The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Yankees’

Big Papi Magic

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on April 15, 2008

Last June, we wrote about Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz and how attributional biases may have explained his increased acrimony toward umpires. Back then, Ortiz was slightly off his normal torrid pace at the plate. One of the top three or four hitters in baseball had morphed into a player about 95% as good and seemingly (if not actually) as clutch. In other words, still one of the best players in the game, if subjectively seeming a bit less heroic, particularly given his constant bickering with umpires over called balls and strikes.

If only Ortiz could go back in time to June 2007. Though the 2008 season is still in its infancy with only 13 of the Sox’s 162 games having been played, Ortiz has the lowest batting average of all Major League Baseball players who have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Put differently, Ortiz–who was second in all of baseball last season in OBS (on base plus slugging) and who led the American League in home runs in 2006 — has been the worst hitter in baseball this season. Until last night, he was batting .070, which even if you are not a baseball fan, you can probably tell is awful. What makes it especially damaging for Ortiz is that he is a designated hitter and thus does not contribute defensively. He’s paid to hit, and he’s currently the worst hitter in baseball. Big Papi has lost his pop!

No doubt, Ortiz will rebound at some point, just like he did last season. But he’s been dogged with assorted questions about why he is slumping so badly. There is speculation about whether minor surgery on his right knee after last season may be a problem, whether the Sox season-opening trip to Japan may have have affected his performance, whether he’s devoted too much of his attention to starring in advertisements, whether his weight and age are beginning to take a toll on his ability to swing the bat, or whether something else is going on. Ortiz has responded by saying the problem is in his head:

This game is very mental. Your mind takes over. I know in my my situation, my mind works more than anything else. Once you get physically prepared your mind takes over and sometimes you’re fighting, fighting, fighting (yourself). Sometimes you have to chill out and come back with a fresh mind . . . I’m fine. I don’t get frustrated at all. I’m just trying to get back to being Big Papi again.

He has a point. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, baseball players are no less dependent on their minds for their job performance than rocket scientists are on theirs–albeit in different ways. Despite the obvious physical nature of sports and the related demands for elite athletic talent, social psychologists and related mind scientists have found that baseball players, like other athletes, depend almost exclusively on the unconscious brain, and its ability to streamline information, to actually play the game. (For related Situationist posts, see The Situation of a Baseball Pitch, (Young) Minds Over Body, The Batting Situation, and the Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players.)

It is in part because of the unconscious automaticity of their behavior that leaves them vulnerable to the potentially harmful interference of conscious or subconscious intrusions–athletes can end up “fighting, fighting, fighting” themselves. As David Ortiz struggles “to get back to being Big Papi again,” some of his fans and foes are left also guessing as to the cause of his aberrational slump.

As noted above, they offer and debate numerous possible causal sources, but there is one that we especially want to highlight (in part because it evinces another common theme on this blog): namely, the surprisingly widespread belief in magic:

Often we don’t even register our wacky beliefs. Seeing causality in coincidence can happen even before we have a chance to think about it; the misfiring is sometimes perceptual rather than rational. “Consider what happens when you honk your horn, and just at that moment a streetlight goes out,” observes Brian Scholl, director of Yale’s Perception and Cognition Laboratory. “You may never for a moment believe that your honk caused the light to go out, but you will irresistibly perceive that causal relation. The fact remains that our visual systems refuse to believe in coincidences.” Our overeager eyes, in effect, lay the groundwork for more detailed superstitious ideation. And it turns out that no matter how rational people consider themselves, if they place a high value on hunches they are hard-pressed to hit a baby’s photo on a dartboard. On some level they’re equating image with reality. Even our aim falls prey to intuition.

(For a sample of previous Situationist posts on magic go to “The Situation of Magical Thinking,” “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!” and “The Magic of Jonathan Papelbon’s ‘Knuckle Knock,’” “Red Sox Magic,” and “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers?“)

So, here we go: David Ortiz’s sudden struggles at the dish are analogous to the street light going out.

What is the honking horn? As it happens, the other big Red Sox story this week is about the faith that baseball fans as well as certain baseball-team owners seem to place in the power of a curse. The New York Post had reported that a Red Sox fan, attempted to curse the Yankees’ new stadium by burying a Red Sox jersey at the site. Not just any Red Sox jersey, it turns out, but a David Ortiz jersey. (For more details, see the remarkable four-minute video below; for a legal analysis, check out Geoff Rapp’s post on Sports Law Blog.)

How do you explain Ortiz’s struggles? Honk! Or, as one blogger put it:

The big news on this chilly Sunday in the Fens is that David Ortiz has been given the night off, a chance to clear his head while in the throes of a 1-for-29 slump since April 2. The other big news comes out of New York, where a David Ortiz jersey has been removed from the new Yankee Stadium, after workers jackhammered their way through to remove the offending article. The thought was that the Sox jersey in Yankee foundation would curse the Yanks. But maybe it’s been the other way around? Maybe the jersey, ensconsed in Yankee foundation, was cursing Ortiz.

Last night, Ortiz did something very Big Papi-like: he got two hits. No, they were not big hits. Nor were they clutch hits. Still, it was a noticeable improvement, and the Papi mojo seemed, perhaps, to be returning. His batting average even managed to trickle into the three digit range.

What caused the light to go back on? Easy: the Yankees had jackhammered their way through concrete to find and remove the (apparently backfiring) hex: Deadspin‘s post, “Ortiz Slump Officially Over. Thanks, Yankees!” says it all:

Here’s the thing, Yankees fans. You may have thought that you were heading off some sort of curse by digging up that David Ortiz jersey that was buried beneath your new stadium. But consider this: While the jersey remained buried, it’s owner was hitting .070; last in the majors. In his first game back since the cloth was extricated, Ortiz went 2-for-5, raising his average 34 points, as the Red Sox beat the Indians 6-4. Hank Steinbrenner : “Re-dig the hole! Turn those machines back on!”

We’re hoping the Ortiz light shines brightly this week as the Sox head to Yankee stadium for two games later this week. If not, we urge Red Sox Nation to crank up the voodoo.

Posted in Situationist Sports, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

March Madness

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on March 21, 2008

George Mason and Georgia Fans 3

This post was first published in March of 2007.

* * *

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 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.

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?

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 . . .

Go Hoyas!

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.)

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Politics, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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