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Why We Watch Sports - (And It's Not What You Think)

Aug 17, 2007
Whether you want to believe it or not, we like to watch sports for very different reasons than you may think. In fact, the real things that cause us to like sports are in every person, whether we like sports or not. What things can we learn about human nature by simply looking at our fascination with competition? The answers may surprise you. Not only are the answers interesting in themselves, but they may just help you in other ways too.

There are some fairly straightforward and obvious explanations for why we like sports to be sure. 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 we've grown up rooting for because our brother or dad used to love them, and now we still root for them today. Or we may follow a sport now that we used to play as a child.

But there are some deeper, more powerful and fascinating reasons too.

We're All Just Big Children

Whether you want to believe it or not, all adults are just big children. 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 find ourselves giving in to immediate gratification when we know better. And yes, some of us still lie and cheat in our normal day to day lives.

We certainly hide things better and often successfully 'act' as if we don't care about belonging, or love, or pain, or whatever. Deep down inside we are a little more mature and wise, but basically still just children. We may not say it out loud anymore, but we still think to ourselves sometimes, "That's not fair!" We would rather play than work. Some may argue, depending on whether they pee standing up or sitting down, that this is especially true for men. Maybe that's why there are more men 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 ups and downs and a whole array of emotions, just like in real life, but we aren't actually affected.

And unlike life, sports and games are generally fair! There are rules and a crystal clear framework, or paradigm that all the participants and spectators know about. There are never any monkey wrenches thrown into a sports game, like the rules changing mid-game for instance. If rules are broken, the offender is penalized. They don't frustratingly get away sometimes like in real life.

At the end, there is an unambiguous winner and loser. We get to pretend that the game we're watching is life, where everything is perfectly fair, everyone plays by the rules and everything makes sense.

Children tend to think of things in much more black and white terms. It is only through living and maturing that we realize that all of life is a series of grays. But we all still long for a simpler and easier life. When things are only seen in black or white, things indeed seem simpler and easier, but life isn't so clear-cut.

This helps explain why politicians who break their platform down into simple sound bites and into terms devoid of complexity often do better than politicians who talk about life like it really is, a complex, interrelated world of nuances.

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 deal with a difficult person, remember that they are just a large child, like you and everyone else, and maybe that knowledge will help you deal with them a little more easily.

What do watching a horror movie and sports have in common?

Ever wonder why so many people, including maybe you, enjoy watching horror movies so much? They provide a safe way for people to experience high levels of suspension without actually being in any 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 you have a nasty sports gambling problem of course).

People love drama, suspension, and resolution, which are all elements inherent in sports. In fact, the closer the game, the more suspension there is. If we identify with a player and he wins, we are vicariously happy for the success. However, if the player's team loses, we feel the defeat a little as well. But our lives are unaffected. And sports announcers usually only add to the drama and suspension.

A sports game is a sort of story. There is a beginning and an end. There is a protagonist (your team) and an antagonist (the other team). There is a scene and setting, the stadium at noon, and there is a plot, which is the action. Only after the games ends, and depending on if your team won or not, is it decided to be called a fairy tale ending or a tragedy.

Reptilian Brain and War

Whether you want to believe it or not, humans are a lot closer to nature and the animal world than most people like to think. We're not just close to nature; we're a part of it! Evolutionarily speaking, we are much closer in time to our unintelligent animal ancestors than we are to a transcended sentient species apart from nature. Our behavior is guided much more by our 'primitive brain' than 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, yet erroneous 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 our brain's extra large neocortex, the thing that separates us from other mammals, came about only a couple million years ago, a mere drop in the evolutionary bucket. The neocortex has not had much time to develop, and so our primitive brain plays a significant role in our lives.

Our basic flight or fight mentality is manifested in sports. We can relate, on some deeper and unconscious level, with the guy running with the football towards the end zone and being chased by a pack of angry men. We can understand what it feels like to check another player in hockey and slam him into the boards. Or we can sympathize with the NASCAR driver who gets passed by a competitor, but throws it into a higher gear and chases after him.

Our primitive desire for dominance is represented in sports. When our team wins, we experience a sort of dominance over the opposing team and their fans.

Our predatory nature is lit up when we see a linebacker following a running back through a mass of football players, waiting for the perfect moment to strike his prey with a tackle. Watching someone chase the man with the ball in basketball, soccer, or baseball affects us in similar ways.

Our tribal instincts are fulfilled by sports. We all want to belong to something; it's a basic human need since we are such social animals. We identify with a team like our ancestors would identify with their tribe. This is especially true for the Western world's modern man, where community has taken a back seat to independence.

Our primitive warring nature is satisfied by 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 going on, and you'll see how far we are to real peace. Pathetically, that last statement holds true for almost any time in history, regardless of when you're reading this. Again, this goes back to the fact that we are ruled more by our 'primitive', survival-driven, fight or flight brain than our reasonable and intelligent 'modern' brain.

Every sports game is like a tiny war between tribes, with an end and a declared victor. But there's one important distinction; unlike war, no one has to die in sports.

One of the reasons going to a game is more exciting than watching it on TV is that there is a kind of energy created when so many people get together and root for one cause. You might even liken it to a mob mentality. We don't have to look farther than our own stadiums where pandemonium has broken out in protest to a call or in celebration of a win. Sports strongly appeals to the gaming and struggle instincts of humans.

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. Sports fit the bill. It gives us the illusion of reality where there are no consequences. It gives us the illusion of battle, war, victory and defeat, without the consequences. And it gives us the illusion of being a child again, even if it's all temporary.

You may not like sports at all, but we are all a quite childlike inside. We all yearn for some level of drama in our lives. And we are all constantly affected by our primitive brain. Watching sports is one excellent way for people to reconcile these inescapable facts.
About the Author
Jason OConnor has a BA in Psychology and Philosophy and runs NFL, MLB, NHL, & NBA Tickets
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