The Situationist

March Madness

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on March 27, 2007

George Mason and Georgia Fans 3

Watching this year’s tournament, it is difficult not to notice the profoundly passionate (mad?) fan baseDuke Fans 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.

Maryland Fans RiotingFew 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!”

Bluto Blutarsky and The Heights Pictorial

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).”

Kid Saying Yankees Suck!

(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 CaveMuzafer Sherif 2 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.

Muzafer Sherif Rattlers Eagles 3

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?”

Iraq Burning 4

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?

// 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 . . .

Go Hoyas!


14 Responses to “March Madness”

  1. March Madness

  2. mrnorwood said

    What can be said about an article by two social psychologists who lay out, quite lucidly, the evidence that the psychological phenomenon of sports fandom is no different in its foundations from the psychological phenomenon that gives rise to genocide, but who pepper their article with flip asides about their own tribal allegiances and explicit apologies – albeit without a shred of evidence supporting such moral judgments – for such allegiances?

    This is how social commentators used to write about slavery, lynching, and the denial of basic civil rights to racial minorities and women: acknowledge that all rational evidence points toward thse things being morally unpardonable, then fall back on social convention and back-slapping flipness about how no one could actually believe that such racism or misogyny is actually morally wrong.

    Justin E.H. Smith has an excellent meditation here on the nature of sports fandom and its relationship to politics, tribalism, and violence. I suggest that you read it before you further cement your conviction that apologizing for displays of tribal violence is a necessary or appropriate component of an essay on the topic.

  3. An article from Psychology Today says that testosterone surges when your team is winning. Could it be that we get onto teams so that we can be on the winning side and enjoy those testosterone rushes?

  4. Mr. Kotter said

    Not really Mrnorwood, your analogy uses a slide. If the social commenters that used to write about slavery in this fashion they would have to use flipness to suggest that something related to slavery is not morally wrong.

    The only way to not include “flip” statements would be to argue for your objectiveness outside culture. But culture influences all that participate in it and by not mentioning these obvious cultural biases the article would feel less truthful.

  5. […] and Social Psychology A real article about the […]

  6. Jon Hanson said

    From Jon Hanson & Michael McCann — Response to Mrnorwood:

    Thanks for the comments and link. To be clear, we are not social psychologists (though many of the contributors to The Situationist are). We’re legal scholars with a deep interest in the implications of social psychology and related fields for law, legal theory, and other social institutions.

    Regarding your comment, perhaps it’s fair and accurate to compare us to apologists for slavery. Our own sense, however, is that you’ve misread us, missed our point, or maybe you and we just fundamentally disagree.

    To summarize our post in one sentence: There is a downside of sports that is being ignored and that ought not to be.

    Your comment seems to suggest that, in part because of our occasionally flip tone, we are making a bad problem worse. Perhaps so, but we’re interested in at least raising the problem to an audience that is often unaware of it. And the implicit message we meant to send with our tone was not that we think the problems we raise are trivial – quite the contrary – but that we do not sit in self-righteous judgment of those who are painting team logos on their foreheads for the sake of team spirit. We understand that tendency – even if, as we highlight, it is an odd, difficult-to-rationalize, and potentially troubling practice. We also like humor because, if you’ll excuse our erudite literary illusion, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Though we did try to keep our post light, our aim was not to tell a few good ones and then encourage our readers to return to their beer and remote.

    Your comment also seems to suggest that a human tendency that might manifest itself in numerous ways is in all circumstances, immoral (“the psychological phenomenon of sports fandom is no different in its foundations from the psychological phenomenon that gives rise to genocide”). (This is part of what Mr. Kotter is responding to.) Such a position strikes us as, not just extreme (which we might otherwise be ok with), but wrong.

