Strange Behavior (Or: On Watching Sports—a follow-up to Tuesday’s show on basketball)

30 March 2006

Aristotle’s characterization of man as the rational animal will seem flattering, if you think about many behaviors we people engage in regularly. While many people in our society are overworked, short on knowledge, and pressed for time, many of us take time out to watch unusually tall individuals get together in groups to hurl a spherical object through a suspended ring. These tall individuals get dressed in outfits with shiny colors and are glorified for the ability to hurl the sphere through the ring. Whole buildings fill up with people who want to watch the hurling of the sphere and pay good money to do so, often sacrificing the valuable time and money they could have used for more sensible things like food and shelter.

Of course, I’m talking about watching basketball, which, when I put it in familiar terms, doesn’t seem strange at all. “Watching basketball isn’t irrational,” the indignant fan might reply, “because it brings entertainment!” But the indignant fan here is missing the point of my inquiry. My question is: why do humans get entertained by such a contrived and bizarre ritual? Or, what is the human mind such that it takes pleasure in the activity of watching sports competition?

So my question starts out as anthropological, but cuts very quickly to being psychological. To see how puzzling the phenomenon of sports watching actually is, let’s take the perspective of a Martian anthropologist and compare her impression of human sports watching to her impressions of other human activities. Keqen is the name of our anthropologist from Mars who comes to observe us humans.

When Keqen first comes to Earth she notices farming, which they don’t have on her planet. At first she’s puzzled at why humans spend so much time pushing around dirt and putting things in it. But when she sees how humans get food out of it and survive, her curiosity is satisfied. Next she’s puzzled by all the little pieces of colored paper we carry around in our pockets and make such a big deal out of. It seems odd that humans, who are so careless with other pieces of paper, should be so protective of the little colored slips. But Keqen soon realizes that these little slips act as symbols in a societal convention that allows humans to exchange goods and services across the whole society. Quite clever, she decides. Other things look more familiar to her, like the ritual of having young people who don’t know a lot sit down in a room and get knowledge from older people who know more. That makes sense, because the young people can then put the knowledge they glean to any number of purposes—even purposes not dreamed by the instructors themselves.

Keqen is so far quite impressed by humans. She notices that a good number of humans engage in various activities that keep their bodies healthy. They run; they swim; they ride a miraculous two-wheeled contraption that somehow doesn’t fall over when moving; and they even do this thing of running up and down a rectangular surface in groups throwing a ball around and trying to put it through a hole. The complexity of the last activity is a bit puzzling, but Keqen can easily explain why a rational animal would do it, since it results in increased health and fitness like the other activities. She decides to call these activities “fit-maker activities,” since making fitness is their obvious function—as far as she can tell. The people who do them are “fit-makers.”

When she notices that other people often gather around to watch people who are particularly good fit-makers, she has a ready explanation for this as well. “Why, they’re trying to learn how to do the fit-maker activity better themselves.” On closer inspection, however, this explanation falls to pieces. Many people, for example, watch the ball-throwing fit-maker activity and never even attempt to do it for themselves. Worse yet, some humans stay inside and get heavy watching the ball-throwing fit-makers on the flickering-image-box. If they were trying to learn it for themselves, presumably that’s because they want to be fit. So why do they stay home and get heavy watching it and never go outside?

So Keqen has a mystery. Why do humans watch the fit-maker activities? Her first attempted explanation doesn’t work, since too few of them bother to learn the fit-maker activities for themselves from watching them.

She tries a second explanation. Humans have a notion, which she has never well understood, of ‘beauty’. For them, things that are ‘beautiful’ are considered to be intrinsically worth watching, touching, smelling, tasting, hearing, or even just thinking about. Now, why humans have this particular notion is possibly the deepest mystery about them. But she’s willing to grant for the time being that they do have the notion and to consider that they watch the ball-throwing fit-makers because their motions are ‘beautiful’—whatever exactly that means.

But the ‘beautiful’ explanation fails as well. For Keqen’s other research reveals that humans actually have houses of things ‘beautiful’ they call “museums” that receive far fewer visitors than the buildings for watching fit-maker activities. If ‘beauty’ were what they were after, humans, she reasons, would spend far more time in the museums and far less time watching the ball-throwing fit-makers on the flickering-image-box. But that’s not the case. Furthermore, humans get excited just about numbers on printed paper—statistics—having to do with the fit-makers, which aren’t ‘beautiful’ at all. So whatever it is that gets humans excited about watching fit-maker activities, it can’t be ‘beauty’.

So Keqen tries a third explanation, already starting to get flustered. She has noticed that people who watch the fit-maker activities make approving noises when the people from their own area put the ball through the hole, or whatever they’re trying to do. Perhaps, she hypothesizes, the fit-makers are used when there is something two places are fighting over to decide who gets it. That would explain why people from one place or the other take such an active interest. Perhaps, for example, there is something that “New York” and “Philadelphia” both want, the possession of which will be determined by the outcome of the ball-throwing fit-maker activity between people from both of those places. Having just a few people fight, Keqen reasons, is in fact somehow more civilized than having the whole town fight, so maybe she can make sense of it that way.

But Keqen finds again that this explanation fails. The only thing that the outcome of the fit-maker activity determines is the right to engage in more such activities, ‘games’. And apparently the people want their ‘team’ to be able to go to more ‘games’. But that presupposes that people want to watch the fit-maker activity; it certainly doesn’t explain it. The fit-makers themselves who are watched have incentives like getting lots of the colored paper slips, but that doesn’t explain why people get so excited watching them. Keqen remains confused . . .


Enough Martian anthropology. My claims are that (i) human minds, in a quite widespread fashion, have a psychological property of gaining enjoyment from taking in sports and that (ii) it is quite mysterious what that property all involves and where it came from. Feel free to offer your own explanation in the comments, but I’m skeptical about any simple story’s doing the trick. The right thing to say as a start about why humans like watching sports is that it activates many different centers of enjoyment all at once, and that’s what’s so appealing about it.

None of the explanations that Keqen attempted was sufficient on its own to explain sports watching, but all of them hint at part of what is so appealing. In watching professional basketball, one observes a certain virtuosity of movement that one can attempt to develop in one’s own game. But there’s also a certain beauty in the virtuosity observed, which may not be the beauty of a Monet painting, but still adds appeal to watching sports competitions. And there may not be much reward at stake for people watching sports competitions, but if one of the teams playing is from your school or city, it sure feels that way. Why that is is a whole different question.

A complete explanation of why humans like watching sports will probably have many more components still, all of which would need to be sketched out and argued in detail. But the basic idea is this: sports somehow manage to have a combination of elements that activate many centers of excitement in the human brain at once. Does that make them worth watching? Probably—at least once in a while.