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Why We Watch Sports – (And It’s Not What You Think)
Believe it or not, we love watching sports for completely different reasons than you might think. In fact, the real things that make us love sports are found in every person, regardless of whether we love sports or not. What things can we learn about human nature simply by looking at our fascination with competition? The answers might surprise you. Not only are the answers interesting in themselves, but they can help you in other ways as well.
There are some pretty simple and obvious explanations for why we love sports. Sports teach us about loyalty, perseverance and honor. It gives us a way to bond, it’s cathartic and we identify with teams and players. We live vicariously through the players we watch. We have our favorite players, and there are teams that we grew up rooting for because our brother or dad used to love them, and we still root for them today. Or we can now follow the sport we played as a child.
But there are some deeper, more powerful and fascinating reasons.
We’re all just big kids
Believe it or not, all adults are just big kids. We’re all just big kids. We just hide our true feelings and thoughts with highly developed skills (or at least most of us do). We still want to belong or be accepted by our peers, we all still want to be loved, we still feel emotional pain and we still indulge in instant gratification when we know better. And yes, some of us still lie and cheat in our normal daily lives.
We are certainly better at hiding things and often successfully ‘act’ like we don’t care about belonging, love, pain or anything. Deep down we are a little more mature and wiser, but basically still just children. We may not say it out loud anymore, but we still sometimes think to ourselves, “That’s not fair!” We would rather play than work. Some may argue that depending on whether they pee standing up or sitting down, this is especially true for men. Maybe that’s why more men are sports fans than women.
You see, watching sports gives us a perfect, safe and secure, black and white, little microcosm of life. Following a player, team or game allows us to experience the highs and lows and a whole range of emotions, just like in real life, but it doesn’t really affect us.
And unlike life, sports and games are mostly fair! There are rules and a crystal clear framework, that is, a paradigm that all participants and viewers know about. Never throw monkey wrenches into a sports game, such as rules changing mid-game, for example. If the rules are broken, the violator is punished. Sometimes they don’t escape as frustratingly as in real life.
In the end, they are unequivocal winners and losers. We pretend that the game we are watching is life, where everything is perfectly fair, everyone plays by the rules and everything makes sense.
Children tend to think about things in much more black and white terms. Only through living and maturing do we realize that all life is a series of grays. But we all still yearn for a simpler and easier life. When you see things only in black or white, things really seem simpler and easier, but life is not so clear.
This helps explain why politicians who break down their platform into simple soundbites and concepts devoid of complexity often do better than politicians who talk about life as it really is, a complex, interconnected world of nuance.
Watching sports allows us a temporarily safe and socially acceptable way to be more like our true nature, and our true nature is frighteningly childlike. So the next time you’re dealing with a difficult person, remember that she’s just a big kid, like you and everyone else, and maybe that knowledge will help you deal with her a little easier.
What do watching horror movies and sports have in common?
Have you ever wondered why so many people, possibly including you, enjoy watching horror movies so much? They provide a safe way for people to experience high levels of suspension without being in real danger. Sports can be the same way. Again, watching sports allows us to enter a perfect world where the suspenseful outcome has no bearing on our real lives (unless, of course, you have a nasty sports gambling problem).
People love drama, suspense, and resolution, all of which are inherent in sports. In fact, the closer the game, the bigger the suspension. If we identify with the player and he wins, we are extremely happy about the success. However, if the players’ team loses, we also feel a bit of defeat. But our lives are not affected. And sports announcers usually just add drama and suspense.
A sports game is a kind of story. There is a beginning and an end. There is a protagonist (your team) and an antagonist (the other team). There is the scene and the setting, the stadium at noon, and there is the plot, which is the plot. Only after the games are over, depending on whether your team won or not, is it decided to call it a fairy tale ending or a tragedy.
The reptilian brain and war
Believe it or not, humans are much closer to nature and the animal world than most people think. We are not only close to nature; we are part of it! Evolutionarily speaking, we are much closer in time to our non-intelligent animal ancestors than we are to transcended living species separated from nature. Our behavior is guided much more by our ‘primitive brain’ than by our more recently developed neocortex, which is the seat of our intelligence. The primitive brain, or lower brain function, deals with fight-or-flight behavior, hunger, fear, and sex, among other things.
A common but mistaken concept is that the human brain is the result of billions of years of evolution. Our primitive or reptilian part of the brain is that old, but the extra-large neocortex of our brain, the thing that separates us from other mammals, arose only a few million years ago, just a drop in the evolutionary bucket. The neocortex did not have much time to develop, so our primitive brain plays a significant role in our lives.
Our basic flight or fight mentality manifests itself in sports. We can relate, on some deeper and unconscious level, to the guy running with the ball toward the end zone and being chased by a pack of angry people. We can understand what it feels like to check another hockey player and hit him in the boards. Or we can empathize with a NASCAR driver who gets passed by a competitor but kicks into high gear and chases after him.
Our primitive desire for dominance is represented in sports. When our team wins, we experience a kind of dominance over the opposing team and their fans.
Our predatory nature is illuminated when we see a linebacker running through a mass of football players, waiting for the perfect moment to strike his prey. Watching someone chase down a man with the ball in basketball, football, or baseball affects us in a similar way.
Our tribal instincts are fulfilled by sports. We all want to belong to something; it is a basic human need since we are such social animals. We identify with the team as our ancestors would have identified with their tribe. This is especially true for the modern man of the Western world, where community has taken a back seat to independence.
Our primitive warlike nature is satisfied with sports. There seems to be an innate desire for war, even in so-called ‘modern’ man. Indeed, look at the world today and how many current wars are being fought, and you will see how far we are from true peace. Pathetically, that last statement applies to almost every time in history, regardless of when you’re reading this. Again, this goes back to the fact that we are more ruled by our ‘primitive’ survival-driven, fight-or-flight brain than our rational and intelligent ‘modern’ brain.
Every sports game is like a small war between tribes, with an end and a declared winner. But there is one important difference; unlike war, no one has to die in sports.
One of the reasons why going to a game is more exciting than watching it on TV is that the energy is created when so many people come together to support a cause. You might even compare it to a mob mentality. We need look no further than our own stadiums where crowds erupted in protest at the invitation or in celebration of victory. Sports strongly appeal to people’s instincts to play and fight.
And since our modern lives no longer contain any real physical danger and all our basic needs are immediately taken care of, we now have a void that needs to be filled somehow, our primitive brain expects it. Sport fits. It gives us the illusion of a reality where there are no consequences. It gives us the illusion of battle, war, victory and defeat, without consequences. And it gives us the illusion of being a kid again, even if it’s all temporary.
Maybe you don’t like sports at all, but we’re all pretty childish inside. We all crave some level of drama in our lives. And we are all constantly under the influence of our primitive brain. Watching sports is a great way for people to reconcile these inescapable facts.
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