    In our view, many of the bad things that happen in this world result from our not critically examining these strong tendencies. It is not our position that those tendencies are themselves necessarily immoral. Just as, say, knowledge structures (that is, the schemas and categories we use to make sense of the endless information we face at every moment) are inevitable and often useful, they are also the source of much stereotyping and prejudice, among other harmful consequences. Still, knowledge structures are not, in themselves, immoral. In our view, the immorality kicks in from not understanding the power and influence of our knowledge structures and not looking for their harmful consequences. The same can be said, we believe, of our often mindless tendencies to form, identify with (or not), and be loyal to or (in opposition with) certain groups. Morality, we think, requires, as a starting point, examining the subconscious sources of our behavior and its consequences – good and bad.

    Roughly, that is the project that many scholars in law, psychology, and philosophy (including but not limited to the contributors to The Situationist) have been turning to. It’s too easy to point to the “immoral people” and their “immoral behaviors” while ignoring the situation within and around them. The more difficult challenges involve taking seriously the possibilities that good and bad tendencies are hidden even to ourselves, are linked and causally intertwined in all of us, and are subject to hard-to-see forces in ways that are not captured by traditional conceptions of the person or of morality. As we write in the post: “Sports reflect and exploit tendencies that have both good and bad effects. Why not dwell a little less on the former and focus a bit more on the latter?”

    Additionally, we want to suggest a possible difference in your starting point from ours. We start from a position of empathy with sports fans — which, of course, is part of our message. “Us” is “Them.” You seem not to. Instead, you seem to divide the world into two camps — the moral and the immoral. We prefer our starting point.

    Finally, you may well be right to suggest that the roots of “racism and misogyny” are to be found in our post. In important ways, “Us” is “Them” for those issues as well. And those roots are to be found virtually everywhere, including within each of us. Perhaps analogizing our post to “how social commentators used to write about slavery, lynching, and the denial of basic civil rights to racial minorities and women” is a useful reminder of that sad fact. But, by conventional understandings, the analogy strikes us as farfetched.

    In any event, we’d be interested in some examples of the phenomenon you describe: “acknowledge that all rational evidence points toward th[e]se things being morally unpardonable, then fall back on social convention and back-slapping flipness about how no one could actually believe that such racism or misogyny is actually morally wrong.” To be sure, “custom” seems a powerful source of legitimating authority and racist and sexist jokes seem to serve a kind of dissonance-reducing role (a major source of their popularity in many circles to this day, we suspect), but we cannot recall reading any sort of apology for slavery that had anything close to the tone or message that our post has. This is a topic we’re interested in, and we’re quite sincere in asking for some examples. (In case you’re interested, one of us has written about slavery, lynching, civil rights, and some of their psychological sources and justifications in several articles, including the following:
    To conclude, let us get back to our main point. We think that sports might be a vehicle for better understanding the roots or racism, misogyny, etc. and addressing them – and not just a means of ignoring or, worse, nourishing those roots.

  7. […] March Madness […]

  8. mrnorwood said

    I made my earlier comment while in a funk. I apologize for its humorlessness and its slightly hysterical tone. [Upon rereading this post, I realize it’s not much better. I guess I’m just a dick.]

    I agree with the substance of everything you say in your response, including the suggestion that we seem to differ in our degree of empathy toward sports fans. My lack of empathy, and my emotional reaction to your article, no doubt stem from my own experiences with sports and violence, including the fatal shooting of my high school basketball team’s captain and his girlfriend by students from a rival school over an issue of team rivalry. The connection between competitive sports, tribalism, and violence has always been clear in my mind, and it’s exactly the “conventional understandings” by which you judge my statements “farfetched” that have always struck me as deeply in denial about the inseparability of these horribly destructive human tendencies from their expression in the form of athletic competition and group identification based on the structure of that competition.

    That being said, of course I understand that in-group and out-group dynamics are universal in human psychology, and that not only do I myself engage in these behaviors in various forms, but that were my situation different I would be painting my face and kicking in teeth with the best of them. My understanding of situationism is that it is not a fatalistic, but a hopeful, enterprise; that it hopes not just to understand the social and neurological structures underlying human behavior but to leverage this understanding to avoid placing people in situations that result in socially destructive behavior. To that end, I would hope that you would endorse a proposal to limit the scope of sports fandom in our culture and to stigmatize overidentification with arbitrary tribal groups of the kind that inevitably leads to dehumanization of members of the opposing tribe. It is no doubt true, as you point out, that in-group dynamics are unavoidable; but through legal regulation and social disapproval we can limit their impact, just as we have worked hard over the last 150 years to limit the impact of racial in-group identification. Lynching and slavery are way down from 1857, and I’m happy about that. I’d love to see the same thing happen to hooliganism and shootings at high schools.

