely that the “all in good fun” rationalization is what we offer to make sense of the disproportionate role that sports play in our lives — something akin to an alcoholic announcing that he drinks because he enjoys drinking and not because he is addicted.
Regardless, there seem to be other situations in which our team-oriented tendencies do clearly matter — do pose meaningful risk of harm to others or ourselves. And in those moments, the dynamics seem strikingly familiar. The body paints and costumes of the bleachers have much in common with the body paints and uniforms of blood feuds and battlefields. Blind faith, unlimited allegiance, and some camouflaging body paint; that is the stuff of armed combat. Team affiliation — “us versus them” — is the stuff local violence and global wars. Teams identified by schools, clans, genders, races, regions, religions, languages, nations get swept up in the excesses of “us and them,”often in ways that can only be described as irrationally self-destructive. So it is, that, particularly in retrospect, we are befuddled by the spats, fights, battles, and wars that others have fought (or that we ourselves were embroiled in previously): “Why did it matter so much? What were they thinking? Were those people mad?”
Sports have long been understood as a powerful means of teaching and learning lessons about life — about winning and losing, hard work, competition, and teamwork. But sports have a lot to teach us about ourselves that we seem to want to ignore and might not want to admit. Sports reflect and exploit tendencies that have both good and bad effects. Why not dwell a little lesss on the former and focus a bit more on the latter?
March Madness for all its fun and irrelevance may be a symptom of a deeper tendency — a madness of sorts — that social psychologists have long seen at the heart of intergroup aggression and conflict. Parents, teachers, coaches, universities and the like should focus on that tendency and the questions it raises such as: How is it that largely random and often insignificant variations can determine who is “us” and who is “them”? Why do we so quickly, easily, unthinkingly fall into line behind the flag of the perceived “us,” so ready to attack those who we perceive as “them.” Why are we so stingy with our empathy and so generous with our self-righteousness toward out-group members?
Our aim in raising these issues is not to take the fun out of sports, which we love; rather, it is to suggest that we might better learn about ourselves from our sports so that we might take some of the fun out of needless agression, conflict, and war. Just as Sherif and his colleagues learned a great deal about human conflict in their Robber’s Cave study, there is much that might be learned from the experiments taking place every day on the playing fields, tracks, courts, and diamonds of sports.
Those questions and topics are the focus of some of our ongoing work, and we hope to return to them in subsequent posts.
Oh, and in the meantime . . .
To read the comments from last year’s version of this post, click here and scroll down. To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” “Deindividuation and Seung Hui Cho,” “The Origins of Sports Team Fandom,” “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” and “Situationist Theories of Hate – Part II.” (Next week we plan to post a summary of research neuroscientific research suggesting how our brains tend to see outgroups members differently from ingroup members.)