    It is precisely because, as you say, these “immoral behaviors” are not necessarily perpetrated by “immoral people” that it is so important that we act to change our social, political, and legal attitudes toward sports fandom. After all, if I believed the actors to be immoral, then why would I concern myself with their sports fandom, which could only be peripheral to their directly, intentionally destructive acts?

    You also express some disbelief that apologies for slavery have been written with the same tone as your article. I was, perhaps, more abstract than I should have been in my assertion. What I meant to allude to was a form of social commentary wherein the writer proposes some controversial radical position – that women might deserve the vote, that slavery might be wrong, that sports might be inextricably linked to nationalism and violence – and then winks at his audience throughout the piece to let them know that he is speaking highly speculatively, and that if called upon would of course defend the “conventional understandings” of these issues if forced to choose. In the domain of gender, this kind of thing was ubiquitous in the pre-PC era and continues to haunt the modern media landscape: the “Maybe the little ladies have a point”-style editorial, or the verbal skewering of some bit of male chauvinism on The Honeymooners followed by a reassuring “One of these days, Alice…”. We write these pieces in large part, I think, to explore troubling social realities while reassuring our audience and ourselves that such exploration does not render us fags, or nigger-lovers, or pussy-whipped losers, or pencil-necked geeks who always got picked last for basketball.

    I empathize with your choice of this rhetorical device; this is a delicate topic and self-righteousness would probably be counterproductive for the task of raising readers’ awareness of it. I never believed that either of you harbored serious tendencies toward racism, sexism, nationalism, or any of the other cognitive biases that have become such sources of shame and guilt in our culture. Nonetheless, I think that you might have safely conveyed your nonjudgmental tone without quite so much reassurance (Go Hoyas!) to those readers sentimentally attached to the conventions of sports fandom. As it is, the piece risks alienating those who do not share this sentimental attachment, much as a modern reader is alienated by Jefferson’s or Washington’s half-hearted condemnations of slavery. You seem unable to conceive of a world in which some amount of sports-based tribal identification is not practiced; but some of us can, and it seems to me that the onus is on you to defend the practice rationally after having pointed out its unfortunate consequences. If you admit that such a defense is impossible, it doesn’t of course make you a bad person for being attached to the tradition, but it should make you question the appropriateness of leavening your article with shout-outs to your homies.

    In closing, I should say that I got a lot out of the article, and I’m glad that it’s an issue people are talking about, especially in a forum as full of promise as The Situationist. So please don’t take my comments as purely critical. Go Redskins! (Ha.)

    – Matt Norwood

  9. From Jon Hanson & Michael McCann – Response to Mrnorwood:


    Thank you for your thoughtful and compelling response, as well as your nice words about The Situationist. We can certainly see how your experience would make you particularly sensitive to the phenomenon we described (the potentially destructive and often overlooked power of group associations common in sports) and how, with that fatal shooting in mind, our post would have seemed too weak in its condemnation of certain team-based behaviors.

    In any event, we’re grateful to receive such substantive reader commentary, as they make this forum so much more engaging and illuminating for everyone. Thanks again. We look forward to further discussions.

  10. […] of the article, click here. For other writings on The Situationist that examine empathy, see “March Madness” and “The Young and the Lucky. And, for a sample of postings looking at situational […]

  11. […] on the magic of sports, see “The Unlucky Irish: Celtics Fans and Affective Forecasting,” “Red Sox Magic,” “March Madness,” and “Think you’ve got magical powers?.” For posts discussing the […]

  12. […] 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 […]

  13. […] credits: Reggie, Affleck @ Fenway, Angry Boston Kid Like this article? Save it or share […]

  14. […] Hanson and I have a post up on The Situationist on what March Madness and, more generally, our team allegiances and group […]

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